On its western frontiers, a massive afforestation drive to battle the spread of the desert reveals fast-expanding efforts to combat climate change.

As Wang Youde stands perched atop a hill, a sea of sand is all he can see in every direction. Shielding his eyes from the blazing western China sun and the sandy desert winds of the Gobi, Wang points to the edge of an abandoned grassland in the distance. He says he can recall, when growing up in this remote corner in China's far west, a time when farming and grazing still provided a livelihood to the local population. Now, all that is left of a once-thriving community is three abandoned villages and miles of wasteland.

Here on the edge of the Maowusu desert, in China's western Ningxia region, a battle is being waged to prevent its spreading sands from claiming more victims. For almost 25 years, Wang has led the local community's fight to take back its land. More than 57 per cent of Ningxia's land is desert-land, and around 65 per cent of its desert areas are still growing. Locals say the region's rapid and often unregulated development, coupled with overgrazing and changing rainfall patterns, have increased the rate of desertification in many parts of Ningxia.

The situation is similar in other Chinese provinces too, such as nearby Gansu and northern Inner Mongolia. Deserts now stretch across 2.64 million sq.km, or 27 per cent of the country. Ningxia is the site of a struggle whose outcome will have a bearing on the rest of the China's development. At its heart is a question that China's leaders have begun to devote increasing attention to — attention that, for some, is long overdue. Can China contain the spreading environmental crisis that is unfolding across its landscape?

A green shield

“If we don't pay more attention to the ecosystem, life here will get worse and worse,” warns Wang. Since the 1970s, the farmer has led efforts by local villagers to build a “green shield” at the fringes of the Maowusu to contain its spread. Their method was simple, but effective. They planted straw squares in the sand to hold it down, and grew saplings in the squares. Their shield now stretches over 400 sq.km. The spread of the sand has not stopped, but it has begun to slow.

Initially, Wang's efforts received little support from the local government, which, like elsewhere in China, tailored its policies with the sole aim of achieving maximum growth, with little regard for environmental concerns. Now, with the desert's boundaries stretching to within 50 km of Yinchuan, the sprawling provincial capital, the local government has had to take notice. As a result of unregulated growth, the Ningxia government has faced a growing problem of having to relocate hundreds of villages that have been left with wasteland. The government has, in the past decade, begun devoting more financial support to replicate successful grassroots efforts like Wang's, to prevent other villages from sharing the same fate.

Since the late 1990s, Ningxia's efforts have been helped by a central government increasingly aware of an environmental crisis it long chose to ignore.

China has made rapid strides in expanding its programme to combat deforestation and desertification. Since 1999, the government has spent 232 billion yuan (around $33 billion) on afforestation, according to the State Forestry Administration (SFA). This amounts to more than Rs.13,000 crore every year for forestry programmes alone. The SFA says the government has earmarked another 200 billion yuan ($30 billion) for programmes until 2021. With this spending, China has planted 27.7 million hectares, of which nine million hectares was farmland that was returned to woodland, under a programme that subsidises farmers for their land.

Key issue in Cancun

China now adds five million hectares of forest cover every year — five times the area of what India does. China's success has prompted a number of developing countries, India included, to invest more in afforestation programmes as a way to combat climate change and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, since forests work as carbon sinks. Studies say China's forests capture six per cent of its emissions — in India the figure is even higher, at around 11 per cent. Rewarding developing countries for their forestry programmes has emerged as a key issue at this week's climate talks in Cancun. Developing countries hope the talks will help kick-start the stalled REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) mechanism, which calls on developed countries to provide financing to incentivise such projects.

Measuring the effectiveness and benefits of forestry programmes is an issue at the heart of the negotiations, and one which has also stirred heated debate in China. The government has been criticised by environmental groups for pushing forestry drives that emphasise acreage above other concerns, which has led to losses in biodiversity. Angel Hsu, a scholar at Yale University who is studying China's forestry programmes, says the government has now begun to put in place new metrics to include biodiversity as a key measure in future initiatives.

Another problem has been relocating and compensating farmers for their land, though farmers in Ningxia said in interviews most were happy to move considering the poor condition of their farmlands.

Forest mapping

A bigger concern for Ms Hsu is a lack of transparency in how China was mapping its forests — another key issue in Cancun, where Western countries that fund REDD+ are calling for strict criteria for measuring forestry initiatives. “This is a case where transparency will benefit China too, so it can better assess its programmes,” Ms Hsu said. “More transparency will also allow developing countries like India to share lessons, since they face similar developmental challenges of increasing forest cover, while at the same time, dealing with higher urbanisation rates and food security issues.”

For Wang, the nitty-gritty of the negotiations at Cancun means little. But the increasing attention on forestry, has given him more support. The SFA recently announced it had agreed to boost central funding by 20 billion yuan to support eco-forestry development in Ningxia, attaching priority to the region because it was at the front lines of the desertification battle. Wang's programme is now reclaiming 2,000 hectares of lost land every year, he says. “The speed at which the sand is spreading, and the speed of the wind, is lower now,” he observes. But he cautions against any complacency. “The fight against the desert is not over,” he adds. “This is a battle with no end.”

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