The Green Great Wall of China

Great Green Wall of China (三北防护林 – Sānběi Fánghùlín)

Being a true IFEM I guess I should start with something that is forestry AND China related – probably their most famous project – the Green Great Wall of China or the San Bei (三北) Project. So I‘ll tell you guys a bit about it (a lot, actually^^) and what I think of it.

Short overview, even though I’m gonna post you guys some links about the project and other voices, about the project:

So ever since 1978 the Chinese government has not only recognized that cutting off most of their (native) forests was sort of a stupid idea but also decided that something needs to be done about that. If you ask why (especially in the 70s, that’s like 1900 for Europe!) of all the problems the Chinese government has it would pick out this one I tell you cause not having forests where they belong gives you some bad-ass problems. Like erosion. This again affects the amount of money you can make in other areas – like agriculture. But not only that – also desertification itself took place especially around Gobi desert – about 3600 km2 every year even today! So the Sanbei Project was designed to fight off this awful development and led to one of the largest reforestation projects in the world.

Good thing, right? But there has been massive criticism on the way the Chinese people do it and that‘s where I kinda wanna focus on since being in China gives you kinda a new way to look at things.

First and most frequently criticized was the use of large monocultures to fight off desertification, especially white birch and poplar. It is widely known that monocultures don‘t make up the most stable forests and when you‘re fighting a desert you certainly need some stability there. Also this the stability concern is not only a theoretical topic – year after year large parts of the reforested belts die off again because they either couldn‘t handle the climatic conditions (being often non-native, another topic I‘ll be talking about later) or were „bugged“ by pests like Anoplophora glabripennis (Asian long-horned beetle) or Saperda populnea (a kind of longhorn beetle) or even fungi. So in short is there any reason to support monocultures in China?

Let‘s look for a bit of understanding first: Forestry as a discipline virtually didn‘t exist in China before the 70s. Little experience they had and still wanted to convert a huge part of their country back to what it once was – forested. Now Chinese people also don‘t have the kind of connection let‘s say  Germans have (I know, arbitrary example). Forest is made up of trees. Any landscape with trees will do. The end. Even today that attitude is not uncommon (one of these days I‘m gonna do a huge report about our hiking trip in Huang Shan) so monoculture didn‘t seem a bad idea at all – especially with poplar. And to make it especially easy we‘re just gonna use clones since they‘re quite the predictable unit. Zap, boom, the idea of easy afforestation was born and with it its doom. Now remember high quality wood production wasn‘t exactly the goal and poplars grow friggin fast. Growing fast means forming faster a landscape with trees means fixing the problem faster. Poplars are 酷! And for people doing forestry for the first time this certainly seemed like a good idea. Now as many of you know the additional protection deriving from diverse forests is not as obvious with reforestation projects during the first couple of years (like 10 to 20). Here there was no other generation of trees protecting the young trees and while growing due to the homogeneity the monocultures lead to straight and fast growth. With a bit of luck pests aren‘t as bad when trees are young (many prefer a minimum BHD) and the trees draw a lot of their growth from the unused soil and their internal resources so everything looks great. After said 10 or 20 years (u guys kept track? that‘s between 1988 and 1998) you encounter the problems: Insect find the vulnerable forest attractive (and since it‘s like the same plant multiplied by thousands it‘s bound to taste good everywhere), the soil is deprived of (ground) water and nutrients and the now slower growing trees are having problems in general to adapt to a climate they were not created for (north China is friggin dry). So after this period of time you get losses in masses and THEN the world community, not caring earlier with cold war and whatever going on, says „Well, how could you be that stupid in the first place?“ High horse we‘re on, I‘d say. But the more important question is: are they still f*** up like that or have things changed? Or which aspects have changed? And is that good or bad from an IFEM‘s point of view?

Treatment of Catastrophes

So realizing all of the above wasn‘t such a good idea to begin with – remember we‘re in the years between 1988 and 1998 – they did the one smart thing they could do – they demanded external professional knowledge. Partly also from Germany, btw, and the internship I‘m doing is strongly connected to that one smart decision. So what did those joined forces come up with? And why are they still being criticized?

This one has to do with the preferred choices they made based on their problems. Now I know in Germany I also get in a really bad mood when I‘m being confronted with a Scots pine monoculture opposed to a natural beech-whatever mixed forest it could be. So why in the world would I ever support monocultures? Major problem was the time pressure those guys had. Degraded land doesn‘t get any better without being treated and we‘re not talking about some sad grass field instead of a forest but literally in many cases nothing at all. As you can see in the picture about the before and after of such a part of destroyed pre-Gobi land it‘s not only ugly, it‘s vital.

Gobi before and after afforestation

(from “Beiträge zur Wiederbewaldung der Lößhochebene in Nordchina”, Zhou et. al., 1997)

And the only way to stop a desert from spreading is putting up a wall in front of it. It kinda sucks if you wall needs 80 instead of 20 years to grow and in many cases the native plants were those kinds of trees (like oak, I‘d sooo vote for oak usually). This has something to do with ecological succession – basically saying there‘re different kinds of trees while establishing a forest than in an older forest, those pioneer trees being preferably fast-growing and not getting especially old. So in a way it was natural to start with poplar and silver birch even though compared to the potential of the places it still sucked. Furthermore there‘s a reason some species only occur in older forests, they are only competitive in shady environments or cannot deal with the degraded soil right away. This is pretty much my reasoning for accepting those fast-growing species but why support monoculture poplar? As I mentioned earlier the needed to be quick, especially after the epic fail of their first try. Poplar is aside from being fast-growing a species that is quite resilient to all kinds of problems (others like oak wouldn‘t have survived a fraction of what those guys had to deal with) and actually – what a lot of people don‘t know – there‘re quite a few species of poplar naturally occurring in northern China.  So poplar could at least be adapted to the climate – you just have to chose the right species!

This is exactly what they‘re doing right now. Instead of just planting one clone the Chinese people are in fact experimenting with a whole list of possibilities. This is starting with the choice of species and also considers proveniences as much as site conditions (a factor formerly considered but not truly acknowledged). There‘re even first experiments with combinations of species (not necessarily poplar – poplar) to enhance the biodiversity in the region! So while trying new solutions the Chinese stick because of predictability to their old ways of planting one species which is at least not some weird alien clone from hell anymore. They are as a matter of fact trying out combos but they don‘t start large scale. I think especially when reestablishing a forest due to it‘s short lifetime (like 100 years at most), it‘s light crown cover (especially with poplar) and the large interest of the wood industry to harvest it (poplars are good to go anywhere between 10 and 30 years) there‘s a lot of room for „fixing“ those forests – granted the government would invest in such. Habitat for animals remains a problem but so would a second failure due to inexperienced silvicultural approaches. Remember, even today the knowledge about silviculture of mixed forests is very limited in China (heck, it‘s even limited in Germany! That‘s nature for you!) and messing up twice is not good. Creating mixed forests can be a science itself – especially if you wanna draw value from your wood and that becomes more important the less individuals of the same sort you got standing in your forest.

Since multiple adapted species are used the danger from pests is greatly reduced. However, especially while dealing with climate change we need to move fast. The Sanbei Project would have to include a whole, huge chapter on how to transform the forests that are 30 or 40 years old now when they‘re writing the exact manual for the second part till 2050. I do understand priorities but I doubt most poplar monocultures – no matter the species – can withstand the rapidly changing environment without some healthy mixture in there. Right now we need to do small-scale testings and a deepened knowledge about how to transform the forests. Or places with similar experience we can learn from so at least some mistakes could be avoided in the first place. However, I do think China is on a good way and there is no reason to go all off about it being monocultures – with what, please did Germany start when we reforested? Right, spruce, not the most diverse forests originated from that, either, and just because we have forests now in Germany and can start transforming them doesn‘t mean everybody‘s there, yet. There is a lot less danger involved under an already established forest than on a desert. Given it has the will to transform those forests this program actually sounds not so bad – only ugly. But then again Chinese people here will start caring in maybe 20 years…

Other opinions

As final remarks some quotes and my comments from the two articles which links I posted below to set things straight (at least as I see them):

„Even though they were being planted in a semi-arid region where historically grassy steppe prevailed, the trees appeared to be a suitable choice…over years or decades the plantings have tended to eventually deplete local soil moisture and die en masse simply because the planted species “are not native to the region, and don’t tolerate local conditions.”

There might really be areas where an establishment of forests is hardly possible. However, grassy steppe is not as effective in battling desertification and there are actually some poplar species from other regions often even drier which can make it. On top of that like we said they used bad unadapted species to begin with, could they really know? But I do agree that if it obviously failed because no tree could ever meet the requirements of the soil (often also salinization) establishment of grass fields should be tried.

„Meanwhile, their limbs and leaves tend to form a tight canopy so shady that it also hampers photosynthesis by smaller plants on the forest floor.“

Huh, I wonder what kinds of trees they‘re talking about. Poplar‘s crown cover isn‘t that shady, though it can seem pretty bad when they‘re young since the close planting patters just create less room for light. But as I said either wait till the forest will be enhanced with other species or don‘t plant as tightly to begin with. That will slow down growth but may increase overall stability which is the goal, anyways. Poplars in general should be able to deal with a little bit of space.

„He also pointed out that plantation forests tend to be driven by commercial considerations.“

Yes but those are NOT their main concern. China can‘t supply itself with enough wood anyways and has already established a logging ban in many forests so I don‘t think that‘s why they‘re doing it but the above reasons. Also wood quality tends  to be kinda crappy in dry, depleted regions so the margin isn‘t that high to begin with.

„One of the first of the proposed projects would reforest more than 10,000 acres of severely degraded former forest lands in five counties in Sichuan province, …“

If you ask me mountain forests are special. Neither are they easily accessible nor economically interesting (at least for big timber companies). That means you kinda wanna do a good job and if it messes up it was an additional income for the people. Perfect playground for those so-called test-runs. I strongly support doing those there also because animals tend to go there since more mountain also often means less human. Hopefully what we learn there can be applied to the poplar grounds in the normal belt.

„They argue that the Great Green Wall has contributed to a significant decline in China’s forest quality. In many of the newly planted forests, few animals thrive, some experts explain.“

Ehm, ok, compared to only natural forests (basically the only thing still standing in China) the OVERALL – or average – forest quality will be reduced. But compared to desert it‘s a way better environment, right?

„The study found that areas where natural forests are replaced by reforestation – called plantations – do not actually help control carbon emissions, and that converting farmland to forests decreases the amount of carbon absorbed by the soil.“

Ok, this article is seriously stupid. Yes, it‘s bad shit if natural forests get replaced by plantations but the Green Great Wall is all about establishing forests, not changing them! Same should go for farmland, though I‘m not sure about that. However, the amount of carbon stored in the soil will never surpass the amount of carbon stored in a tree – especially if we‘re talking about severely degraded lands! So planting forests there will definitely increase the overall carbon storage – period.

Now I could make more remarks, be more detailed or more scientific. I‘m not cause it‘s late and I‘ve been sitting on this (friggin long) article for too long. Feel free to judge me but then per pm – just send it to But don‘t be hateful or imma start crying (and put you as spam) 😉

See ya,


P.S.: Here are the links:


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