New hope for China's Great Green Wall

Posted: 28 August 2009

Author: Chris Gelken

The dramatic beauty of deserts has inspired generations of poets, painters, and adventurers. But the risk of further desertification poses one of the greatest environmental and ecological threats to sustainable development. The danger zone includes vast areas of China from where there is now evidence that parts of the desert can be turned green. However, according to some biodiversity experts, China's Great Green Wall remains a highly controversial issue (see link below).

According to the latest reliable figures released by the Chinese government, 27 per cent of China's total land area is now desert or suffering from land degradation. A decade ago, more than 10,000 square kilometres of arable land was being lost to the sand or land degradation every year.

Desert surrounding the Liu Go River, Kubuqi Desert
Desert surrounding the Liu Go River, Kubuqi Desert
Desert surrounding the Liu Go River, Kubuqi Desert, Inner Mongolia.
The expanding deserts and the effects of climate change spawned ferocious sand storms that reached their peak in early years of the 21st century. Known in China as the Yellow Dragon, they swept eastward every spring, choking cities from Beijing to Seoul in a cloud of gritty dust.

Official sources say afforestation programmes - the planting of trees, shrubs and desert grass - has slowed the shifting sands in some regions. In others, large areas of former degraded land or desert has been restored. But permanently halting and even reversing the process is a monumental task, and the clock is ticking.

Patchy progress

Qu Haihua, an official with the National Bureau to Combat Desertification (NBCD), says their studies have revealed that the actual land area affected by desertification is contracting, despite evidence that some deserts are still expanding.

"Maybe the desert itself is expanding, and maybe the area subject to land degradation is expanding, but the total overall area of desertification is currently contracting," he said.

He explained apparent contradiction by saying that many of the afforestation programs are being conducted in selected areas in the interior of the desert. So while the edges of the desert continue to creep outwards, large areas of the interior are being restored.

Former South Korean Ambassador to China, Kwon Byong-hyon has been a leading figure in the fight against desertification since the late 1990s. The founder of Future Forest, he is under no illusions about the seriousness of the problem and that the time to act is running out.

"One third of the Earth's surface has become desertified, and still it is growing," he said, "But there is a sort of inertia. People don't seem to realize just how serious it is or the fact that they can actually do something about it. The Earth itself is in real danger now. If we do not do anything, we are fast approaching the tipping point."

Ambitious plans

To a certain degree desertification is a quite natural process. Over history the sands have moved forward and they have moved back. In recent decades, however, experts say human activity and climate change has accelerated the progression of the phenomenon to the point where it can be justifiably described - at least in part - as a man-made disaster. Ambassador Kwon is convinced that with the right resources and timely intervention, the process of desertification can not only be stopped, but far more degraded land can be reclaimed and returned to its original state.

"Because much of this has been caused by man, and if we have the will we can fight back," he said.

Location map of Kubuji Forest
Location map of Kubuji Forest
Location map of Kubuji Desert Credit: Korea Herald
Working with local partners, including the All China Youth Federation, Future Forest has ambitious plans. They've recently launched a campaign to plant a billion trees in their Kubuqi Desert project area. This is just one part of the patchwork of afforestation programs that make up what has become known as the Great Green Wall.

"When we launched Future Forest and the Great Green Wall project about four years ago many people were sceptical, they said it couldn't be done. But the evidence is now there," Kwon said, "the Great Green Wall is taking shape right in the middle of the desert."

Kubuqi desert

Ambassador Kwon said while the first trees they planted are now only three to four years old and stand about two metres tall, within ten years they will make "a very handsome Great Green Wall fighting against the migrating sand dunes."

The 120-square kilometre Future Forest project is based in the eastern part of the Kubuqi Desert in an area where there are no local government initiatives, or where conventional wisdom believed the problem wasn't fixable. Kwon says strategically this is the most symbolic anti-desertification battleground in the country.

Goats grazing
Goats grazing
Goats grazing in an enclosed paddock, edge of the Kubuqi Desert.
Kwon hopes that his Kubuqi Desert project area will become a magnet for scientists and researchers. Standing on the spot where Future Forest plans to build a permanent base camp, he said the location could one day be a national and global centre for anti-desertification research and development.

Planting trees in a desert might seem somewhat foolish, but just a few centimetres below the dusty surface of the Kubuqi, the sand is actually quite moist. This fact has led some to describe the area as one of the wettest deserts in the world.

"The Kubuqi runs alongside the Yellow River and there are smaller tributaries throughout the area. We found that when you dig down about ten or even 20 centimetres the sand is quite moist and that is why if you plant them properly, the trees can take root so easily," Kwon explained.

Xinjiang Poplar
Xinjiang Poplar
The spidery roots of the Xinjiang Poplar hold the sand together to prevent migration and the formation of dunes.
Choosing the right sort of tree for the climactic conditions is vitally important. The Xinjiang Poplar and the Sand Willow form the backbone of the Future Forest project. Planted in the spring and autumn, they grow quickly and their spidery roots grip the sand and hold it together, helping to prevent sand migration and the formation of dunes.

Local farmers

To facilitate access to the various projects the local authorities are building several roads - some with a hard cover, others just compacted sand. This is making the job easier for forestry and project staff who previously had to carry most of their tools, equipment and cart-loads of young saplings across miles of degraded grassland and desert.

Local farmers - many of whom were once sceptical about whether afforestation could work on a large scale, are now supportive and appreciate the efforts being made to restore their grasslands.

Forestry Department official Li Zhongzhu explained how the shifting desert was not only shaping the landscape, but also the local community.

Successful afforestion on the edge of the Kubuqi Desert, Inner Mongolia
Successful afforestion on the edge of the Kubuqi Desert, Inner Mongolia
Successful afforestion on the edge of the Kubuqi Desert, Inner Mongolia.
"Living here," he said, "when the sands pushed forward, the people moved backward. Now that the trees are taking shape, people can live here again."

From the banks of the Yellow River to the innermost regions of the Kubuqi Desert, Ambassador Kwon and his Future Forest team have an almost parental affection for the land, its people, and of course, their trees.

"We are mobilizing people. They have become engaged. People are now moving back to the edge of the project area. We are not only restoring the grassland, we are restoring the community," Kwon said.

According to independent surveys about 70 to 80 per cent of the estimated four million trees planted in the Future Forest project area have survived.

"Seeing is believing. Most of the trees we planted have not only survived, they have thrived and their seeds and roots have spread. You can see new saplings and other vegetation growing in our project area," he said, "That is the way of nature. If you provide the right environment, nature can take care of itself."

Chris Gelken is a Beijing-based freelance journalist and a producer/presenter with China Radio International (). For more information about Future Forest see www.futureforest.org

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