Villagers fight on the front line in battle against desertification
Central government recruits farmers to plant trees in a bid to reverse the trend
Standing beside a waist-high pine tree on a lifeless mountain known as Dunan, in Hebei province , villager Zhang Zhenku said his tree-planting job paid nearly 40 yuan a day.
Mr Zhang, a 52-year-old Wanquan county farmer, begins work at 7am and can often plant more than 10 trees before the sun sets. The digging, tending and watering was not much different from working in a corn field, he said, and the salary was attractive enough that most of those still in his village were taking part.
He said he earned more than his 20-year-old daughter, who works as a waitress at a Beijing restaurant.
Mr Zhang is one of the frontline troops enlisted by the central government to fight desertification and sandstorms that have reached a scale and speed the world has never seen.
Officials said this area had been arid and barren for many decades, but the old farmer, pointing at the chocolate-coloured landscape with its eroded ridges, said things were quite different not long ago.
'We did not know what a sandstorm was in 1990. These mountains and the ravines in between were full of trees, big trees, all kinds of trees - poplars, apricots and willows. So the weather was different. We never had a drought. It rained often. We even had some creeks,' he said.
'But in the 1990s people and trucks moved in. They chopped down all the trees in a couple of years. Only a few growing in our village were saved.
'Today, we need to pump from a well more than 100 metres deep, and its water level keeps dropping year after year. We don't have enough water for our crops. It's too expensive ... we have nothing left but dust.'
In 2000, 12 sandstorms hit Beijing, three times more than the average for the 1990s. Astonished, Beijing sent a team of geologists to identify the source of the storms and the scientists quickly discovered some denuded areas as the key sources of the dust and sand.
Wanquan county, about 200km northwest of Beijing, is one of them.
That year, the central government launched the 'Jing-Jin programme'. The aim was to create nearly 5 million hectares of forest and more than 10 million hectares of grassland in 75 counties across five provinces - all within a decade.
Kang Chengfu, deputy forestry director of Zhangjiakou city, said tens of thousands were employed by the Wanquan county.
He said that within a couple of years, the county's farmers had planted 1.1 million pine trees on 733 hectares of land. The county also requires every resident between 18 and 60 to plant more than three trees each year.
'The county is poor. They receive tens of millions yuan from the central government to plant trees every year. Local people's incentive is high ... I am optimistic targets can be reached.'
With an estimated total investment of 56 billion yuan, by last year the Jing-Jin programme had replanted 7,682,000 hectares of land - more than 7 million soccer fields.
The latest data suggest that more than 18 per cent of the mainland is desert, costing the country over 50 billion yuan a year in economic losses and affecting nearly 400 million people.
An area about twice the size of France has been targeted for revegetation and government sources say they are seeing results.
More than 4.8 million hectares of denuded land has been revegetated since 2000, government figures show, and the quantity of sand and mud carried by major rivers has been decreasing over the years.
State Forestry Administration spokesman Cao Qingyao said that in recent years, mainland deserts had been retreating at a rate of 128,300 hectares annually.
He said three sandstorms had hit the country this spring, but none had originated in China, and their severity was low compared with the past.
'Our efforts are paying off, and our achievement has been recognised by the world,' Mr Cao said.
But government officials and experts recognise that the recent success is incomplete and fragile.
Bai Jianhua , of the National Bureau to Combat Desertification, said the government was shifting its focus from quantity to quality because of some major problems in finished projects.
She said a lack of biodiversity in most artificial forests was causing ecological imbalances, making trees vulnerable to pests.
The red turpentine beetle, an insect that causes little harm in natural woodlands, killed more than 6 million pine trees and destroyed half a million hectares of artificial forest in 2000, nearly half of the forest planted annually.
'We have realised the problem in recent years, and begun to plant a mixture of tree, shrub and grass species together in our new projects,' Ms Bai said. She said limited funding in earlier projects resulted in quality problems.
'More than half of the counties participating in the Jing-Jin programme are below the national poverty level. When local officials with tight budgets receive an order from the central government, they naturally try to meet the quota with as little expenditure as possible.'
She said success depends on raising the income of people in areas lost to deserts. 'When income increases, they are willing to improve their living environment. That's the most effective quality control,' Ms Bai said.
'The fight against desertification is a fight against poverty.'