HOHHOT, Sept. 14 (Xinhua) -- It is early autumn. The sun sets on the dunes of the Kubuqi desert and the air begins to cool.
Mongolian herder Suilasaikhan drives his truck on a road lined by shrubbery. He loves the experience. The sight of lush patches in the middle of the vast golden sand delights him.
It is a scene local herders could not have imagined four decades ago when life was a losing battle against the sand.
"In the 1970s, the sand was as high as our house. You could walk straight up the dunes and onto the roof," Suilasaikhan said.
"And when the wind blew, you could not see the house at all. You could only find your way home by the barking of the dogs," he said.
Spanning 18,600 square kilometers, the Kubuqi desert sits on a curve of the Yellow River in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and once threatened to bury the entire region.
Over the past 30 years that expansion has been curtailed and reversed. Shrubs and trees now grow on around one third of the Kubuqi. Sandstorms are much less frequent and more than 100,000 locals can no longer be considered "poor."
United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) is encouraging other countries battling deserts to look to the Kubuqi for inspiration.
"China is one of the most successful countries in greening the desert and has lessons to share with the world," UNEP Executive Director Erik Solheim said.
This week the desert city of Ordos is hosting the 13th session of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.
China's efforts to build a "great green wall" began in 1978. Forestation of northern regions was meant to form a tree shield against invading sand, but reforestation is expensive and requires a large labor force. In Kubuqi, state spending has been matched with individual ambition and innovation, a system for success easier for poorer countries to emulate.
THE ROAD TO SUCCESS
In 1988, a low-level government clerk named Wang Wenbiao was running a saltworks in the middle of the Kubuqi. The reserves of salt were abundant, but the problem was how to get them out.
Wang ordered the building of one road after another, all of which were swallowed by the sand. He soon came to realize that to do any business in the desert, dealing with the sand was always the first step. He set out on a desperate search for drought-resistant plants that could grow there.
Herders recommended licorice. The herb grows well in arid land and its root hold the sand. Wang and his colleagues planted 20,000 sq km of licorice and saxaul trees along the 65 km road and it worked. As long as the road remained open to traffic, the saltworks did brisk business.
But just as locals rejoiced at the prospect of jobs in the salt business, Wang had another idea entirely: ditch the saltworks and make money just from reforestation.
Most people understood curbing desertification as a government-led loss-making endeavor, but not Wang. He assumed the attitude resulted from the lack of a good business model, so set out to find one.
Licorice root is a medicinal herb and a common treatment for sore throats, colds, bronchitis and stomach ulcers. The Kubuqi, with no pollution, produces top quality licorice root.
The saltworks was renamed Elion Resources Group. Wang gave locals licorice seedlings. The company went on to provide training and other support to help new licorice farmers. When they harvested the roots, all were bought by the company at a fair price.
The business model worked. Locals earned money. Trees were planted and Elion's desert business empire grew. The group now claims to have developed thousands of varieties of medicinal products from desert crops. The company has also ventured into other sectors including tourism, clean energy, finance and carbon trading.
THE SEEDS OF SUCCESS
UNEP says the core of success at Kubuqi was a sustainable business model and a system that links policy, private investment and local participation.
China has 2.61 million sq km of desert, the most in the world, according to Zhang Jianlong, head of the State Forestry Administration.
Desert occupies 27 percent of China's landmass and affects nearly 400 million people, but has recently been shrinking by more than 2,000 square km each year, Zhang's deputy Liu Dongsheng said.
In fact, Kubuqi's story has been replicated across the country. Other than licorice, people are growing goji berries, cistanches and other Chinese medicinal plants.
Poverty and deserts are twins. More than one third of China's poverty-stricken counties are threatened by desertification.
Zhang said that if locals do not benefit, reforestation will not succeed. In the Kubuqi, families earn seven times more now than they did ten years ago.
"China sees the desert not as a problem, but as an opportunity, an opportunity for jobs and fighting poverty via greening the desert," Solheim said.
The "great green wall" has grown faster recently. The Communist Party of China has put ecological development on an equal footing with the economy, politics, culture and society.
Liu said the government plans to reforest all the desertified land possible by 2050.
"After half a century, China has found a way to tame desertification," Zhang said. "It is a path that balances ecology and economy, reforestation and poverty reduction."