EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown, Janet Larsen, and Bernie Fischlowitz-Roberts

Part 1. Deserts Invading China: Spreading Deserts: The Response

Until recently, coping with desertification was left largely to provincial and local governments. But the dust storms reaching Beijing in the last few years have gotten the attention of Chinese leaders. Now the federal government is beginning to commit substantial amounts of resources. The Ministry of Forestry has been designated the lead agency in the effort to arrest the spreading deserts. For example, the government is now paying farmers in the threatened provinces to abandon grain production and to plant their land in trees. In 2000 and 2001, 1.5 million hectares of cropland were planted to trees. An estimated 2 million hectares are scheduled for conversion in 2002. By 2010, 7 million additional hectares of cropland are to be covered with trees. Altogether these 10.5 million hectares represent more than a tenth of China’s grainland. 29

Halting the advancing sand dunes will not be easy. Research by Chinese scientists indicates that the millions of sheep and goats traversing the land not only strip it of vegetation but also loosen the soil through their constant trampling, leaving it particularly vulnerable to wind erosion. Without the sheep and goats, rainfall interacting with the soil forms a protective crust that helps prevent the blowing of the soil. 30

Efforts to arrest the desertification and to reclaim the land for productive uses involve planting the land to desert shrubs that help stabilize the dunes and, in many situations, banning sheep and goats entirely. In Helin County, south of the Inner Mongolian capital of Hohhot, such a strategy is beginning to yield results. The planting of desert shrubs on cropland, which was abandoned earlier because sand dunes were forming, has now stabilized the county’s first 7,000-hectare reclamation plot. The second and third 7,000-hectare reclamation efforts are under way, with a fourth to be launched before the end of 2002. 31

A plan to deal with desertification in the threatened parts of China is complicated by the prevalence of poverty in these same regions. The situation calls for a carefully formulated strategy that will lead both to environmental stability and to economic improvement.

The strategy for Helin County, with a population of 150,000 people, is to shift the emphasis from sheep and goats to dairy cattle, increasing from 30,000 dairy animals to 150,000 over the next five years, while gradually reducing the number of sheep and goats. In contrast to the sheep and goats, which range across the landscape consuming any available vegetation, the cattle will be stall-fed, eating cornstalks, straw from the spring wheat crop, and the harvest from a drought-tolerant leguminous forage crop resembling alfalfa, which is growing on reclaimed land. Local officials estimate that this strategy will double incomes within the county during this decade. 32

The successes in arresting and reversing the spread of the desert tend to be local and small-scale, typically in a village, a cluster of villages, or an oasis. Wang Tao, Deputy Director of CAREERI, describes two such cases. First, after rehabilitation of the Naiman Banner experimental plot in Inner Mongolia, the village’s 1,000 hectares of shifting sand land decreased to 330 hectares, vegetation cover increased from 10 percent to 70 percent, the grain harvest climbed from 150 tons to 450 tons, and per capita income increased from 174 yuan per year to 1,290 yuan. 33

Second, in a project in Ningxia Province, rehabilitation brought the 4,822 hectares of desertifying land under control. Of this, 667 hectares of shifting sand land was transformed into woodland. Vegetation cover overall increased from 30 percent to 50 percent. The grain harvest increased from 139 tons to 219 tons. Per capita income increased from less than 500 yuan per year to 1,175 yuan. 34

Some remediation and reclamation efforts are working. Others are not. One of the difficulties with farmers planting trees to stabilize the remaining soil is that often there is not enough soil left to support the trees. The result is mortality rates that sometimes reach 80 percent in the first year. Another disadvantage is that the dust storms are concentrated in the early months of the year, from January into early May, when the deciduous trees planted as windbreaks lack the foliage needed to slow the wind. 35

One weakness of having the Ministry of Forestry manage the land reclamation effort is that it focuses on planting trees. While tree planting has a key role to play, there are doubts as to whether it should be the core strategy. Yet in mid-May 2002, the government announced that it would be investing $12 billion in a decade-long tree planting effort to reduce wind erosion and the spread of deserts. This ambitious planting program includes all regions of the country. 36

All too often, efforts to arrest desertification focus on the symptoms rather than the causes. There is in Beijing something of a “great wall” mentality, one that emphasizes planting a belt of trees to protect Beijing and nearby Tianjin—two of China’s largest cities—from dust storms. Shi Yuanchun, a soil scientist at the China Academy of Sciences challenges this approach. “Putting hundreds of millions of dollars into the Beijing-Tianjin Sand Prevention and Forest Belt Project and ignoring the major sand source regions is…practicing self deception,” he wrote. This planting of trees around Beijing is being justified partly in terms of wanting to green the city and clean the air before the city hosts the Olympics in 2008. 37

A similar situation exists in Lanzhou, where the mountainsides that line the valley en route to the airport—mountains that have never been forested—are being covered with newly planted trees. To enhance their chances of survival, the seedlings are irrigated with large overhead sprinklers using powerful pumps to draw the water from the Yellow River far below. There are widespread doubts as to whether this prodigal use of scarce water resources to make the drive to the airport more scenic warrants the huge drain on fiscal resources it represents.

Planting trees anywhere in China is an obvious environmental plus if the trees survive. They hold the soil and retain rainfall, reducing runoff and flooding. But unless the root causes of desertification—particularly the overgrazing and overplowing in the west and north—are addressed directly, then the tree belts bordering Beijing will not protect it from dust storms.

The prevailing scientific opinion appears to be that the key to arresting the spread of deserts is to relieve the pressure posed by China’s 290 million sheep and goats. Owners are being encouraged to reduce their flocks by 40 percent. In parts of the country where wealth is measured not in annual income but in the number of livestock owned and where a majority of families are living under the poverty line, such cuts are not easy. Flocks are indeed being reduced in many areas, but the reductions appear to be more like 20 percent than the suggested 40 percent. Whether even a 40-percent reduction in herd size is sufficient to arrest the desertification of land is doubtful. 38

Arresting desertification may depend more on grass than trees—in terms of both permitting existing grasses to recover and planting grass in areas that have been denuded. The problem, as one observer has noted, is that there is a Ministry of Forestry but no Ministry of Grass. One of the common components of successful land reclamation efforts involves not merely reducing the number of sheep and goats that traverse the land, but banning them entirely until the indigenous grasses and shrubs can recover. The plan to plant marginal cropland in trees involves paying farmers 1,500 kilograms of grain per year for five years for each hectare they convert from grain to trees, providing the tree survival rate is 80 percent at the end of the first year. They will also receive a small cash allowance. This helps correct some of the mistakes of overplowing, but it does not deal with the overgrazing issue. 39

Qu Geping, the Chairman of the Environment and Resources Committee of the National People’s Congress, has said that the remediation of land in the areas where it is technically feasible would cost $28.3 billion. This dwarfs anything the government has allocated to date, raising questions about whether the government, focused on making the capital city “green” for the 2008 Olympics, has fully recognized yet the scale of the effort needed to win the war with the advancing deserts. 40


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30. Yang Jumping, Master Researchist, Inner Mongolia Academy of Forestry Science, Hohot, Inner Mongolia, and other local officials of the Ministry of Forestry, discussion in Hohhot with author, May 2002.

31. Data are from discussions with officials of Helin county, Inner Mongolia, 17 May 2002.

32. Ibid.

33. Wang, op. cit. note 6.

34. Ibid.

35. Author’s observation confirmed by discussions with scientists at the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute, Lanzhou, China.

36. “China to Spend Billions on Forests,” Reuters, 14 May 2002.

37. Shi Yuanchun, China Academy of Sciences, quoted in Frank Langfitt, “Driven by Weather, Waste, Deserts Swallowing China,” Baltimore Sun, 20 April 2002; Jonathan Ansfield, “Sandstorms Hit China, Threaten Green Olympics Dream,” Reuters, 21 March 2002.

38. FAO, op. cit. note 20; “Grapes of Wrath in Inner Mongolia,” op. cit. note 4.

39. Langfitt, op. cit. note 37; “China Adopts Law to Control Desertification,” op. cit. note 18.

40. “China Adopts Law to Control Desertification,” op. cit. note 18.


Copyright © 2002 Earth Policy Institute