Early next month — on March 12 to be precise — millions of Chinese people will head out to the countryside to plant trees. This has been happening every year for the last 30 years, with 500 million volunteers participating in National Tree Planting Day in 2007, planting over 2.27 billion trees between them according to official statistics. This is one small part of China’s continual battle against its increasingly arid landscape.
Yet, despite these people’s best interests — and the governmental policies behind their actions — experts generally agree that China, along with many other nations around the world, is currently fighting a losing battle against ecological degradation.
“Right now, in China, we are losing 4.5 mu (1 mu = 667 square meters) of land to the desert every minute,” says Elton Chen, chief of international affairs at the China Foundation for Desertification Control (CFDC). “If it continues at this rate, in 200 years’ time, China will have lost all of its land. Everywhere will be covered with sand.”
However, all is not lost. A growing number of people have started waking up to the fact that central governmental initiatives alone will not be enough to reverse the sands. Local governments are increasingly investing in ways to educate local populations and protect arable land, and environmental NGOs are springing up across the country to research key problems and offer their help and guidance.
Back in April 2007, President Hu Jintao visited the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, sandwiched between Shaanxi, Gansu and Inner Mongolia, for an inspection tour. During his visit, he spoke to local officials about the need for them all to contribute towards “creating a new ecological shield in the vast west.”
In today’s climate, where politicians, scientists and even celebrities around the world are talking almost daily about environmental changes and global warming, it is not particularly surprising that a Chinese leader is also addressing the topic. Yet China is finding it has a more pressing need than most to find fast solutions to some of the global environmental concerns.
The threat posed by desertification has been common knowledge in China for decades, yet, despite governmental efforts since the 1950s, each subsequent decade has only seen the volume of unusable land in the country grow larger.
For the last two decades, a host of government initiatives have been implemented to try to slow this advance, but, according to China’s Environmental Protection Agency, the Gobi Desert alone expanded by 52,400 sq km between 1994 and 1999. And although it is the largest, the Gobi is just one of several deserts steadily growing in size across China – deserts now cover almost a fifth of China’s landmass, according to 2008 figures published by the Ministry of Land and Resources.
Land degradation caused by desertification is a major problem for dry regions of the world. Deterioration in soil and plant cover has adversely affected nearly 50% of the planet’s landmass, often as a result of human mismanagement, primarily overgrazing and deforestation.
Rural communities are normally the hardest-hit, with crop yields reduced and the need to go further afield to graze livestock – and this is certainly the case in China.
“Although people living in cities are starting to realize the impact of desertification on the environment, people living in affected areas face specific problem everyday,” explains Zhang Hai, one of the individuals behind Green Camel Bell, an NGO working on environmental protection and education in Gansu Province.
According to the Asian Development Bank, there are approximately 400 million people across China, mainly living in rural communities, currently threatened by the encroachment of China’s deserts. “[In rural communities] local crop outputs have decreased, which has caused many farmers to give up their land and go to the city to make a living, in a form of ecological migration,” says Zhang.
Many of the recent governmental efforts have gone into the creation of a project called the Great Green Wall, a mass of re-planted forestland that aims to return the soil to its previous condition and shield the east coast from the annual sandstorms blowing across from the west.
Indeed, a year after Hu Jintao’s visit to the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, a new five-year program was announced, calling for the planting of 400,000 hectares of commercial forests in the region, at an annual cost of RMB 1.3 billion (USD 190 million).
But it is becoming increasingly clear that this retroactive policy is not enough. “Central government has spent a huge amount of money on the [Great Green Wall] program,” says Elton Chen. “But in my understanding, it is far from enough; it has only slowed down the speed. It has not reached the target of stopping, or reversing, the progress.”
The numbers back up this claim. Despite China leading the way globally in terms of afforestation — with the State Forestry Administration (SFA) saying the country possesses 54 million hectares of man-made forest — annual desert expansion in Xinjiang alone is still reckoned to be 10,400 hectares, down from a high of 38,400. “We have managed to reduce the speed of expansion,” Ismail Tiliwaldi, then chairman of the Xinjiang regional government, was quoted as saying in a 2007 Xinhua article, “but the situation is still very severe.”
As a result, increasing efforts are now being focused on preserving remaining arable land and educating local populations in how to care for and revitalize their environment. In April 2008, China imposed a grazing ban amid efforts to prevent further deterioration of its grasslands. The ban varies in length, from two months to a full year depending on the region, and affects an area of approximately 86.7 million hectares of pasture land.
These policies have not been universally welcomed. As China’s demand for meat has grown with rising living standards and disposable incomes, so has the incentive for farmers to keep as much livestock as possible.
Da Lintai, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has estimated that Inner Mongolia alone has double the number of animals it is realistically able to support – approximately 62 million cows, sheep and goats in total. Government figures show that 90% of China’s grasslands have been degenerated by over-grazing, stripping the land of protective vegetation and making it progressively harder to regenerate.
“Improving animal husbandry is key – the animals’ diets, and the ways of selling and raising them,” says Chen, “We need to help [farmers] make more money from one sheep, so they don’t feel they need so many.”