[permaculture] Calling for Before/After Site Photographs for Important John Liu Documentary

Wesley Roe and Santa Barbara Permaculture Network lakinroe at silcom.com
Wed Mar 28 11:30:31 EDT 2012

Calling for Before/After Site Photographs for Important John Liu Documentary
Aid Projects, Commercial Farm Projects, Community Projects, 
Demonstration Sites, Urban Projects — by Craig Mackintosh PRI Editor 
March 28, 2012


Many of you know of the excellent work of the filmmaker, John Liu. 
Amongst other projects, John documented, over many years, the amazing 
transformation of China’s massive Loess Plateau from being a 
significantly degraded, and dangerous land (the vegetation-free 
landscape made for seriously destructive — even deadly — floods and soil 
erosion) to the much-improved state it’s in today (see 
John has also been turning his visionary eye to Africa 
http://permaculture.org.au/2011/07/26/rwanda-forests-of-hope/ and 
beyond…. For a little background on John and his work, this interview 
will help. http://www.vattenfall.com/en/interview-with-john-liu.htm

Well, John is now working on an important new documentary that will 
showcase the importance and potential of investing in natural capital 
and working with natural laws to restore invaluable ecosystem services — 
and at very large scale, as is needed at this historical juncture! Part 
of this documentary will be devoted to the work of Geoff and Nadia 
Lawton in Jordan 
, covering projects — and aspirations for their rollout on a larger 
scale — there.

John and Geoff are working together in Jordan right now to complete this 

The documentary should be completed before the end of April. It will be 
freely distributed, shown on national public service television stations 
and also presented to some of the world’s most influential people. As an 
example, it will be shown at the Rio +20 UN Conference on Sustainable 
Development that runs between June 20-22, attended by "world leaders, 
along with thousands of participants from governments, the private 
sector, NGOs and other groups" with the purpose being to "reduce 
poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an 
ever more crowded planet to get to the future we want."

This is a tremendous opportunity to present tangible solutions — in an 
inspiring, engaging way — to those who have the means and influence to 
help us ramp up the speed of permaculture uptake, education and 
reskilling that is so desperately needed.

It’s important to keep in mind that whilst permaculturists avoid a 
reductionist viewpoint when looking at world and environmental problems, 
far too many people in wider society and in government and NGO bodies 
have these issues segregated into isolation — they’re unable to see the 
interconnectness between problems, and so are unable to strategise 
holistically to create win-win-win outcomes.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, John is asking me to put a call out 
to people worldwide who can contribute impressive before/after 
photographs from taking degraded lands and turning them into something 
quite otherwise! There are permaculturists worldwide who have been doing 
great work on this front, and now we have opportunity to leverage this 
work by making it universally known.

Ideally photographs will be of larger scaled transformations (i.e. 
broadacre), which will be most suitable for this particular film 
project, but I would personally also be keen to take the opportunity to 
request excellent before/after shots of smaller sites also — as I would 
post them on this site for inspiration as well.

So, please send your transformative before/after photographs to editor 
(at) permaculture.org.au (JPEG please, at the best resolution you have 
available), along with the following information:

Date each photograph was taken
Name and email address of key person involved in the transformation
Name of photographer
Thanks in advance to you all!

Interview with John Liu
American environmental filmmaker John Liu left conventional news 
journalism to devote himself to documenting the world’s ability to 
restore lands degraded by poverty and mismanagement.

When Deng Xiaoping in 1986 granted the US television news magazine 60 
Minutes a historic interview opportunity, CBS entrusted John Liu to be 
behind the camera. Liu’s ability to work in China under all conditions 
also made him a regular contributor to several European public service 
television stations, including RAI (Italy) and ZDF (Germany). But in the 
mid-90s, Liu turned his back on mainstream television, choosing to 
concentrate exclusively on environmental issues.

“I became allergic to formulaic news bites that give people an 
understanding so superficial that it might as well be false,” says Liu. 
“What interests me today is seeing whether the lessons of successful 
projects to alleviate poverty and rehabilitate ecosystems can be adapted 
and spread to parts of the world where the people are so poor that they 
are destroying their own future. And ultimately, their future is 
inseparable from ours because we all live on the same planet.”

Global climate change is already exacerbating desertification and water 
shortages around the world, and the problem is likely to get worse. Poor 
land management not only magnifies these effects but releases carbon 
dioxide through deforestation.

The advance of the Gobi desert not only threatens Beijing, but creates 
sand storms that cause economic damage in Korea and Japan. Liu believes 
that desertification is the result of unsustainable human activities. 
Even as the Yellow River, the cradle of Chinese civilization, sometimes 
runs dry before reaching the sea, in Northern China, agriculture and 
industry continue to drill ever deeper to extract ground water.

Although policy decisions of recent decades, such as planting wheat on 
Inner Mongolia’s grasslands, have wrought enormous damage, Liu maintains 
that the pattern of deforestation and soil erosion goes back centuries. 
Restoring ecosystem function increases carbon sequestration in biomass, 
such as trees and organic matter in the soil. Liu believes this is both 
a natural and effective means of transfering CO2 from the atmosphere, 
where the gas is thought to exacerbate the heating effects of the 
greenhouse effect by reducing the re-radiation of heat from the sun.
“There will be no solution if the peasants cannot lift themselves out of 
poverty,” he emphasises.

One scheme in particular has given him a sense of hope and purpose: the 
Loess Plateau rehabilitation project. A section of northwest China the 
size of France, the Plateau was once highly fertile and easy to farm. 
The region was the base for the First Emperor of China, Qinshi Huangdi, 
whose tomb is famed for an over 8,000-strong Terra Cotta army. However, 
centuries of deforestation and over-grazing have destroyed the region’s 

Commissioned by the World Bank to document the project, Liu remembers 
standing on a barren mountain top and panning his camera 360 degrees 
without seeing any hint of vegetation: “The land was horribly scarred by 
barren gullies that developed because the rain water could not 
infiltrate the ground, for it lacked soil capable of retaining water,” 
he says, recalling his initial skepticism.

But with each successive trip Liu discovered that the project was 
changing the landscape. Scientific experts had drawn up a plan: slopes 
too steep for sound agriculture were zoned as ecological lands and taken 
out of production; no-man’s gullies were blocked to prevent precious 
rain water from running off; goats were forbidden from free ranging to 
graze on vegetation needed to hold soil in place. Each of these measures 
required that the peasants abandon destructive practices that delivered 
short term marginal income. Especially difficult was the programme to 
plant and protect trees. Liu recalls:

“At first I filmed peasants who were indignant about the tree planting 
on land they wanted for crops, however poor the yields were. Gradually 
as trees and vegetation improved the environment, instead of losing land 
to new and deeper gullies, they found that the gullies filled with soil 
that retained moisture and nutrients. If they worked with the ecosystem, 
they were rewarded.”

“’Success’ is a word that I’d save for a bit later when we know even 
more, but so far the outcome far exceeded expectations,” says Liu. “All 
parties from the local population to the scientific community are 
gathering valuable information about the extent to which rehabilitation 
can take place.”

Although the project required an investment during the start-up phase, 
Liu believed the money was well spent since it put a stop to the 
subsidence farming that was ravaging the land. Today he sees poverty 
eradication through ecosystem rehabilitation as the way forward in many 
places around the world. In 2008 he completed a film, the Lessons of the 
Loess Plateau, and is now working on a new longer one.

Liu does not believe that a single intervention, for example, the 
reduction of carbon emissions, is going to restore ecosystems to their 
original biodiversity. Slogans and posturing, he warns, deny the 
complexity of nature, which is not bound to serve human interests when 
inherently fragile environments are subject to unsustainable exploitation.

“We need to act as a species, not as nationalists and we need to do this 
quickly,” concludes Liu.

Other interviews
Joseph Hogan


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