As they do every March 12, an estimated three million people took up shovels this week to plant saplings, helping to reinforce the man-made ecological barrier known as China’s Great Green Wall. If the plan is completed as scheduled in 2050, trees will cover over 400 million hectares or 42% of China’s landmass, creating arguably the biggest man-made carbon sponge on the planet. Initiated in 1978, the tree belt is supposed to stretch 4,480 kilometres from western Xinjiang to eastern Heilongjiang.
While the forests are designed to stop sand and dust storms, a greater threat comes from an unsustainable demand for wood. As a result, China’s forest quality has declined significantly, diminishing biodiversity and putting extra pressure on woodland overseas to satisfy an appetite for timber that has – until the current economic crisis – grown hugely in the past decade.
The decline of biodiversity is a problem across China. Although tree coverage has increased from 12% to 18% of the nation’s land area, many saplings are planted in semi-desert areas where they deplete water supplies. Life beneath tree canopies is declining because of over-hunting, gathering of funguses and herbs, and the tendency to replace old-growth forests with tracts of fast-growing trees.
“China plants more trees than the rest of the world combined,” says John McKinnon, head of the EU-China Biodiversity Programme. “But the trouble is they tend to be monoculture plantations. They are not places where birds want to live.”
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