Our Programme Foci
Wisdom of Nature
Where We Work: Guizhou

Using local wisdom to combat "Earth Cancer"


Written By Yang Cheng (Assistant Researcher of the Guizhou Integrated Rural Development Center, Guizhou Academy of Agricultural Science)
Assistance from Yang Yan (Assistant Programme Officer of the Guizhou Office, PCD)

The problem of rocky desertification[1], described as an “earth cancer,” has left experts helpless!

But last March, together with the staff of our sister organization, the Guizhou Institute of Prataculture[2] , we launched the research project, “Action of Cultural Revival and Ecological Restoration,” in the Miao area of Guizhou’s Mashan region. The objective was to work with local villagers and make use of traditional ecological knowledge and skills of Miao people in Guizhou to find ways to restore karst areas suffering from rocky desertification to the original natural and ecological landscape.

Healing earth cancer

It is believed that combating rocky desertification is as difficult as treating cancer, for three reasons: 1. There are many types of rocky desertification. Until now there has been no scientific way to treat all these kinds of “earth cancer.” 2. The conventional way to deal with the problem is to grow trees; but only a few kinds of trees have been grown and their survival rate has been low. In fact, growing trees misses the essential point that there is little water and soil in regions suffering from rocky desertification, and so the results have been disappointing. 3. Most of the ways to control rocky desertification disregard the value of traditional knowledge. A common belief is that traditional knowledge is unscientific. Modern science and technology are required to control rocky desertification, but the cost is high.

Yang Tingshuo, Professor of Eco-Anthropology of Jishou University in Hunan, has been doing research for years at Mashan. He has studied cases of managing and controlling rocky desertification. Based on his research and experience, he proposed four steps in dealing with the problem of rocky desertification: 1. Growing moss, vines and creepers→2. Growing shrubs→3. Growing trees→4. Mixed breeding and cultivation of animals and plants. By adopting a gradual process, he believes that improvements in the environment will bring back the original ecological system.

Treating cancer with local wisdom

Encouraged by Sun Qiu, the head of the Guizhou Integrated Rural Development Center, and my supervisor Prof. Yang Tingshuo, I took up a project on ecological restoration without hesitation. I am in charge of launching programme activities in the pilot area and have to stay there for at least 15 working days every month. Research activities include finding out from Miao villagers what native plants are suitable for growing at each stage, and ways to grow plants that we collect. For example, some villagers suggested that specific plants be grown in small surface holes with small openings but deep interiors and with soil at the bottom. However, as these holes were deep, seeds would have problems getting enough sunshine. Villagers therefore suggested that seedlings be cultivated somewhere else before being transplanted to these holes. Drawing on the experience of villagers, a bridge building method has been designed. Small cups for cultivating seeds are fixed over the openings of these surface holes. While making sure the seeds get enough sunshine, the seedlings that sprout from the seeds are lowered into the holes as they grow. They will finally reach the bottom of the holes and grow roots in the holes. In this way, the work involved in transplanting the seedlings is reduced and it is easier to control and prevent the soil from being eroded.

The enormous harm done by chemical fertiliser

Since I took part in this ecological restoration project half a year ago, I have come to feel strongly and deeply about two things. First, villagers have contributed a lot of indigenous knowledge to the process of ecological restoration. For example, growing annual plants would speed up rocky desertification, because ploughing the soil and harvesting would lead to more severe soil erosion. Respecting the local ecology, people’s culture and knowledge in everyday life are very important for a pilot project on ecological restoration.

Next, in the course of the study we found that the pilot project took longer than planned to progress. The growth of the creeping crops and vines, which we’d expected to take a year, did not meet our expectations. Chemical fertiliser had been used on the land before. During the period of the pilot project no chemical fertiliser has been used, and the land has not yet recovered its own vitality. Because of this, the crops have not been doing well. As for the wild creepers and vines that have been grafted, growing in an unfavourable natural environment means slow growth. Finally, I’ve been having a hard time finding enough human power to improve the fertility of the pilot field, because there is a lack of young manpower in the community.

Exploring with humility

I am fortunate to have support from the team, and from villagers in the community who also want to improve the local ecological conditions. To deal with the problems coming up in the pilot field they have been giving me ideas and suggestions, which to me represent important encouragement. As I take part in the ecological restoration project, I realise I am still a fresh learner, no matter whether I’m dealing with the ecosystem, the indigenous knowledge of Mashan area, or the pilot research on ecological restoration. In this process, I must always remind myself to learn from the ecology and from the community with humility. Therefore, ecological restoration is a process we have been learning and exploring together with the community.


1. Mashan is at the intersection of Ziyun, Wangmo, Luodian, Huishui and Changshun Counties, with a total area of about 5,000 sq. km. Mashan is a typical karst peak cluster-depression area and is constrained by many geographical conditions. The ecosystem here is diverse and complex. Over more than 200 years, the governments of the various Chinese dynasties have introduced a number of foreign crops, such as cotton, linen, maize, potatoes and yam. This led to perennial ploughing of the soil, clearing of the vines and creeping plants that covered the ground, and clearing of the underground rhizomes of clump-forming plants. These were a fatal assault on the ecosystem of vines, creepers and shrubs. The rocks and gravel previously covered by plants were exposed, resulting in what contemporary academics call the “disastrous rocky desertification of land”. As rocks were exposed to strong sunlight, the temperature of the near-surface atmosphere rose erratically. Not only did it result in unhealthy growth conditions for the remaining plants, it also caused a poor local climate which was so dry and hot that the remaining plants were unable to grow and reproduce normally. The output of crops became less and less. In the end, the cultural and ecological community that could have sustained its stable growth collapsed, and the life of the local people became poorer than before.

2. "Prataculture Science (Turf Science and Management) is the study of the creation, cultivation and management of lawns, turfs and woods, and the creation and management of turfs of sport fields and golf courses. It also studies the control of lawn and turf pests, the planning and design of gardens, woods and green areas, and their application in the development of greenbelt and the construction of golf courses, sports fields, urban woods etc. "