Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation

The role of plastic mulch as a water conservation practice for desert oasis communities of Northern China

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  • China's Minqin Oasis once welcomed traders along the ancient Silk Road with rivers, lakes, and lush forests, yet today the region's farmland and grassland are increasingly being engulfed by the sands of the Gobi Desert. The severity of this incremental catastrophe for a declining population of 300,000 residents has brought forth a host of recent water policies to include agronomic water conservation through plastic mulch use, computerized regulation and pricing of groundwater, and water diversions from the Yellow River. This study uses a multi-disciplinary and mixed methods approach to better understand farmer perspectives on why they implement certain water and land use practices in agriculture. The world's farmers currently use the majority of the world's available freshwater and arable land. Modern agriculture and its continued intensification also lead to increases in petroleum based inputs such as agrochemicals and agricultural plastics (plasticulture). Despite the large of impact of the decisions made by the world's farmers on natural resources, little research to date has sought to better understand farmers' perceptions and decision-making processes. Plastic film mulch is a technology that has existed since the 1940's and it has been used in places such as rural China for over five decades. This technology conserves a considerable amount of irrigation water and it increases harvests, however, use of plastic for mulch causes waste disposal problems and is an expenditure of petroleum through plastic manufacturing. Without a fundamental understanding of why farmers perceive plastic mulch to be valuable to their households and communities, we may not fully grasp why its global application continues to increase year after year. Moreover, a focused study of plastic mulch use at the local level may also allow researchers and entrepreneurs to develop a suitable alternative mulch that does not consume non-renewable resources or result in detrimental plastic waste after its utility has been exhausted. This study uses household level interviews, surveys, and participant observation to better understand why Minqin County farmers in rural China continue to use plastic mulch and how it may influence their standard of living.
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