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Forest Guardian
The four-decade old Green Great Wall program succeeds in keeping the Gobi Desert at bay
By Li Qing | VOL.11 March ·2019-03-25
Villagers in Jingbian County on the southern edge of the Mu Us Desert, northwest China's Shaanxi Province, feed goats on a farm on August 6, 2018(XINHUA)

Wang Tianran, 28, is no stranger to the long forest north of her hometown Tianjin Municipality in north China. "When I was a primary school student, the Three-North Shelterbelt Forest Program was always mentioned during school broadcasts," she said. The program is part of an ecological project that covers northwest, north and northeast China. 

In the late 1990s, Wang attended a wedding and noticed that the bride wore a veil to protect her makeup from the dust. Wang couldn't understand why the environment had not improved since the large afforestation program had been launched 20 years before and asked the question in one of her school compositions. 

"My teacher said that I needed to wait," Wang told ChinAfrica. "And I think time has proven her right." 

Green Great Wall 

Sandstorms, which were a nightmare, have drastically dropped in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region in recent years. "The average days per year of sandstorms declined to 0.1 in 2015 from 5.1 in 1978," said Zhu Jiaojun, head of the Institute of Applied Ecology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, on December 24, 2018, at a press conference to present an evaluation report on the Three-North Shelterbelt Forest Program over the past 40 years. 

The report was jointly released by the National Forestry and Grassland Administration and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The evaluation started in 2017 based on a wide scope of assessment criteria, including the growth and decline of forest resources, desertification and soil erosion rates, and climate change. 

"Although this change is not the result of one single effort, the program has played a positive role," Zhu said. 

As an eco-conservation project, the Green Great Wall, as it is popularly known, was launched in 1978, at the start of China's reform and opening up, to hold back the expansion of the Gobi Desert in north China. According to the initial layout, 551 counties from 13 provincial-level regions that suffered from severe desertification due to natural disasters and excessive grazing were involved, extending some 4.07 million square km. 

The program is divided into three stages, with eight detailed phases, and is currently in the fifth phase. It is set to be fully completed by 2050. 

Based on the report, the program has finished a total of 46.14 million hectares of afforestation, accounting for 118 percent of its planned tasks, with the forest coverage rate in the project areas increasing to 13.57 percent. The area of wind-breaking and sand-fixing forests increased by 154 percent, and the rate of its contribution to the reduction of desertification rose to about 15 percent, holding back the expansion of the desert. Soil erosion has been controlled, decreasing by 67 percent. Agricultural production has improved as a result of building farmland shelterbelts. 

In addition, the program has provided enormous social benefits by stimulating the development of regional economies. It employed some 313 million rural residents. Of the 93.3-billion-yuan ($13.6 billion) investment in the program, 53 percent went to job creation and vocational training. The development of forest and flower economies, along with other ecological industries, has helped local people increase their income. 

Forest tourism has greatly contributed to poverty alleviation efforts thanks to the construction of themed national parks in forests, wetlands and the desert. The parks have received 380 million visitors since 1978. 

"At present, eco-tourism is conducive to alleviating the pressure on fragile ecological environments while developing the economy," said Lu Qi, head of the Institute of Desertification Studies at the Chinese Academy of Forestry. 

Miracle blueprint 

"One of the reasons the Green Great Wall is destined to be great is its ambitious blueprint, a long-term plan spanning 73 years," Lu told ChinAfrica. At the initial stage, a general plan for future construction was designed, which took diverse features in different areas into consideration. 

Liu Dongsheng, deputy head of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration, said widespread participation is another major reason for its success. With the scheme, systematic work by governments and organizations at all levels is ensured. 

Although the basic afforestation plan is already determined, new concepts for harnessing the desert are always advancing. "The current phase emphasizes differentiated approaches in different locations, following the laws of nature," Wang Feng, a researcher with the Institute of Desertification Studies at the Chinese Academy of Forestry, said. 

For instance, in the Loess Plateau, which covers several provinces in north and northwest China, excessive afforestation led to problems such as overconsumption of water resources. This is the reason why targeted strategies are necessary in the process of afforestation. 

"Currently, new sand control technologies are being applied. However, considering the unique climate and soil condition in forest areas, many factors should be adjusted, for example, the density of afforestation and the selection of tree species," Wang explained. "To improve the efficiency of water use and recovery and vegetation stability, local species are recommended." 

In addition, Lu pointed out that improvements would have been impossible without the contribution from other ecological conservation programs. For example, in the Loess Plateau, the vegetation coverage rate has been significantly improved not only due to the Three-North Shelterbelt Forest Program, but also because of the water and soil conservation policy and returning grain plots into forests. 

Rich future 

In recent years, the death of trees has raised public concerns for the sustainability of the Three-North Shelterbelt Forest Program. 

"When the shelterbelt forest was launched, the poplar tree was the best choice due to its shape and speed of growth, but its life cycle is somewhat short," Lu told ChinAfrica. Besides the natural death of trees, untimely deaths due to diseases, water shortages and other causes are difficult to handle. 

Relevant administrations and academies have been working on improving the quality of the planted tree species for many years. "Progress never stops, but some of it cannot readily be seen by the naked eye," Lu said. 

The rising cost of environmental governance is another challenge, although Wang said "it is necessary for the increase of forests and grasslands." 

Liu said the program has become increasingly difficult since it is based on the principle of starting with the easier tasks before moving on to the more difficult ones. The fragile ecological conditions in the remaining areas are harder to improve. 

In addition, water sources are scarce in the afforestation area, which accounts for over 40 percent of national land area with only 14 percent of the country's total water resources. The increase in water consumption due to agricultural development imposes detrimental demands on the available groundwater. Liu said along with persistently planting trees and grass and improving the quality of vegetation, protection needs to be strengthened, integrating other national strategies like targeted poverty alleviation. 

According to the blueprint for the Three-North Shelterbelt Forest Program, the forest coverage rate in the project areas is set to increase by 14 percent by 2020, when an ecological safety barrier should be basically built. By 2035, the quality of forests and grasslands in the areas should significantly improve, leading to a remarkable change in the ecological environment. By 2050, the ecological safety barrier will be completed. 

(Comments to niyanshuo@chinafrica.cn) 

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