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Gaoxigou (Gaoxi Gully) is west of Dazhai, on the other side of the Yellow River. Its 522 inhabitants live in yaodong—caves dug like martin nests into the sharp pitches around the village. Beginning in 1953, farmers marched out from Gaoxigou and with heroic effort terraced not mere hillsides but entire mountains, slicing them one after another into hundred-tier wedding cakes iced with fields of millet and sorghum and corn. In a pattern that would become all too familiar, yields went up until sun and rain baked and blasted the soil in the bare terraces. To catch eroding loess, the village built earthen dams across gullies, intending to create new fields as they filled up with silt. But with little vegetation to slow the water, "every rainy season the dams busted," says Fu Mingxing, the regional head of education. Ultimately, he says, villagers realized that "they had to protect the ecosystem, which means the soil."

Today many of the terraces Gaoxigou laboriously hacked out of the loess are reverting to nature. In what locals call the "three-three" system, farmers replanted one-third of their land—the steepest, most erosion-prone slopes—with grass and trees, natural barriers to erosion. They covered another third of the land with harvestable orchards. The final third, mainly plots on the gully floor that have been enriched by earlier erosion, was cropped intensively. By concentrating their limited supplies of fertilizer on that land, farmers were able to raise yields enough to make up for the land they sacrificed, says Jiang Liangbiao, village head of Gaoxigou.

In 1999 Beijing announced it would deploy a Gaoxigou Way across the Loess Plateau. The Sloping Land Conversion Program—known as "grain-for-green"—directs farmers to convert most of their steep fields back to grassland, orchard, or forest, compensating them with an annual delivery of grain and a small cash payment for up to eight years. By 2010 grain-for-green could cover more than 82,000 square miles, much of it on the Loess Plateau.

But the grand schemes proclaimed in faraway Beijing are hard to translate to places like Zuitou. Provincial, county, and village officials are rewarded if they plant the number of trees envisioned in the plan, regardless of whether they have chosen tree species suited to local conditions (or listened to scientists who say that trees are not appropriate for grasslands to begin with). Farmers who reap no benefit from their work have little incentive to take care of the trees they are forced to plant. I saw the entirely predictable result on the back roads two hours north of Gaoxigou: fields of dead trees, planted in small pits shaped like fish scales, lined the roads for miles. "Every year we plant trees," the farmers say, "but no trees survive."

Some farmers in the Loess Plateau complained that the almonds they had been told to plant were now swamping the market. Others grumbled that Beijing's fine plan was being hijacked by local officials who didn't pay farmers their subsidies. Still others didn't know why they were being asked to stop growing millet, or even what the term "erosion" meant. Despite all the injunctions from Beijing, many if not most farmers were continuing to plant on steep slopes. After talking to Zhang Liubao in Zuitou, I watched one of his neighbors pulling turnips from a field so steep that he could barely stand on it. Every time he yanked out a plant, a little wave of soil rolled downhill past his feet.

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