From the top of a certain windblown hill in Duolun county, in China’s Inner Mongolia province, the view could be described as either profoundly inspiring or deeply strange. For miles around, the terrain is dun-coloured, dry, sandy desert stubbled with yellow grass. But the cluster of hillsides closest to the one I found myself standing on in the spring of 2016 were emblazoned with enormous, carefully configured swatches of green trees.

They were planted to form geometric shapes: a square, a hollow-centred circle, a set of overlapping triangles. The flatland below them was striped with ruler-straight bands of young pine trees, all the same height, standing in formation like soldiers ready for battle.

Revitalising China’s Kubuqi Desert

Zuo Hongfei, the cheery deputy director of the local “greening office” of China’s State Forestry Administration (SFA), eagerly pointed to an 80-foot-long display showing how barren this part of Duolun county was just 15 years ago, before a massive greening campaign installed millions of trees across the land. Photos and satellite images show it was largely desert, dotted here and there with spindly trees and shrubs. “See?” said Zuo, pointing out a picture of an old man and a young girl in front of a low dwelling half swamp­ed by dunes. “The houses were almost buried by sand!” [...]

The sand lands that cover about 18 per cent of China have expanded rapidly. By 2006, they were devouring usable land at a rate of almost 1,000 square miles per year [...] up from 600 square miles per year in the 1950s.

That’s a problem not only for the people living in those areas, but also for the many millions more who live close enough to deserts to be affected by the movements of sand. Migrating dunes threaten farm fields and even whole villages. Stretches of roads and railways are con­stantly shut down by blown sand. Sandstorms regularly blow tens of thousands of tonnes of sand and dust into Beijing and other cities, snarling traffic and creating a vicious health hazard. The World Bank has estimated that desertification costs the Chinese economy some US$31 billion per year.

This is an issue that goes far beyond China. According to the United Nations, desertification directly affects 250 million people worldwide, including in parts of the United States. Sand is slowly burying the once-flourishing Malian town of Araouane, on the edge of the Sahara desert. In 2015, a massive sandstorm blanketed Lebanon and Syria, killing 12 people and sending hundreds to hospitals with respira­tory problems. And particles from dust storms in China have clouded the air as far away as Colorado.

Deserts have always advanced and retreated over the centuries, driven by large-scale shifts in atmospheric and geologic condi­tions. But what’s happening in our time is different. It’s not that the world’s deserts are spreading like some aggressive disease; rather, the land surrounding them is drying out.

Climate change, by raising temperatures and reducing soil moisture, is partly to blame. But the main culprits are people. Lots of people. The population of Inner Mongolia, where much of China’s desert lies, has quadrupled in the past 50 years to more than 20 million, mostly thanks to ethnic Han Chinese moving into the area. Those people cut trees for firewood and draw groundwater to irrigate farm­land and run heavy industries. The number of live­stock has also grown six fold, and those animals eat a lot of grass.

We can probably go on for another five years, possibly 10, but after that, it’s simply not an option to go on losing land at the present rate [...] Every minute, 23 hectares of land are lost to drought and desertification
Louise Baker, senior adviser, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification

As underground aquifers get depleted, the land dries up. Without plant roots to anchor it and moisture to weight it, topsoil blows away, leaving behind only pebbles and sand. Which means that at the same time that we’re running out of the sand we need for construction, we’re generating more of the kind we don’t [desert sand is largely useless when it comes to building cities].

“We can probably go on for another five years, possibly 10, but after that, it’s simply not an option to go on losing land at the present rate,” Louise Baker, a senior adviser to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, told a British newspaper [this year]. “Every minute, 23 hectares of land are lost to drought and desertification. The global popula­tion is already 7 billion, and by 2050 it’s projected to reach 9 billion. We need to produce more food, but the area of productive land is going down every year.”

Duolun county, which lies at the southern edge of the Gobi Desert, has always been a dry place. But during the past century, decades of overfarming and overgrazing desiccated huge areas of it into pure desert. By 2000, 87 per cent of its total area was sand land. The situation was so dire that in 2000, Chinese premier Zhu Rongji visited the area and declared, “We must build green barriers to block sand.”

And so they did. In the first 15 years of this century, the government planted millions of pine trees all over Duolun county. More are put in the ground every spring. Zhu’s “green barriers” aren’t just blocking the sand; they’re forcing it to retreat. By now, according to official Chinese statistics, 31 per cent of Duolun’s land is forested. The total would be even higher but for some missteps in the early years of the project, says Zuo, the county greening officer. Huge numbers of fast-growing poplars were planted, but most of them died. “We had poor knowledge then,” says Zuo. “We found they needed too much water.”

Duolun’s afforestation project is just a tiny sliver of a project of bedazzling scale unfolding across the country. China is building a new Great Wall – this one aimed not at repelling invading Mongols, but a more insidious menace from the northern drylands. This wall is being built not of stone but of trees – billions of trees, enough to stretch nearly the distance from San Francisco to Boston. Its purpose: to push back China’s vast deserts.

The project, officially dubbed the Green Great Wall, was launched in 1978, and is slated to continue until 2050. It aims to plant some 88 million acres of protective forests, in a belt nearly 3,000 miles long and as wide as 900 miles in places. Prompted by China’s ever-worsening environmental conditions, the government has added a handful of other major afforestation projects in more recent years. It all adds up to what is easily the biggest tree-planting project in human history.

The results so far have been splendid – at least accord­ing to the Chinese government. Thousands of acres of moving dunes that threatened farmers’ fields and villages have been stabilised. The frequency of sandstorms nation­wide fell by one-fifth between 2009 and 2014. And though deserts continue to spread in some areas, the SFA, the government agency that oversees the main tree-planting programmes, claims that on balance it has not only stopped but even begun to reverse the deserts’ expansion.

It’s heartening to see a nation famous for its warp-speed industrialisation and world-beating levels of pollution undertaking such a colossal effort to make their nation green. But many scientists in China and abroad say the actual results are unimpressive at best and disastrous at worst.

Many of the trees, planted in areas where they don’t grow naturally, simply die after a few years. Those that survive can soak up so much precious groundwater that native grasses and shrubs die of thirst, causing more soil degradation. Meanwhile, the government has forced thousands of farmers and herdsmen to leave their lands to make way for the desert-fighting projects [...]

Battles loom over water, not oil, desertification forum told

China is not the first country to try shoring up degraded lands with man-made forests. In the 1930s, the US govern­ment under President Franklin D. Roosevelt planted some 220 million trees in a largely successful effort to block the dust storms blighting many central American states. [Leader of the Soviet Union] Joseph Stalin launched a similar effort in the 1940s, planting more than 10,000 square miles of steppe land with trees; almost all of them were dead within 20 years.

Algeria tried planting a 930-mile “green dam” in its southern desert in the 1970s, with lacklustre results. And today in Africa, 11 countries are fitfully trying to create a continent-wide green barrier similar to China’s to hold back the spreading Sahara. As in China, the problem is largely driven by demography: the population of the Sahel, the semi-arid region bordering the Sahara, has more than quintupled in the past 60 years.

But nothing touches the scale of China’s sylvan crusade. Practically since the Communist Party took power in 1949, it has promoted tree planting as a righteous cause, even a civic duty. Tree planting kicked into overdrive with the launch of the Green Great Wall in 1978, the same year Beijing began opening up the Chinese economy. Since the project’s inception, Chinese citizens have planted billions of trees, foresting an area larger than California.

One major reason China has been able to get so many trees in the ground so fast is the same reason it has been able to open so many factories so fast: by freeing people to make money. Rather than relying on revolutionary ideal­ism, the government now pays villagers to plant trees. In some places, the government also leases their land for afforestation. Entrepreneurs cultivate and sell seedlings to the government, and harvest mature trees for lumber. According to Chinese statistics, all of this has reduced pov­erty in many areas. It has also made a few people very rich.

Wang Wenbiao is one of those people. He grew up in a village on the edge of Inner Mongolia’s vast Kubuqi Desert, adjacent to but not technically part of the Gobi Desert, in a family of farmers so poor he and his siblings were allotted one new set of clothes per year. They were on the front lines facing the adversary of sand. Wind constantly blew grains into their bed and onto their food. “Two words were very important in my childhood,” says Wang. “Sand and poverty.”

Sand is still an important part of Wang’s life, but the poverty is long gone. These days, he runs a multibillion-dollar corporation that aims to not only help hold back the desert, but also make a profit from it.

I met Wang one spring morning in the sleek Beijing headquarters of Elion Resources Group, the putatively environmentally beneficent enterprise he heads. The vibe was imperial. Wang is a mirthless, heavyset, middle-aged man, his thick hair swept back off his broad forehead. He was seated in a white leather chair in front of a mural depicting waterfalls and forests. Arrayed around him on more white chairs were me, my interpreter, a company PR rep taking notes on everything, and another aide who chimed in frequently to reinterpret how my interpreter had interpreted Mr Wang’s declarations.

Wang got his start at age 29, when he was appointed head of a salt and mineral mine in the Kubuqi Desert, in northeastern China. Sand bedevilled him from his first day on the job. “A jeep took me to the mine, but it got stuck in the sand outside the gate,” he recalled. “Rather than give me a proper welcome, the workers had to come and help me get out.”

Sand and transport, Wang realised, were his biggest problems. There was no direct road from the factory to the outside world. The salt field sat only 37 miles from a railway station, but reaching it required a 200-mile detour. With funding from the local government, Wang set to work building new roads and planting trees and shrubs along­side them to keep the sand from inundating them. By now the company has planted 30 per cent of the Kubuqi Desert – some 2,300 square miles – a feat that has earned it recog­nition from the United Nations.

The barriers kept the roads passable, and the salt factory’s business boomed. Wang’s company branched out into other industries, including chemicals and coal power plants. Today it employs more than 7,000 people. It is now seeking to rebrand itself as an eco-friendly enterprise, sing­ing a song sure to please the ears of modern investors con­cerned about the environment. The company runs power fields, cultivates licorice and other desert plants prized in traditional Chinese medicine, and claims to bring thou­sands of ecotourists to the Kubuqi every year. Elion has also become a major contractor for the Green Great Wall, instal­ling instant forests from the western deserts to an area north of Beijing that will host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

“Green land and green energy,” says Wang. “That will be our future direction.” When pressed, though, he acknowl­edges that about half of the company’s US$6 billion in annual revenues still come from “traditional” industries, including chemical production and coal power plants.

Elion’s flagship project is its tree-planting campaign in the Kubuqi Desert. The word “desert” is often used loosely, a judgmental label slapped on a whole range of low-moisture drylands. The Kubuqi is not your American Southwest, Palm Springs-type desert, drylands bedizened with cactus, creosote and Joshua trees. The Kubuqi is mostly sand, and nothing but sand.

Twenty-eight years ago, there was only about 70 millimetres of rainfall. In recent years it has reached 400 millimetres. We changed the ecosystem
Wang Wenbiao, chairman, Elion Resources Group

A trip along one of the Elion-built roads through it was surreal, almost dreamlike. The road was a ribbon of smooth asphalt lined on both sides with orderly ranks of stubby pine trees and slender poplars, spears of green sticking straight up out of the sand. Elion billboards in Chinese and English popped up every couple of miles trumpeting eco-corporate-Communist slogans: “Promoting EcoCivil­isa­tion”; “Green Desert – Beautiful China”; “Ecology brings benefits, green brings prosperity”. Most of the trees were no taller than a fifth grader; the bulk of them have been planted only during the past few years. Past those belts of green, as far as the eye could see there was nothing but barren, rolling sand dunes.

The road eventually led to the company’s palatial, dome-topped “Seven Star Kubuqi Hotel”. It was surrounded by carefully irrigated rows of poplars and swathes of green grass, with a fountain out front. The hotel grounds include, improbably, a golf course. When a hotel staff member spotted my photographer Ian Teh out there one day, he hurried out and demanded Teh delete his pictures.

How can a desert sustain so many trees, let alone a golf course? Where does all the water come from? “Every­one asks this question,” replied Wang with a gruff fraction of a smile. The trees use only a tiny amount of the region’s under­ground water, he claimed; the most important factor is that the company has literally made it rain. Increased evaporation from all the new plants has made the climate more humid, Wang declared. “Twenty-eight years ago, there was only about 70 millimetres of rainfall. In recent years it has reached 400 millimetres,” said Wang. “We changed the ecosystem.”

When there’s profit at stake, people tell lies. The central government gives out billions of yuan every year for tree planting. So there are many companies that want to take part. They’re not concerned with the environment, but with profit
Cao Shixiong, researcher, Beijing Forestry University

I asked several independent Chinese and international researchers about this claim. All of them were sceptical. Planting an area that large might increase humidity and rainfall to some extent, they agreed, but to more than quad­ruple it? “Sounds like bulls*** to me,” said Mickey Glantz, a University of Colorado researcher who has been studying deserts in China and around the world for 40 years.

Cao Shixiong, a lean researcher at Beijing Forestry University, has a simple explanation. “When there’s profit at stake, people tell lies. The central government gives out billions of yuan every year for tree planting. So there are many companies that want to take part. They’re not concerned with the environment, but with profit.”

­Cao used to be a believer. He spent 20 years working on SFA tree-planting projects in Shaanxi province. “I thought it was a very good way to combat desertification,” he said. But his trees never survived for long. “I realised it’s because of policy. The problem is, we were choosing the wrong place to plant trees.”

Cao and most critics of the tree-planting campaign acknowledge that it has benefited some areas. But those benefits, they argue, are localised and may not last. In some ways, they may even be making things worse.

It’s true, for instance, that sandstorms have decreased around Beijing in recent years, a welcome development for which some researchers credit the Great Green Wall. Other experts, however, say that change may be at least partly because there has been more rain in northwestern China over the past several years, which keeps dust down and makes more plants grow naturally.

“Nobody knows how much is because of the government and how much is natural,” said Shen Xiaohui, a retired SFA engineer. “But you know the government will claim it’s all because of them.”

It is also undeniable that billions of trees have been planted in formerly barren areas, and in some places those artificial forests are thriving – stabilising and enriching the soil and generally making those areas more liveable. But huge numbers of them have also died. Some fell prey to the arid environment, some to diseases and pests that spread rapidly through the mono-cultural artificial forests. In 2000, a beetle infestation in north-central China wiped out 1 billion poplars, the fruits of two decades of planting.

You can succeed in the short term by pumping ground­water, but it’s not sustainable. Investing money on trees that are not supposed to be there is kind of crazy
Sun Qinqwei, National Geographic Society’s China Programme

The most serious concern is that all those newly planted trees will suck up the desert’s precious groundwater. That’s what’s keeping millions of them alive at this point. In Duolun county, Zuo Hongfei assured me, this is not a prob­lem, because the area naturally gets enough rain to sustain the drylands-adapted trees they’ve been careful to plant.

But research suggests it is already happening in other, drier parts of China. Ultimately, that could cause not only the trees but also whatever smaller plants grew there naturally to die of thirst, leaving the land in worse shape than ever.

“For the past thousand years, only shrubs and grass have grown in those areas. Why would you think planting trees would be successful?” asked Sun Qinqwei, a former research­er at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Desert Research Institute who now works for the Washington, DC based National Geographic Society’s China Programme. “You can succeed in the short term by pumping ground­water, but it’s not sustainable. Investing money on trees that are not supposed to be there is kind of crazy.”

Before my academic career, I thought science was just science. But science is nothing when facing politics
Cao Shixiong

So what’s the bottom line? Is the Green Great Wall hurting or helping? It’s hard to know. The effects of such a large and complex change to the environment can take years, even decades to manifest. In the meantime, consider­ing the enormous scope of these programmes, good data is startlingly scarce. As a 2014 study of China’s major tree-planting programmes by a group of American and Chinese scientists concluded, “the extent to which the programmes have changed local ecological and socioeconomic condi­tions are still poorly understood, as local statistics [...] are often not available or unreliable”. Another study, by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Beijing Normal Univer­sity, adds: “Although numerous Chinese researchers and government officials have claimed that the afforestation has successfully combated desertification and controlled dust storms, there is surprisingly little unassailable evidence to support their claims.”

Factor in also that, for Chinese researchers at least, criticising a pet project of the autocratic government car­ries real risks. Cao says that is the reason he has not been able to get any outside research money for the past five years. “Before my academic career, I thought science was just science,” he said. “But science is nothing when facing politics.”

On the other hand, bureaucrats and researchers con­nect­ed to the SFA all have plenty of reason to declare the Great Green Wall a roaring success. “There are stake holders all along the chain,” said Sun. “There are State Forestry Administration bureaucrats in every province and county. They get a lot of money for planting trees.” Considering that the SFA is tasked with both planting millions of trees and assessing whether it’s a good idea to plant millions of trees, you can understand why outsiders are sceptical of their findings.

A few miles from the Duolun county hilltop with the view of all those new trees lies a settlement called New Granary Village. It’s a grim assemblage of small, cookie-cutter brick houses lining a grid of bare dirt streets, most of them unrelieved by so much as a blade of grass. It calls to mind less a village than a long-term refugee camp, which, in a sense, it is.

New Village was built early in this century to house some of the 10,000-plus local farmers who have been forced to relocate to get them out of the way of the SFA’s new trees. They are some of the hundreds of thou­sands of mostly Mongol, Kazakh and Tibetan farmers and herders whom the Chinese government has forced to move off the grasslands and into urban areas, leaving their traditional way of life behind. Officially, this is to reduce overgrazing. Many believe it’s also a land grab to free up water and other resources for Han Chinese businesses. In some places, the herders have resisted with violent protests.

“We didn’t want to move, but we were forced to. They would have demolished our home if we had stayed,” said Wang Yue, a sinewy 65-year-old with a resigned air. He was born and raised just a few miles away, in a now-vanished village where his family had lived for generations. He has a decent house in New Granary Village – a couple of rooms with a platform to sleep on, a coal stove to cook on, and windows looking out on a tiny courtyard. But he lost his land when he moved. “Life was better in the old village,” he said. “Here we have to buy oats to feed the animals. We used to just let them graze.” He ekes out a living now doing odd jobs, but at his age, it’s getting difficult. His wife is dead, and his two daughters have moved away. He said he has never received the government subsidies he was promised, a complaint I heard from several others in New Granary Village.

“They lied to us,” he said. “Tree planting is making some officials rich, but we lost so many things.”

Desert sands and their own government combined to force Wang and his neighbours from the rural villages of their ancestors into an urban-style settlement. That’s a story specific to Inner Mongolia. But the experience of migrating from a rural village to something resembling a city is one he shares with hundreds of millions of people. That migration is rapidly reshaping our world, in ways that are forcing humans to rely ever more heavily on [...] sand.

Fromby Vince Beiser, published by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Vince Beiser