Mother Jones


Can a “Green Great Wall” stop sand from devouring the countryside?
China’s “Dune of Death” covers an area larger than Connecticut. The government hopes planting a Green Great Wall of trees will stop deserts from spreading.

THE VIEW from the top of this windblown hill in Duolun County, in China’s Inner Mongolia region, could be described as either profoundly inspiring or deeply strange. For miles around, the earth is dun-colored and dry, stubbled with yellow grass. But the hillsides directly across from me are emblazoned with vast swaths of trees planted in geometric shapes: a square, a circle, overlapping triangles. The flatland below is striped with bands of identical young pines, standing in rigid formation like soldiers on parade.

Zuo Hongfei, the deputy director of the State Forestry Administration’s local “greening office,” directs my attention to a display with photos and satellite images showing how barren this place was just 15 years ago—a desert landscape dotted with spindly trees and shrubs. “See?” he says, pointing to one photo. “The houses were almost buried by sand!”

Duolun, southeast of the Gobi Desert, has always been dry. But decades of overfarming and overgrazing turned vast tracts of it into pure desert. Climate change is partly to blame, but population growth is the main culprit. The number of people in Inner Mongolia has quadrupled in the last half-century, and the number of livestock has increased sixfold. With so many people cutting trees for firewood, so many farms and factories sucking up groundwater, and so many animals chomping grass, the land

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