Can the Great Green Wall save China from the climate crisis?

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After planting fresh shoots in the dunes at the edge of the Gobi Desert, farmer Wang Tianchang, 78, retrieved the three-stringed lute from his shed, sat under the scorching afternoon sun, and began to play.

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“If you want to fight the desert, there’s no need to fear,” sings Wang, a veteran of China’s decades-long state campaign to “Open the Jungle” as he plays the instrument, called Known as the Saxian.

The plantations have been at the center of China’s environmental efforts for decades as the country seeks to convert barren deserts and marshes near its borders to farmland and spread over 500,000 square miles of sand flowing from the Gobi to the capital, Beijing. From Mongolia to northwest China, that would cover Tiananmen Square with dust almost every spring.


But in March, a heavy sandstorm hit Beijing for the first time in six years, putting the country’s afforestation efforts under scrutiny, land becoming increasingly scarce and trees no longer able to weather the effects of climate change. Were.

Now a local organization in northwest China’s Gansu province, Wang and his family take young volunteers from the provincial capital Lanzhou every year to plant and irrigate new trees and shrubs.

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His painstaking work to rehabilitate marginal lands has been promoted as an inspiration to the rest of the country, and he is the subject of government propaganda posters that celebrate his role in holding back the sand.

Over the past four decades, the Three-North Shelter Forest Program, a plantation plan colloquially known as the Great Green Wall, has helped increase total forest coverage to nearly a quarter of China’s area, which was established in 1949. was less than 10 percent. .

In the far northwest, however, tree planting isn’t just about meeting the state’s afforestation goals or protecting Beijing. When it comes to making a living off the most marginal farm, every tree, shrub, and blade of grass counts—especially when the climate emergency raises temperatures and further strains water supplies.

“The more the forest spreads, the more it eats in the sand, the better it is for us,” says 53-year-old Wang’s son, Wang Yinjie.

holding sand

In a battered jeep loaded with water tanks and hoisting a large Chinese national flag, the Wang family is planting “Huabang” in the rolling dunes.

The flowering shrub, known as sweetwitch, has an 80 percent success rate even in harsh desert conditions and has become an important part of “sand suppress” efforts, which are locally grown even in deserts. That is the term used for planting shrubs and grass in squares. Slope to prevent sand flow to the nearby field.

Wang has been fighting desertification since settling on the barren land near Hongshui Village in Wuwei, a town in Gansu close to the border with Inner Mongolia, in 1980.

His home is now surrounded by patches of rhubarb and rows of pines and blue spruce. Twenty goats are locked in a nearby wooden paddock to prevent them from eating the precious vegetation.

The family’s four acres of agricultural land is protected by a forest planted about a decade ago on one side and a tall sandy rock on the other.

Trees have become a major part of the local economy. Hongshui is dominated by a large state-owned commercial forest estate called Taudunying.

“After 1999, when tree planting intensified, things got much better,” Wang Yinjie says, referring to the state-led afforestation initiative. “Our corn grew tall. The sand coming from the east and northeast was blocked.

Experts say China’s deforestation has become more sophisticated over the years, with the government benefiting from decades of experience and being able to mobilize thousands of volunteers to plant the trees, leading pioneers such as Wangs. imitates.

But the battle is not over, he says, as climate change has worsened the situation for farmers living in the arid north.

“They’ve been living in similar conditions for generations,” says Ma Lichao, China’s country director for the Forest Stewardship Council, a non-profit organization that promotes sustainable forest management. “But it is very important to say that climate change is something new.”

land use combat

China plans to increase total forest cover from 23 percent last year to 24.1 percent by 2025, but continued expansion hides many underlying problems.

“There has been a relatively short existence of trees in some areas and there have been discussions about the lack of underground water tables,” says Hua Fangyuan, a conservation biologist who focuses on forests at Peking University in China.

Struggling to find space for new trees, the government of an administrative division in Inner Mongolia was accused of confiscating farmland to meet forest coverage targets set by Beijing in 2019. According to some studies, artificial monocultural plantations, such as rubber, have also been created at the expense of natural forests.

“This [competing land-use pressure] Not only a problem for China but for the whole world,” says Hua. “We are talking about the lakh hectare target. With the growing population there is going to be competition and tension.”

This competition for land has been strengthened by China’s reliance on government-backed industrial-scale plantations to meet the target, although it is slowly shifting to a more nature-based approach to deforestation.

One such state-supported forest farm designed to repair the region’s over-functioning ecosystem is the 4,200-acre Yangguan project on the outskirts of Dunhuang city, which has proved controversial.

In 2017, interested leaseholders leveled large tracts of forest to plant the attractive but water-rich vineyards. In March, a government investigation team found that Yangguan had violated regulations by allowing vineyards to be planted in protected forests. The villagers were also accused of illegally cutting down trees, and officers were ordered to retrieve illegally occupied land.

Estate officials say hundreds of employees of government agencies in Dunhuang will soon arrive on 93 acres of land with the aim of planting 31,000 trees in just four days. Gradually the remaining vineyards will be replaced by trees, a manager says, a move that will affect hundreds of farmers.

“The government and farmers must work together to find a way to make money and ensure that water levels are sustainable at the same time,” says Ma of the Forest Stewardship Council.

There are indications that China learned from past mistakes when the trees were planted – often by scattering seeds from military aircraft – with no consideration for existing ecosystems or weather conditions, meaning many failed to take root.

The government is now more careful about which species it chooses to plant and is keen to make room for the expansion of natural forests rather than artificial plantations.

Experts say the Forestry Commission also plans to reconsider its strategy in northwest China to reflect concerns that new plantations put water resources under further strain.

But with local governments under pressure to grow the economy and guarantee food supplies, China’s plantations can also reach the point of diminishing returns.

“Just because there isn’t a lot of space left for big deforestation projects, it’s actually becoming more and more difficult to increase the forest coverage rate,” says Ma.

changing climate

Ma says the sandstorm that hit Beijing in March didn’t mean tree planting had failed, but it showed it would no longer be enough to offset the effects of climate change.

“To be honest, I don’t think trees can help the situation,” he says.

At a recent briefing, Li Jianjun of China’s National Environmental Monitoring Center said that since February temperatures in Mongolia and Inner Mongolia have been 2C to 6C above normal, melting snow exposes more sand to the air.

read more

  • US-China climate talks standoff weeks ahead of global Cop26 summit
  • Stop using China as a distraction from our own appalling carbon emissions record
  • UN climate chief: No country is safe from global warming

After decades of attempts to control the desert, some Wuwei farmers are starting to lose hope.

Shepherd Ding Yinhua, 69, says the sandstorms were so fierce that sometimes she couldn’t even dare to open her eyes.

Despite plantations, pastures have deteriorated in recent years as a result of declining spring rainfall…


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