On the edge of China’s vast Gobi Desert, the Wang family are trying to push back the sand…with one tree at a time.
For years, Wang Yinji and his father have been planting fresh shoots in the dunes to turn barren deserts and marshes into farmland and battle against desertification.
(Wang Tianchang, 78, veteran tree planter, singing) "I wanted to control the yellow sand, so I settled down in the desert. For four seasons of the year, I take care of it, like a mother caring for her child."
(Wang Yinji, 53, farmer) "To control the desert is a long battle. As my mother told me: as long as we still have breath, we will plant a tree in the desert. This is my goal. So I don't know when I'll stop.”
In early 2021, a series of heavy sandstorms hit Beijing.
The Chinese capital was shrouded in thick brown dust.
(Flora Zou, Beijing resident) "It looks like the end of the world.”
(Liu Lin, Beijing resident) "It feels a bit like a science-fiction movie."
And it wasn't the first time.
Beijing faces regular sandstorms in March and April due to strong winds blowing in from the Gobi desert,
as well as deforestation and soil erosion throughout northern China.
It's an issue that the government cannot ignore.
To screen Beijing from the sand, the government has designed the Three-North Forest Belt Program,
known colloquially as the "Great Green Wall."
It’s meant to serve as the first line of defense against sandstorms.
Some consider it to be the largest afforestation program in the world,
with plans to plant more than 86 million acres of shelterbelt forests by 2050.
But over in the remote northwest, tree planting is not just about meeting state targets or sheltering cities like Beijing from dust.
For farmers like the Wang family, it’s a matter of survival.
Every morning, the Wangs spend time planting the spindly "huabang," known in English as the sweetvetch.
The yellow flowering bush has an 80% success rate, even in harsh desert conditions.
They’re planted in even squares across the desert slopes...to reduce the amount of sand that can blow into the fields.
(Wang Yinji, 53, Farmer) "We use the squared grass grid to control the sand dune from moving. When the sand is not moving, then the trees will survive. So next time when the wind comes, everything will be fine. See? The sands are locked in here. The sapling gets protected like this. See over there, there's a square that's 1 meter wide, and 1.3 meters wide, to control the sand’s movement. The smaller the square, the better the effect it has on controlling the sand, but of course it comes at a higher cost.”
The 53-year-old says his family have been fighting against the desert since 1980.
Back in the day, growing anything here was nearly impossible due to the drifting sands.
Now, his farm is protected by a forest planted about a decade ago.
He says the green shield allows them to grow corn in the fields.
(Wang Yinji) “My father and mother were very supportive. In the first year, we were only learning and totally lacked any scientific experience. We didn’t get to go to school, so we could only try things out by ourselves. All the trees we planted in the first year got blown away by the wind.”
The long battle against desertification has turned Wang and his family into a local institution.
Their painstaking work to rehabilitate marginal lands has been promoted as an inspiration for the rest of the country.
Every year, they lead busloads of students from the provincial capital of Lanzhou into the desert to plant and irrigate new trees and bushes.
China has long put tree planting at the heart of its environmental efforts.
A 1984 resolution obliges every adult to plant at least three trees a year.
The country's top leaders can be seen on national television participating in the Tree Planting Day every March 12.
Experts say China’s reforestation work has grown more sophisticated over the years.
But the fight is far from over, with climate change and rising temperatures set to make conditions even tougher.
Among the long-suffering farmers of Wuwei, there is a sense that even after decades of trying to subdue the sands, the desert remains unconquerable.
69-year-old Ding Yinhua and her husband Li Youfu have been herding sheep in the desert since 1999.
They say tree planting has made no difference at all.
(Herder Ding Yinhua, 69) "My god, the sandstorm blew for the whole night. It started from 4 p.m. until 11 a.m. the next day. My god, when it was blowing, I couldn't even open my eyes. We didn't herd the sheep that day."
(Herder Li Youfu, 71) "The sand is still moving. This can't be controlled. There's wind from the sky and it's impossible to control. When the wind comes it's usually really strong. No one can stop it."
There are some who agree and fear China’s Great Green Wall can do little to hold back the worst effects of climate change.
Climate analyst Liu Junyan from Greenpeace says the recent rounds of sandstorms show how planting trees is no longer enough.
(Liu Junyan, Greenpeace climate analyst): “Actually climate change is the ultimate reason that underpins more and more severe sandstorms that took place in northern China this year. Extreme warm temperatures, drought and degradation of ecosystems all contributed to the severe sandstorms in the spring. So the ultimate solution to avoid more and more [of this] sort of increasing risk of the sandstorm is tackling climate change, not just planting trees.”
But that won’t deter Wang Yinji from continuing to turn the desert green.
For him, it’s also about fulfilling a promise, one that he made to his son, who passed away from brain cancer when he was 14.
(Wang Yinji, 53, farmer) “He was lying right here on the bed. One night he asked me to come over, he was 14 years old, and he said, ‘You have to turn the desert green otherwise you will fail me and the desert.’ He gave me the courage to keep doing this for 22 years.''
"Now, whenever I see a tree in the desert, I picture my son standing in front of my face, and it gives me confidence. I'm not a great man. I keep planting trees in the desert to fulfil my son's will. I burned my son's body in the desert. I go to sit at my son's grave on New Year's Eve. I'm controlling the desert for my son because he asked me to turn the desert green before he died.”
''I have turned 8,000 to 9,000 acres of sand green. My goal now is to plant 10,000 acres. Then there will be more desert waiting for me.''