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The Not So Great “Green Great Wall of China”

In episode 26 of Climate Stew, Peterson talked about the Green Great Wall of China, a massive project to build the world’s largest man made forest. Marin Toscano, Climate Stew’s newest team member, has lived in China working on food issues and farming. She shares some of her responses to the story.

California keeps planting salad greens despite their severe drought, and China keeps planting trees along the Gobi desert to try to “stop” its’ expansion. Albeit on different scales, it seems both countries are in a kind of war to combat some of the most threatening aspects of climate change: drought, desertification and deforestation. This Triple D combo brings with it not just negative implications for the environment, but also limits valuable farmland, and decreases available drinking water.


China’s other Great Wall.(Reuter/Aly Song)

China implemented the Three North Shelterbelt, more commonly known as the ‘Green Great Wall of China’ project in 1978. Chinese officials aim to plant a belt of trees that will span 2,783 miles along the border of Mongolian territories by 2050 with an end goal of increasing China’s total forest cover from 5% to 15%. At first glance China seems like an environmental superstar for implementing the largest afforestation (that just means planting trees) act ever, however, their actions have brought about some disconcerting effects. As is often the case when humans try to ‘stop’ the course of Nature without looking at the causes of how humans altered Her in the first place, She gets a little peeved. In this case She doesn’t exactly want to offer fertile ground for the roots of a man-made forest to take hold. Ladies, I’m sure you can relate!

Some expansion of the Gobi desert can be attributed to overgrazing by livestock and humans cutting down trees for timber, and so China policies ‘encouraged’ (aka mandated) Mongolian herdsmen to raise less livestock and plant trees instead. Since the projects launching, everyone living in the targeted areas over the age of 11 were required to plant 3 tree saplings every year, resulting in 60 billion trees being planted by common people to date – can’t you just picture all the cute little kids planting trees and growing up to make a whole nation of tree huggers!

(Photo : Reuters) After decades of growth and patience, a massive swath of trees planted across bone-dry northern China nearly 40 years ago is finally starting to reverse the desertification of the region.

(Photo : Reuters) After decades of growth and patience, a massive swath of trees planted across bone-dry northern China nearly 40 years ago is finally starting to reverse the desertification of the region.

Ok back up, now enter Debby Downer; only an estimated 15% of those trees have actually survived, and most of the “forests” being planted have not been transformed into actual forest ecosystems but are more like mono-cropped tree farms where few animals and insects are to be found. They’re kind of like forest skeletons. And then there’s the whole problem of water. Just like California can’t sustain its ‘Salad Bowl’ status, China’s Great Green Wall of trees comes at the cost of sucking up some of that regions precious drops of groundwater and many locals are complaining about how this has made even more land uninhabitable.

As is often the case environmental policy is often well… you guessed it, super political! Chinese officials are always eager to try to alter their international image of pursuing economic development at all environmental costs and curb criticism from the global community. Huge projects like the ‘Great Green Wall of China’ are large enough to serve as propaganda tools that can distract from its more day to day environmental faux pas. Not to mention the Gobi desert is getting dangerously close to the Beijing capital city, and officials have very obvious incentives to protect that city at all costs.

A manmade forest

A manmade forest

A very real consequence of increased desertification North of Beijing has been a worsening of air pollution in the capital itself, especially during the Spring months when everyone should be out stopping to enjoy the flowers, instead they have to wear face masks or on some days just stay inside. This is because of the Yellow Dust Storms of Doom (ok maybe I added the doom part) blow sand from the Loess Plateau and Inner Mongolia and add to the already unpleasant pollution in Beijing. When you are already blowing grey snot into tissues all year round, yellow sand in the spring just adds insult to injury.

As I was reading through many of the reports online about the Green Great Wall of China, I noticed one major point seemed to be totally glossed over, or just not mentioned period. That is the question of ‘Where are all of these trees coming from?!?’ Thanks to my time in China where I got to chat with plenty of locals that are disenchanted with environmental campaigns like this one, I have a pretty good idea. In many of China’s quickly developing cities there is a similar campaign roughly translated as ‘Urban Greenification’ that aims to plant thousands of trees in dense urban areas. Goals include reducing pollution output by having more trees that will suck up carbon from the air and to make the cities more aesthetically pleasing, which I must admit I did appreciate.

The Great Green Wall is due to be completed in 2050, and is expected to contain more than 100 billion trees in band covering more than one-tenth of China.

The Great Green Wall is due to be completed in 2050, and is expected to contain more than 100 billion trees in band covering more than one-tenth of China.

The problem is that most of the trees to be transplanted in cities are grown in surrounding rural areas where tree farming is increasingly subsidized. This means, much like U.S. farmers stopped growing diverse crops because of wheat subsidies, Chinese farmers that used to live off the land growing biodiverse vegetables and grains, now can make more money growing trees than they can food. It is not like China has farmland to waste; in fact, they have to feed 1.7 billion people but only have 7% of the world’s arable land. China has done a remarkably good job of feeding its large population through traditional agricultural techniques for thousands of years, but this latest development means they will be less self-sufficient in food production and this has led to a de-localization of their food system and more reliance on imports. So like with many environmental conundrums there are trade-offs: should China grow food or trees?

Critics of the Green Great Wall of China’ project point to the fact that China has made little efforts to restore natural forest ecosystems because this would take increased time and research. Officials have decided that they should plant fast growing trees like poplar, even though these were never native species to the Gobi desert. To restore the natural grasslands that the Gobi desert has encroached would take more time and diversity of species. In my opinion the underlying problem does not lie solely in lack of ecological knowledge being applied; the most foundational issue brings us back to history. Yes, I said the H-word, it was my least favorite subject in high school as well. But in China’s case their history still haunts them in very tangible ways and is essential to understanding what is going on in China today.

This is not the first time China has made a plan to combat Nature in a way that is bullheaded and closed to constructive criticism. In Judith Shapiro’s book ‘Mao’s War Against Nature’ she talks extensively about how Chairman Mao saw Nature as ‘The Enemy’ in the way of China’s industrial development. Now Nature is in in the Way of China’s War on Climate Change, but instead of working with Her, they are trying to ‘build’ a forest in what has been a landscape of desert and grasslands for thousands of years. But before we play the blame game, China is really not the only one who can be accused of going against the laws of Nature, actually Mao was using the U.S. as a kind of ‘role-model’ when plotting the ‘development’ of his country. So the morel of the story, kids, is that Nature is complex, and we should probably try our best to emanate Her rather than remake Her in our own image.


Marin Toscano

Author: Marin Toscano

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