By: Graham Land

After China was hit by devastating floods along the Yangtze River basin in 1998 that drowned more than 4,000 people and made 15 million homeless, government officials put in place what is by far the world’s biggest tree planting operation in an attempt to slow desertification, flooding and other problems.

The program came in the form of two nationwide initiatives, the Natural Forest Protection Program and the Returning Farmland to Forest Program, also known as “Grain-for-Green” and “Sloping Land Conversion.” It was none too soon. According to data from Greenpeace, only 2 percent of China’s original forests remain intact while only 0.1 percent of forestland is officially protected. Deforestation has resulted in massive biodiversity loss and is being blamed for everything from mudslides to heavy pollution in Beijing.

The situation is similar in different parts of Asia, including developing giants like India and Indonesia. Environmentalists say recent flooding and landslides in Java, which killed at least 19 people, were exacerbated by deforestation.

Both China and India have programs to reforest and “re-green” areas that have been damaged by the clearing away of primeval forests, though China’s is by far the largest. China’s “Great Green Wall” aims to stop the encroaching deserts by planting an astonishing amount of trees.

In Shaanxi Province the program converted 571,000 hectares of farmland and 427,000 hectares of wasteland into forest or grass between 1999 and 2002, according to a study by Edouard Vermeer for Cambridge University Press. Another 280,000 hectares of farmland and the same expanse of wasteland were converted in 2003. The World Bank called attention to the program, saying China is one of the few countries on earth that is increasing its forest cover

Through creating the largest man-made forest in the world the Communist Party says that it has already succeeded in covering 20 percent of the country in forestland. Its goal is to have China 42 percent forests by 2050. It would seem that China’s biggest — and most internationally unsung — weapon against climate change is planting trees.

Ordinary citizens have planted some 56 billion trees across China in the last decade, according to government statistics quoted in The Guardian. In 2009 alone, China planted 5.88 million hectares of forest. Former U S Vice President and Nobel Prize winner Al Gore has said China plants two and a half times more trees every year than the rest of the world combined. He called the endeavor “the largest tree-planting program the world has ever seen.”

Despite its successes, critics have questioned the Great Green Wall because of environmental disadvantages too, such as poor biodiversity and heavy water use. Some studies even show that creating new forests is not an effective way to absorb carbon or mitigate climate change.

While large national projects like the Great Green Wall double as propaganda tools for the Chinese government, results differ on the local level, as a piece on reforestation in southwest China for China Dialogue explains. The program has run into problems on the part of farmers who rebel when the new tree crops don’t produce income commensurate with crop losses, and in some places planting simply hasn’t taken off because of poor planting programs, or other issues. Nonetheless, overall the reforestation program is an astonishing example of what a government can do once it gets motivated.

An effort to halt the growth of the Kubuqi desert in the province of Inner Mongolia is actually run by a former South Korean ambassador to China-turned environmental activist, Byong Hyon Kwon.

According to an article in the Kuala Lumpur-based newspaper The Star, Kwon founded Future Forest, a non-profit organization, to combat desertification in 2001. As ambassador to China from 1998 to 2001, he had experienced firsthand sandstorms known as the Yellow Dragon, which thicken the skies over Beijing with dust and send people with asthmatic lungs and weak hearts to the hospital. He became convinced that if action wasn’t taken, the march of sand would threaten the viability of the Asian continent.

Kwon and Future Forest plan on growing a 15 km (9-mile) 800 meter-wide band of dense greenery to stop the desert’s eastward march. With its meager $1 million US budget, Future Forest has already managed to plant 6.2 million trees over the past eight years.

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Kubuqi Desert, Inner Mongolia. Photo by omefrans/Flickr
(Graham Land blogs for The Asian Correspondent)