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