In a major geoengineering effort to fight back against ever-encroaching desert, China is planting trees to create a “Great Green Wall” that may halt erosion, capture carbon, and provide economic benefits to the People’s Republic. By 2050, the nation of nearly 1.5 billion people aims to plant 88 million acres of woodland in an area that stretches 3,000 miles long and up to 900 miles wide. If successful, China’s reforestation project could serve as a guide for the countries of the 250 million people worldwide threatened by desertification.

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Tree Planting, Gobi Desert, Trees Gobi Desert

The vast arid land of China, which includes the historic Gobi Desert, encompasses up to 27 percent of the country’s land, and that number is growing. By 2006, nearly 1,000 square miles, an increase of 400 square miles since the 1950s, of usable land was being consumed by the desert. Desertification in China causes dust and sandstorms that contribute to poor health outcomes, the crippling of transportation routes, and economic losses, which are estimated to be in the billions of dollars every year.

Related: The Great Green Wall of Africa could fight desertification and poverty

The results of the project, which began in 1978, have been mixed. On the one hand, the project has provided financial stability to many previously impoverished communities located in the prospective Great Green Wall region. Government investment in infrastructure surrounding the project has also aided regional development. The Chinese government claims that the project has already yielded a decrease in sandstorms, stabilized acres of desert, and even increased precipitation.

Tree Planting, Gobi Desert, Trees Gobi Desert

Others are more skeptical. “When it’s profitable, people tell lies,” said Cao Shixiong, a professor at Minzu University of China.  “I thought it was a very good way to combat desertification,” said Cao. However, in light of some estimates that up to 86 percent of the trees planted as part of the project have died, Cao changed his mind. “I realized it’s because of policy. We were choosing the wrong place to plant trees.”

Researchers are also concerned that importing ill-suited trees into the fragile ecosystem may yield disastrous consequences in the future. “For the past 1,000 years, only shrubs and grass have grown in those areas. Why would they think planting trees would be successful?” said Sun Qingwei, a former Chinese Academy of Sciences desert researcher who now works for the National Geographic Society. “It’s not sustainable. Investing money in trees that are not supposed to be there is kind of crazy.” Time will tell if the Great Green Wall is as enduring as its stone-and-brick namesake.

Via Mother Jones

Lead image via Deposit photos, others via People’s Daily Online, Vaiz Ha/Flickr, and Christopher Michel/Flickr