LARGER IMAGE Chinese farmers push back the desert – one tree at a time
WUWEI, China, June 3 (Reuters) – After a hard morning planting fresh sprouts in the dunes at the edge of the Gobi Desert, 78-year-old farmer Wang Tianchang retrieves a three-string lute from his shed, sits under the blazing midday sun, and begins to play.
“If you want to fight the desert, there is no need to be afraid,” sings Wang, a veteran of China’s decades-long state campaign to “open up the wilderness”, as he scratches the instrument, known as the sanxian.
(Click on https://reut.rs/3fZFOvm to see a set of images from China’s tree planting program.)
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Planting trees has been at the heart of China’s environmental efforts for decades as the country seeks to turn deserts and arid swamps near its borders into farmland and protect the capital Beijing from sands emanating from the Gobi, a An expanse of 500,000 square miles stretching from Mongolia to northwest China, which would cover Tiananmen Square with dust almost every spring.
But in March, strong sandstorms hit Beijing for the first time in six years, putting the country’s reforestation efforts under scrutiny, with land increasingly scarce and trees no longer able to offset the impact of the change. climate.
Now a local institution in Gansu province (northwest China), Wang and his family annually drive buses of young volunteers from the provincial capital of Lanzhou into the desert to plant and irrigate new trees and bushes.
Their painstaking work to rehabilitate marginal lands has been touted as an inspiration to the rest of the country, and they are the subject of government propaganda posters celebrating their role in retaining the sand.
Over the past four decades, the Three-North Shelter Forest program, a tree-planting program known colloquially as the “Great Green Wall”, has helped bring total forest cover to nearly a quarter of the country. China’s total area, compared to less than 10%. in 1949.
In the remote northwest, however, planting trees isn’t just about meeting the state’s reforestation goals or protecting Beijing. When it comes to making a living on the most marginal farmlands, every tree, bush and blade of grass counts, especially as climate change is pushing up temperatures and putting additional pressure on supply. in water.
“The more the forest grows, the more it eats away at the sand, the better it is for us,” said Wang’s son, Wang Yinji, 53, who has taken over much of the grueling farming and planting. while his father is recovering from an illness.
HOLD THE SAND
In a battered jeep loaded with a water tank and emblazoned with a large Chinese national flag, the Wang family planted the hail “huabang” in the rolling dunes.
The flowering bush known as the sweetvetch has an 80% success rate even in harsh desert conditions and has become a key part of efforts to “hold the sand,” a term used locally for planting bushes and grasses in. regular squares across the slopes of the desert. to prevent sand from drifting into neighboring farmland.
The Wangs have been fighting desertification since settling in arid land near the village of Hongshui in Wuwei, a town in Gansu near the border with Inner Mongolia, in 1980.
Their home is now surrounded by rhubarb plots and rows of pine and blue spruce trees. About 20 bleating goats are locked in a nearby wooden enclosure to prevent them from devouring the precious vegetation.
The family’s four hectares of farmland are protected on one side by a forest planted ten years ago and on the other by a long sandy cliff.
Trees have become an important part of the local economy. Hongshui is dominated by a large commercial state-owned forest estate called Toudunying.
“After 1999, when tree planting gained momentum, things got a lot better,” said Wang Yinji, referring to the state-led reforestation initiative. “Our corn grew. The sand that blew from the east and north-east was stopped.”
Experts say China’s reforestation work has become more sophisticated over the years, with the government benefiting from decades of experience and able to mobilize thousands of volunteers to plant trees, emulating frontline pioneers like the Wangs. .
But the fight is far from over, they add, as climate change is expected to worsen conditions for farmers living in the arid north.
“They have lived in similar conditions for generations,” said Ma Lichao, Chinese national director of the Forest Stewardship Council, a non-profit organization promoting sustainable forest management. “But it’s very important to say that climate change is something very new.”
LAND USE COMPETITION
China plans to increase total forest cover from 23 percent last year to 24.1 percent by 2025, but the steady expansion has masked many underlying issues.
“There has been relatively poor tree survival in some areas and discussions about the depletion of groundwater tables,” said Hua Fangyuan, a conservation biologist who focuses on forests at Peking University in China. .
Struggling to find room for new trees, the government of an administrative division in Inner Mongolia was accused in 2019 of grabbing farmland to meet Beijing’s forest cover targets. Monocultural artificial plantations, such as rubber trees, have also been created to the detriment of natural forests, according to some studies.
“This (the competitive pressure on land use) is a problem not only for China but all over the world,” Hua said. “We are talking about millions of hectares of targets. With population growth, there is going to be competition and tension.”
This competition for land has been reinforced by China’s reliance on government-backed industrial-scale plantations to meet the targets, although it is gradually shifting to a more nature-based approach to reforestation.
One such state-backed forest farm designed to repair the region’s overworked ecosystem is the 4,200-acre Yangguan project on the outskirts of Dunhuang City, which has proven to be controversial. .
Tenants eager to plant lucrative but water-hungry grapes razed large tracts of forest in 2017. In March, a government investigation team found that Yangguan had violated regulations by allowing vineyards to be planted in a protected forest. Villagers were also accused of illegally cutting down trees and the authorities were ordered to reclaim the illegally occupied land.
Estate officials said hundreds of government agency workers in Dunhuang would arrive soon with the goal of planting 31,000 trees on 93 acres of land in just four days. Gradually, surviving vineyards would be replaced by trees, an official said, a move that would affect hundreds of farmers.
“Government and farmers should work together to find a way to make money and make sure water levels are sustainable at the same time,” said Ma of the Forest Stewardship Council.
There are signs that China has learned from the mistakes of the past, when trees were planted – often by spreading seeds from military planes – regardless of existing ecosystems or weather conditions, which means that many don’t have failed to take root.
The government is now more careful with the species it chooses to plant and more inclined to make room for natural forests to expand, rather than creating artificial plantations.
The forestry commission is also planning to rethink its strategy in northwest China to reflect fears that new plantings will put increased pressure on water resources, experts said.
But with local governments under pressure to grow the economy and secure food supplies, tree planting in China could also reach a point of diminishing returns.
“It is getting harder and harder to really increase the rate of forest cover just because there aren’t many places left for large reforestation projects,” Ma said.
Ma said the sandstorms that hit Beijing in March did not mean tree planting had failed, but showed that it would no longer be enough to offset the impact of climate change.
“To be honest, I don’t think trees can improve the situation,” he said.
In a briefing last week, Li Jianjun from China’s National Environmental Monitoring Center said temperatures in Mongolia and Inner Mongolia were 2 to 6 degrees Celsius higher than normal since February, the melt. snow exposing more sand to the wind.
Some Wuwei farmers began to lose hope after decades of trying to master the deserts.
Ding Yinhua, a 69-year-old shepherd, told Reuters that the sandstorms were so severe that sometimes she dared not open her eyes.
Despite tree planting, pastures have deteriorated in recent years due to lower rainfall in spring and summer, she added.
“It’s just not good without rain. We have no land so there is no other solution: we are just herding sheep. In 2015 and 2016 it rained but since then there is There is nothing left, and now we have to wait until September. ” she said.
Her husband, Li Youfu, 71, said he didn’t think planting trees made any difference.
“The sand is still moving. It cannot be controlled,” he said. “When the wind comes, it’s usually very strong. No one can stop it.”
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Reporting by David Stanway, Thomas Suen and Carlos Garcia; Editing by Katy Daigle, Karishma Singh and Ana Nicolaci
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