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23 Jul 07
Chinese Paper Firm Profits from Fighting Deserts
Story by Kitty Bu
ERDOS, China - China's dusty, vast and windswept Inner Mongolia has been battling the creeping desert for decades.
Now a Chinese company is trying to hold back the sand and make money by turning a hardy tree into paper.
The key lies in the desert willow, a plant suited to the temperature extremes and lack of moisture of the Mongolian plains. All farmers need do to look after it is chop off the branches once every three to four years, or the plant dies.
These fibrous branches of the plant, which grows wild in Inner Mongolia, are then sold by local farmers to Dongda Paper, once a loss-making, state-owned paper factory forced to close in 1998 as even by China's lax standards it was a heavy polluter.
Dongda today buys more than 400,000 tonnes of desert willow branches a year, and it has also planted more than 20,000 square km (7,700 sq miles) of desert with the plant, which can grow up to 2.5 metres (8 feet) tall.
"Whenever people talk about paper-making factories, they make a link with pollution," general manager Lin Yong told Reuters during a recent visit. "We took environmental protection into consideration when we started the company. The paper pulp we produce is its original colour. No bleach, no pollution," he said, looking at branches being fed into enormous crushing machines.
Controlling China's spreading deserts, which already cover a fifth of its land, is proving a major challenge.
Earlier this month, the government said desertification was the main environmental challenge holding back China's sustainable development and that the situation remains serious despite some improvements.
As well as eating up valuable farm land, the expanding deserts have helped fuel vicious sandstorms that lash northern China every spring. The fine sand often reaches South Korea and Japan and at times even across the northern Pacific Ocean.
Beijing has pledged to hold a sandstorm-free Olympics in 2008 and has launched new campaigns to repair denuded land and plant trees in a bid to hold back the deserts' advance.
Lin said their factory did not only help by reducing demand for trees to make paper and helping bind together the desert sand, but was trying to be environmentally friendly, too.
"The small amount of black liquid extracted from the waste water is vaporized, concentrated and dried. It's turned into retarder for cement," Lin said. "Nothing is wasted here. We profit from it all."
Dongda is a valuable employer as well, with about 300 workers and annual sales of US$11 million. The paper is specifically marketed as being environmentally friendly and is used by several Chinese milk companies to make cartons.
Qiao Zhanming has worked at the factory for almost 20 years. He lost his job when the factory closed, but got it back again when the new owners took charge.
"This company is different. We feel a lot more pressure. We also think differently because we value the job opportunity so much," Qiao said.
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