Desertification and China’s Great Green Wall

“Unlike the Great Wall of China, a 5,000-mile fortification dating back to the 7th century BC that separates northern China from the Mongolian steppe, the Great Green Wall of China-otherwise known as the Three-North Shelter Forest Program-is the biggest tree planting project on the planet. Its goal is to create a 2,800-mile long green belt to hold back the quickly expanding Gobi Desert and sequester millions of tons of carbon dioxide in the process. If all goes according to plan, the completion of the Green Wall by 2050 will increase forest cover across China from five to 15 percent overall.

“The Chinese government first conceived of the Green Wall project in the late 1970s to combat desertification along the country’s vast northwest rim. Soon thereafter, China’s top legislative body passed a resolution requiring every citizen over the age of 11 to plant at least three Poplar, Eucalyptus, Larch and other saplings every year to reinforce official reforestation efforts.

“But despite progress-according to the United Nations’ most recent Global Forest Resources Assessment, China increased its overall forest cover by 11,500 square miles (an area the size of Massachusetts) between 2000 and 2010, with ordinary citizens alone planting upwards of 60 billion trees-the situation is only getting worse. Analysts think China loses just as many square miles of grasslands and farms to desertification every year, so reforestation has proven to be an uphill battle. The encroaching Gobi has swallowed up entire villages and small cities and continues to cause air pollution problems in Beijing and elsewhere while racking up some $50 billion a year in economic losses. And tens of millions of environmental refugees are looking for new homes in other parts of China and beyond in what makes America’s Dust Bowl of the 1930s look trivial in comparison.”  Source:

GR:  A little reading in this article and its references quickly reveals that despite China’s massive commitment to reforestation, desertification is increasing.  Part of the problem is that the land-use practices that led to vegetation loss and soil instability are continuing.  Another part of the problem is that Chinese planners are making the same mistakes made in the U. S. and in other arid regions where managers used nonnative plants to replace depleted natives.

Many of you will be nodding and thinking that whenever land-use managers focus on Human benefits, they lose sight of the need for complete ecosystem health. They focus on potential benefits from foreign species that appear to be suited to growth on degraded lands.  Their goal is to continue profitable logging, livestock grazing, and water diversion.  Therefore, the desert grows.


Thanks to Professor Willem Van Cotthem for his efforts to provide a single Internet source for work on desertification (

3 thoughts on “Desertification and China’s Great Green Wall

  1. I have been planting trees (and organizing a few tree plantings), in the Chicago area for 50 years. I grew up in an natural second growth forest of Elm, Red Oak, Basswood, and Ash trees that were 120 to 140 feet tall in a Chicago suburb, really. There are so many problems with people being able to understand the need for native trees and forests, as opposed to lawn grass, herbicides to kill weeds (and living organisms in the soil and us), and nursery developed foreign species. Birds, animals and insects do not nest in foreign species. They know better. People want convenience and results now (that is a human trait that is doing us in). Trees require 20 years to show themselves and 30 to 50 years to become productive. The average person does not have that long view. I talk about planting white oaks, our national tree, that can live to be 600 years old. Both flora and fauna must thrive in the naturally available environment in order to reverse, or at least stabilize the growth of deserts. The best way to pick plants is to see which ones reproduce by themselves with little outside interference. I wrote an article decades ago about looking at the “weeds” that grow around your home, see which ones are really tree seedlings, and transplant those to better locations on your lawn. I read in the 1980’s that Weyerhauser went to China to help them reforest, is the green wall part of their effort? I have long been an advocate of the wood economy, which starts with planting and maintaining natural forests, harvesting older or dead trees, building with wood (housing, furniture, etc.) and eventually recovering the energy from wood waste, or using the waste to fertilize the forest. Trees capture 5% of all solar input for free and sequester 40% of the carbon they capture, for free…just plant them. Artificial solar collection cannot compete economically. A while ago I wrote an unpublished paper about a proposed 4 square mile community where trees were the greenery instead of lawns, that supported about 35000 people (not totally sustainable, but very walkable and very productive of fruits, nuts, maple sugar, honey, wood and useful jobs). Thirty percent of the energy requirements of the US could be supported by biomass, especially in these semi-sustainable communities. Thank you for your article (s) and the opportunity to support your ideas.



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