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September 7, 2009

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Fighting desert, planting trees and regrowing China's grasslands

Between the vast sky and the boundless earth, flocks and herds appear as the grass bends to the wind." That's how pastoral northern China was described by poet-general Hulu Jin during the Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 420-589).

It vividly depicts the beautiful landscape of the rich pasture: the sky was so blue and the grassland so vast. Herds of cattle and sheep were submerged in the sea of tall luxuriant grass and could only be seen when the grass bent in the wind.

This idyllic scene has virtually disappeared, however, due to over-grazing, over-cultivation, drought and general over-development.

Desert is encroaching, eating up 10,000 square kilometers in China every year, making reforestation and soil conservation a major campaign.

The region of Horqin, once one of the four largest grasslands in China, was the pride of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, but today much of it is desert and sandy soil that is picked up by the wind and blown around Asia.

Moreover, horses and cattle are generally thin, probably due to the insufficient nutrition of limited grass.

During a recent trip to Horqin, I witnessed how green pastures can be reduced to deserts of billowing sand in a short time.

The trip was organized by outdoor performance brand Timberland, which owns the "Timberland Forest" in the region, and Green Network, a Japanese environmental non-profit organization that promotes environmentally friendly practices in the desert and "green" education.

I was among a group of more than 60 people of different backgrounds from Japan, Singapore and China. There were students, office workers, housewives, celebrities and journalists.

According to Green Network officer Takashi Otaki, every year an average of 250 to 300 volunteers visit Horqin to take part in reforestation activities sponsored by Timberland, Hitachi, Fuji Film and other big companies.

Depending on the season, there are many types of greening activities. Planting a tree is just one part. In two days, we were taught by Green Network staff how to trim trees, water them and prevent soil erosion, all important aspects to reforesting the desert.

Our first task was to plant pine saplings in Gabo Desert, a vast land of sand and thin soil with row on row of swelling dunes. Pine trees are usually planted in the rainy season starting in August because they usually require lots of water.

We dug holes with shovels, deposited the saplings (their roots wrapped to keep them from drying out), filled in the holes and watered them in a bucket relay. We formed a human chain, passing the water along to each sapling.

In three hours we planted 950 trees but according to Otaki, only about half of them will survive.

The next day we learned how to prune poplars in Agura Desert. Removing unnecessary lower branches helps ensure survival of the main tree because small branches compete for nutrients and sunlight.

It was an unforgettable experience to walk through the dunes before finally reaching the poplar forest. Although I was fully covered by big sunglasses and a mask, the sand blew into my eyes so much that I could barely find my way. My throat and ears were filled with no time.

Despite the discomfort, it was really satisfying when we left the forest with all the poplar trees trimmed. As the wind combed through the leaves, they seemed to dance happily in some kind of rhythm.

Otaki, a Yokohama native, has been working and living in Horqin ever since he joined Green Network in 2000. The 35-year-old calls Horqin his "second home" and is married to a local woman.

"I'm glad to have witnessed the changes here in the past 10 years," he says. "People and the government have come to realize the importance of protecting their land and the grass."

Locals used to graze animals anywhere. Nowadays, they only graze them in certain places during certain time periods so that the land isn't denuded and exhausted. The government also encourages raising horses and cattle instead of sheep, because sheep eat not just the grass, but its roots.

Despite these measures, the desert is expanding dramatically at 10,000 square kilometers per year, and eroding the quality of life not only for locals but also for people elsewhere in China and even in Japan and other countries.

"In Yokohama, the clothes we hang outdoors are sometimes covered with sand, especially in springtime," Otaki says. "I didn't understand why until I came here, since there is no desert in Japan."

The wind picks up the sand and soil from deforested areas in China, creating migrating dust clouds that pollute the air and cause other problems in China, Japan and other Asian countries.

"At first, I was proud of my job here as I thought I was protecting people from my home country," he continues. "I'm even prouder of myself now because I realized that I'm also protecting the locals as well as the globe itself."

Chiyoko Morita agrees. It is the first time the 54-year-old Tokyo housewife has traveled abroad. She came to Horqin with her daughter, 26-year-old Miho Morita, who learned about the program from the Timberland Website.

"This trip really opened my eyes," says Morita says. "Before I came I didn't understand why trees need to be planted in grasslands, but now I realize the importance of global integration."

"I will write about my experiences in my blog after I return home so more people will learn what's happening here," says Xiao Han Sheng, a 22-year-old college student from Taiwan. He won the trip as a lucky draw winner among Timberland customers in the island province.

Educational trip

"It is highly educational and inspiring," he adds. "I didn't care too much about environmental protection before but now I am definitely more motivated to take care of the environment."

Beijing native Xiao Fei, host of a famous radio show, says she'd like to return next year to see if the trees she planted survive.

"Actually, what we did here in two days is insignificant compared with what the locals have to do 365 days a year to maintain the forests," she says.

For the past decade, Green Network has both planted trees and planted the seeds of environmentalism in locals, especially primary and middle school students.

"Eventually, it's the locals who benefit most," Otaki says. "I've been working really hard to win their trust and belief in what we are doing here. Our work is meaningless if the locals are not interested, no matter how many trees we plant."

Stewart Whitney, vice president and managing director of Timberland Asia Pacific, says that by the end of this year, about 980,000 trees will be planted in the Timberland Forest. The number is expected to reach 1 million by next April.

But remember, only about half will survive.

"We have taken the green initiative and integrated it into our marketing campaign and corporate culture," he says.

"In fact, we built the forest in Horqin back in 2001, five years before we have launched business in China."

Whitney hopes the project will inspire locals, visitors and other companies.

"It would be great if other companies would join Green Network and work alongside of Timberland, as in America where big companies partner with us in community service and re-greening projects," he says.

Beginning this month, there will be display promotions about the event in Timberland stores across Asia.


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