In the 1960’s, the Chinese landscape underwent massive deforestation as a consequence of the government’s industrial buildup. Loose soil resulting from deforestation allowed the Gobi Desert to expand and created the Taklimaka Desert. The Chinese government realized their mistake in 1978 and quickly embarked on an extensive reforestation campaign known as “The Great Green Wall”. This project set out to add 405 million hectares of new forest, raising the forest area in the world by 10%. However, a lack of proper environmental considerations in “The Great Green Wall’s” early stages actually exacerbated the issue. Only 33% of the trees planted after 1970 as part of the reforestation effort are still alive today. By planting certain pine trees and covering areas with a single species of tree, the government allowed China’s peripheral deserts to expand.
Increasing desertification has threatened nearly 400 million Chinese citizens living on the nation’s agricultural periphery. Communities of displaced “ecological migrants” have sprung up in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia. These communities were set up by Beijing to house those who had to evacuate previously arable land due to expanding deserts. A substantial portion of those directly threatened by encroaching deserts are ethnic minorities, raising concerns about a possible increase in ethnic tensions in peripheral regions. The increase in migrant workers and changing economics have already created an incredibly fragile environment in rural China, as we have read about in Hessler. The additional danger of desertification only servers to exacerbate the fragility of these areas. Arable land losses and questions over water distribution are serious issues Beijing will need to combat or risk instability in its peripheral regions.
The effects of desertification are not felt solely in remote regions in the north and west. As Chinese urban areas continue to grow outward, the deserts become closer to large centers of population. Devastating desert sandstorms in Inner Mongolia have been felt as far away as Beijing. Growing deserts and urban areas are currently on a crash course; the effects of which should prove to be an interesting development as Beijing attempts to bolster their reforestation efforts.