Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information CenterSouthern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center
HomeAbout UsCampaignsSouthern Mongolian WatchChineseJapaneseNewsLInksContact Us


  China's "Green Great Wall" Aims to Halt Desertification

By Tai, Yan
World & I, Jan 2005, Vol. 20 Issue 1


When Enhebatu Togochog left for college fifteen years ago, it was hard to say good-bye to his friends, a herd of more than two hundred horses grazing on the open grassland near his home in eastern Inner Mongolia, China. Today, only three horses are left for his entire village.

Togochog is a firsthand witness to an advancing menace affecting not just his grazing herds but a way of life both ancient and modern. Loss of grassland throughout Inner Mongolia is so severe that the Mongolians, long known as a race living on horseback, face unprecedented lifestyle changes. "Soon, there will be no grassland for the herds to graze upon," says Togochog. "As a result, herders like my parents are becoming jobless and homeless."

Anxiety about the future extends beyond traditional desert frontiers. The Great Wall north of Beijing might have served ancient Chinese emperors by fending off Mongolian and other ethnic marauders, but it hardly slows today's invaders, sandstorms from the far north, from advancing on the capital.

In March 2002, the sky in Beijing turned brown. The sultry air smelled of earth. Grit penetrated well-insulated walls, clogging everybody nostrils. Riding among the streams of bicycles on Beijing streets, college professor Jin Yuge struggled to see through a white silk scarf pulled over her face, but her neck and clothes wore a yellow coat of powder. It is disgusting to walk into a classroom like this, she said. It gets into your hair, your mouth and all over you.

"What on earth are the leaders inside Zhong Nan Hai Hai [the Chinese government leadership compound in Beijing] thinking about our environment?" retiree Sun Yi wondered. "It is not possible that they don't see the terrifying color of the sky. I believe their fancy offices in Zhong Nan have window views."

Indeed, leaders of China central government have noticed the environmental assault. Desertification, or the growth of desert due to soil erosion or land degradation, has caught the world attention in Africa. But for the world's largest industrializing country, with a near double-digit GDP growth rate in the last decade, the threat of desertification, and the costs of containment, have sent off a piercing alarm. With less than 10 percent of the world arable land supporting 22 percent of its population, desertification is a sobering reality affecting some 400 million people in China one way or another.

For the villagers in Fengning County, just 120 miles north of Beijing, battling the encroaching desert is their daily struggle. It robs the lambs of their grassland and almost burglarizes the houses. North winds sweep across Yan Mountain and dump tons of sand onto grassland and into villagers yards. Langtou Gou village made national headlines due to the invading sand. Women carry buckets of it out of their yards when not tending their hungry goats. They say the sand would pile up to the window level, only to bury their houses.

The six-hundred-mile West Bank Corridor in northwest Gansu Province used to be a part of the Silk Road, transporting exotic merchandise overland from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. Now the corridor carries sand from the hinterland into the farmlands and population centers to the east.

Estimates of the economic and social impact of desertification in China are as varied as views on how to combat it. The government estimates annual economic losses of $6.5 billion due to desertification. Today China has 2.6 million square kilometers of desert, some 28 percent of the country's total landmass. But these numbers are believed to be conservative. From the Gobi Desert in northwest Xinjiang to the once heavily forested Heilongjiang Province in the far northeast, from the arid and frigid zone on the Russian border, southward across the Yellow River, pockets of desert are forming and advancing, pushing desert boundaries further by an estimated 3,500 square kilometers per year.

In the south, where land used to be swathed in green throughout the year, industrial pollution, overuse of water by factories, and continuous droughts have degraded the soil so much that patches of bare land increasingly appear. Husbandry and forestation are under constant threat. The National Headquarters to Combat Drought recently reported the dry-out of an astonishing 1,253 reservoirs this fall in Guangxi and Guangdong provinces alone. The severe sandstorms in the spring of 2002 even blew the sand across the Yellow Sea onto the Korean peninsula and Japan. Sand from China's northern steppes reportedly crossed the Pacific, creating spectacular sunsets on California's West Coast.

Driving along the national highway from Beijing to the northeastern metropolis Shenyang in early April, this writer couldn't miss the barren and yellow banks of dried rivers, such as parts of the Liao River, and many creeks and reservoirs. Patches of low bushes covered what used to be the riverbed, showing little sign of life in spring. These rivers, big or small, have been sources for local irrigation. Their disappearance is a troubling omen of a future of scarcity and loss of a blessed life given by a balanced nature.

"We used to swim in the water, caught dog-head fish for fun when we were kids," said 40-year-old Lai Baiqing, a farmer in Zhangwu, Liaoning Province, in a typical lament. "But now the whole creek is going. I haven't seen water in it for years. Farming on this land is becoming more and more difficult."

Along the Yellow River, the country second-biggest waterway, much of the farm land has been degraded to such a point that husbandry is hardly profitable any more. The Yellow Dirt Plateau has long been known as meager soil for its low production; and the drastic decrease of rainfall in recent years due to climate changes makes life harder for the local people.

Mismanaging the land

Land abuse has been so severe, persistent, and institutionalized in the last fifty years that pessimism remains strong. Some environmentalists believe that desertification can be traced to the great famine in early 1960s when the Chinese government institutionalized massive conversion of natural grassland into farms. Mao Zedong sent millions of his Red Guards into the rural area in the northeast and across Inner Mongolia, then known as "Bei Da Huang" (the undeveloped wild north). The Red Guards cut grass on millions of acres to plant grains.

"Once the grass was rooted out, the land could neither produce enough grain nor be restored as grassland," says Jiang Hong, assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin. Jiang participated in an international research program, Critical Zone, organized by Clark University in Massachusetts. Inner Mongolia was one of the nine critical zones under study by the team.

"When I went to the field for study in Inner Mongolia in the 1990s," Jiang says, "the wind blew up heavy sands from the ground. Local herdsmen told me that was the result of the land development in the 1960s."

Overgrazing is another factor, perhaps the primary factor according to China's Desertification Information Network, in the process of desertification. To alleviate pressure on the grassland, the government has started relocating the herdsmen into surrounding agricultural and industrialized areas. This effort, known as ecological immigration, attempts to give the grassland a chance to recover by removing livestock.

But this well-intentioned policy has angered many Mongolians. "The herders have lived there for thousands of years in an environmentally friendly lifestyle," says Togochog, now living in New York and running an organization that monitors the environment and human rights issues in Inner Mongolia. While the government relocates the herders, Togochog claims, it allows businesses to come in and build factories on the grassland. The herders accuse the factories of discharging chemicals and polluting the land. "I believe it is rather an assimilation policy for political and economic reasons to dilute the Mongolian ethnicity," he says.

Other policymakers attribute desertification to complex and practically irreversible trends. Chen Bangzhu, the chairman of the Committee for Population, Resource, and Environment of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, cites population growth, industrialization, and urbanization as principal causes of desertification.

"China is one of the countries that suffer from the most severe land degradation," Chen said in a September 2004 UN environmental gathering in Beijing. "The quality of arable land is declining year by year, and its reserve is insufficient due to various causes such as fertilizer and pollution."

The Green Great Wall

Desertification in China, in short, is a hot potato for which any conclusion is premature. The issue is as volatile as the ecosystem itself, but few question the government's apparent determination to tackle the problem. From top leaders at the national level to provincial governors, land sustainability for the world's most populous country is an urgent and relentless priority. Now the State Forestry Administration is mobilizing local efforts to build a second great wall: a 3,000-mile tree belt, aptly dubbed the Green Great Wall, to block sandstorms from the north.

The Green Great Wall project is the fourth phase of an ongoing forestation program begun 1978 when the central government mobilized men and women of all trades and all ages to plant trees. The program, known
as Three North Forest Fence (san bei fang hu lin dai), has become a household term and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2003 as history's largest forestation project. By 2050, when the whole project is completed, the Chinese government expects to have planted 540 million acres of trees, 42 percent of the country's total territory. Forestation in northern China is projected to increase from 5 percent in 1978 to 15 percent.

So far there has been little evaluation of the effectiveness of the human-engineered project. Trees planted on arid land have difficulty surviving. Also, local authorities often organize people to plant trees on the same land year after year. So the number of trees planted might have grown but not the forested areas. Indeed, sandstorms are much worse today than before.

"It is not correct that we just plant the trees and leave them there," says Togochog, who planted trees every spring as part of schoolwork before college. "Near where I lived, not even 10 percent of the trees we planted survived." He says the local governments just got the numbers and declared the tree planting project a success.

Even if trees do survive, they don necessarily help to retard the desert. Trees suck the underground water from surrounding areas, so around newly planted tree belts appear patches of sandy land that are almost nonarable. "You see the forestation on the one hand, but there is the desertification resulting from tree planting on the other hand," says Jiang. "People are still in love with the concept of planting trees, without considering factors such as sharing limited underground water resources. They generally believe that human driving forces can win a war against nature, a communist concept imposed by Mao in the 1960s."

Judith Shapiro, author of Mao's War against Nature, agrees: "China is still trying to combat its environmental problems with the conviction that human willpower will prevail, but it has been proven impossible." She thinks building the Green Great Wall is again trying to tackle desertification with an engineering project.

The Chinese government is also working to return farmland to forestland. Farmers are paid to plant trees on marginal land they have been cultivating. "I think this is the right policy direction to have set," said Zheng Rui, coordinator for the Asia Facilitation Unit at the Secretariat of United Nations' Convention to Combat Desertification, a Germany-based UN treaty body formed in 1994. "Farmers are eager to get allocation for this because they see incentives in ten to twenty years from now as they are paid to do the work, and eventually will own the timber as well as any forest products."

Government officials increasingly realize that economic growth cannot ignore ecological losses and, alternatively, that environmental protection measures cannot leave out economic incentives. Sometimes this
means tough choices. Efforts to increase grain production, for example, finally succumbed to government environmental priorities, and developed farmland now has to be returned for reforestation. Meanwhile, grain production has dropped in five consecutive years since 1998 to an almost dangerous level, according to Li Zhensheng, former deputy president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

But the government is not yielding its reforestation initiatives under such pressure. Officials at the State Commission on Development and Reform say that the drop in grain production did not result from reforestation of what they call "marginal" farmland. And by 2005, they estimate, almost 1.2 billion acres of low-production farmland will have been returned to green land.

Costs of stewardship

The World Bank is currently collaborating with countries such as Italy to formulate a "green" accounting model to calculate economic growth after deducting the actual cost of environmental damages and natural resource depletion. Pan Yu, deputy minister of the State Environmental Administration, says his administration is testing a green accounting method in six provinces. He hopes the use of such a system will help to distinguish growth from invisible costs. f it takes $1 for the average of the world to do one thing, Pan says, t would cost China $1.25 to do the same, and 17 cents of the extra quarter is environmental cost. The
World Bank brings international experience and financing resources to address environmental issues such as climate change and land degradation. One of the World Bank projects on nonarable farmland in the upper reaches of the Yellow River is to try to reduce the pressure on the land by improving land management. Instead of letting animals graze on the grass, they are kept in shelters and the grass is allowed to grow before it is cut it to feed to them as hay.

Such initiatives and government efforts enable some environmentalists to remain optimistic. "China, more than any other developing nation, has the ability to confront its environmental problems just by the example of its surviving history," believes Huey Johnson, president of the California-based Resource Renewal Institute. But he also thinks China has focused too much on economic growth. "China still has time to pull back some of the assets to be spent on its economic growth and spend them on environmental protections," he says. "They cannot keep focusing on growth, growth and growth."

Others have grave doubts about China's environmental future. Zheng Yi, author of The Collapse of China, believes only one-third of China's total land is arable nowadays. "Desertification and soil erosion are occurring from the far north down to the south, from the west to the east coast," he says.

"The problem is so out of control because of an institutional defect in terms of land ownership," he says of the communist policy of land collectivization. "The reason is simple: if one drives a company car, why would one care about the condition of the vehicle as much as he would to his own car?" Beyond this colossal problem, he says the only hope to protect China's environment is through political reform, the maturation of a free press, and a responsible and transparent environmental monitoring system.

China is about to complete a national survey on desertification. The result and recommendations are due in early 2005. "The world cannot afford to see China fail on this, adds Johnson. "It stands true, especially today."


By Yan Tai

Yan Tai is deputy national desk editor at the World Journal, the largest Chinese-language daily newspaper in North America. She was formerly a correspondent for United Press International in Hong Kong.



From Yeke-juu League to Ordos Municipality: settler colonialism and alter/native urbanization in Inner Mongolia

Close to Eden (Urga): France, Soviet Union, directed by Nikita Mikhilkov

Beyond Great WallsBeyond Great Walls: Environment, Identity, and Development on the Chinese Grasslands of Inner Mongolia

The Mongols at China's EdgeThe Mongols at China's Edge: History and the Politics of National Unity

China's Pastoral RegionChina's Pastoral Region: Sheep and Wool, Minority Nationalities, Rangeland Degradation and Sustainable Development

Changing Inner MongoliaChanging Inner Mongolia: Pastoral Mongolian Society and the Chinese State (Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology)

Grasslands and Grassland Science in Northern ChinaGrasslands and Grassland Science in Northern China: A Report of the Committee on Scholarly Communication With the People's Republic of China

The Ordos Plateau of ChinaThe Ordos Plateau of China: An Endangered Environment (Unu Studies on Critical Environmental Regions)
 ©2002 SMHRIC. All rights reserved. Home | About Us | Campaigns | Southern Mongolian Watch | News | Links | Contact Us