How China Turned the Desert Green (and why it went wrong)

How China Turned the Desert Green (and why it went wrong)

The Great Green Wall of China: A Triumph or Tragedy in the Battle Against Desertification?

The Great Green Wall of China, a monumental reforestation project, has captured global attention as the largest initiative of its kind. With over 66 billion trees planted, its aim is to combat the expansion of the Gobi Desert. However, the success of such projects is not guaranteed, and when executed improperly, they can have devastating effects on local ecosystems. In this article, we delve into the origins of the Great Green Wall, its challenges, and the potential consequences it may have on a global scale.

Why was the Great Green Wall Initiated

China has long been engaged in the battle against desertification, a consequence of unsustainable growth that emerged in the 1950s. Deserts now cover approximately 27% of the country, and by the year 2000, the Gobi Desert alone was expanding at a rate of 10,400 square kilometers annually. The threat of future famine loomed as arable land transformed into desert and the population continued to grow. Recognizing the urgency, the Chinese government formulated a plan in 1978.

The Wall’s Design and its Ecological Implications

The Great Green Wall was conceived as a 4,500-kilometer-long forested barrier to impede desert expansion, shield against sandstorms, and offset carbon emissions. Notably, as of 2020, China has achieved a 23.3% forest coverage, a remarkable 14.7% increase since 1949. Nonetheless, the project faces challenges associated with the planting of monoculture forests. Fast-growing trees such as Aspen, White Birch, and Poplar were chosen for their rapid growth. However, due to the lack of biodiversity, these ecosystems often prove to be fragile and unsustainable.

Fragility and Unsustainability of Monoculture Forests

The use of limited species in reforestation projects can have dire consequences. In 2000, a single disease wiped out 1 billion poplar trees, setting the project back by two decades. Winter storms in 2008 destroyed 10% of the artificial forest. Moreover, planting non-native species without considering local conditions can lead to unintended outcomes. Much of the land being planted is of poor quality and lacks the necessary groundwater to sustain the chosen tree species. As a result, native vegetation nearby, including grasses and shrubs, withers and dies, leading to topsoil erosion and nutrient depletion.

Survival Rates and Biodiversity Concerns

According to a 2004 study, only 15% of the trees planted between 1978 and 2004 managed to survive. The surviving trees are primarily valuable for logging and offer limited ecological diversity compared to native old-growth forests. At Mossy Earth, our approach to reforestation focuses not only on combating climate change but also on restoring ecosystems and conserving biodiversity. The richness and diversity of old-growth forests make them invaluable, and allowing them to reclaim the land is a more sustainable option.

Unintended Consequences and Financial Incentives

Between 2000 and 2015, despite a 32% increase in tree cover in southwestern China, native forests suffered a net loss of 6.6%. Local farmers, enticed by financial incentives, were cutting down native vegetation to plant non-native species. Without proper guidance and restrictions, such schemes risk further damaging the remaining old-growth forests and the biodiversity they support. It’s essential to recognize that the encroaching Gobi Desert is not a barren wasteland but a habitat for diverse flora and fauna, including endangered species like the snow leopard and Bactrian camel.

Balancing Conservation and Desertification Mitigation

While conserving natural deserts is crucial, efforts to combat desertification remain necessary. The Gobi Desert, ironically, is a healthier ecosystem than the artificial forests created to halt its advance. Dust and sandstorm frequency has reduced by one-fifth between 2009 and 2014, and the Chinese government claims to be reclaiming 2400 square kilometers of land annually. Satellite data from NASA appears to support these claims, although specific areas’ progress remains uncertain. However, recent changes in approach, including bans on felling natural forests and planting native species, bring hope for the Great Green Wall’s success and China’s fight against desertification.

Considering the Future of Reforestation Projects

As we move forward, it is imperative to evaluate reforestation projects carefully and consider their potential impacts. While reducing our carbon footprint is vital, neglecting biodiversity concerns in the pursuit of emissions reduction may exacerbate future problems. Reforestation projects should prioritize the restoration of ecosystems and the conservation of biodiversity to ensure a sustainable and thriving future for our planet.


The Great Green Wall of China symbolizes both the triumphs and challenges in the battle against desertification. While it has shown promise in curbing desert expansion and reducing dust storms, the project’s monoculture forests have brought ecological risks. By emphasizing biodiversity and the restoration of ecosystems, we can strike a balance between mitigating desertification and preserving the rich natural heritage of our planet.


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