Since the ’50s, China has battled with the invading Gobi Desert or ‘yellow dragon’ from the North. In an attempt to halt its advancement, the Chinese government began planting a ‘Great Green Wall’ of trees in 1978. Decades and billions of trees later, the project has been proclaimed a success by the Chinese government, but it has also received criticism and has experienced substantial setbacks illustrating the complexity of undergoing such an extensive afforestation project. With climate change threatening to convert vast swathes of land into desert around the world, similar projects are now taking place elsewhere. For these projects, the pioneering experiment of the Chinese Great Green Wall offers a long-term case study to be learned from when looking to combat desertification.
During the 1950s the young People’s Republic was forced to create useable farmland and living space to accommodate a rapidly growing population. In clearing the land of native vegetation to achieve this, they also compromised the protection from wind erosion and deposition that these natural ecosystems had provided, making these areas vulnerable to desertification (1).
When vegetation is removed from a patch of land, it no longer holds together the soil column, making it more vulnerable to being blown away. Without vegetation, the nutrient-rich topsoil layer is exposed to the elements. When this is removed, it leaves the land barren and infertile. Not only this, when finer particles making up the topsoil are blown into the atmosphere, dust storms form which can travel great distances. Additionally, once the topsoil layer is swept away, coarser particles and sand that has become exposed also get carried by the wind, resulting in more localised sandstorms (2).
To slow the Gobi Desert from invading further, and in an attempt to revert damage largely caused throughout the 50s, the Chinese government began work on the ‘Three-North Shelterbelt Project’. The project, which began in 1978, would involve planting a 4,500 km ‘Great Green Wall’ of trees across China’s Northern border (3). The wall would act as a natural barrier and stop the desert from forcing ecological migrants from their homes. It would also reduce the occurrence of dust/sandstorms (which regularly choked large settlements such as Beijing) and ensure future food security for the country via preservation of farmland. By 2050 (the project’s end date), 100 billion trees will have been planted, and one-tenth of the country dedicated towards tree growth (4).