How Wine Grapes Are Uprooting Trees in China’s Green Great Wall

Springtime, and grape grower Hao Ling and her husband are busy digging the mounds of sandy soil that protected their vines during the long, cold winter of the Gobi Desert. It’s a busy season for the couple, who have been growing wine grapes here for 15 years, but this time they are preoccupied with another matter: their 2.8 acre vineyard may be destroyed by the Chinese government.

They rent the land from Yangguan Forestry Farm, which hit the headlines in China after local media accused the state-owned company of allowing hundreds of acres of forest to be illegally felled and replaced by vineyards—trees that were part of the so-called Green Great Wall designed to hold back the desert.  

It’s the old struggle in China between a central government imposing grand plans to meet a long-term national agenda and local officials trying to maximize revenue to meet the goals of the latest five-year plan. But in this case the conflict goes much deeper, embracing some of the nation’s most intractable structural problems as it tries to undo decades of environmental degradation, curb the world’s worst emissions and stem an unrelenting migration to overcrowded eastern cities.

This particular episode began as far back as 1963, when Yangguan Forestry Farm was established on about 1,900 acres of land in one of China's first afforestation projects. It’s location was hardly promising. The trees were planted near Dunhuang, an ancient oasis on the Silk Road famous for its Caves of a Thousand Buddhas, sandwiched between the Kumtag Desert in Xinjiang and the shifting sands of the Gobi in Gansu. When China launched its Green Great Wall in the 1970s (officially called the Three-North Shelter Forest Program), Yangguan’s trees were incorporated into the 87 million acres of planned forest. 

How Wine Grapes Are Uprooting Trees in China’s Green Great Wall

But in 2006, the Yangguan farm started to lease some of its land to private companies and farmers for agriculture and tourism. Farmers quickly discovered that one crop that thrived in this remote spot was grapes. Today vines cover 775 acres—more than half of the original Forestry Farm.

That revelation shocked a nation that has been consistently entreated by its leaders in recent years to desist from environmental damage and even to go out individually and plant trees. Yet Hao is surprised that people are surprised. She said it’s no secret that hundreds of families have planted grapes on the farm for years, and the local forestry bureau never did anything to stop it.

“Many trees were already gone when I rented the land,” said the 55-year-old grower. She said the plot had been cleared by the farm's managing office. “If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s the office and the local authorities.”

How Wine Grapes Are Uprooting Trees in China’s Green Great Wall

Walking in Yangguan Forestry Farm today, what trees you see are mostly lines of tall poplars protecting endless rows of vines. In some places, bulldozers are flattening new areas for planting, with the dusty terrain dotted with scorched trunks and ditches clogged with fallen branches. Zhang Jianying, one of the growers, said some farmers cut down trees to allow more sunlight to ripen the grapes, while other trees have simply died of disease or a lack of water. 

“It’s such a shame. It’s a miracle to have trees in the desert where even grass barely grows,” said 50-year-old Liu who grew up in Dunhuang and remembers when forest workers ferried tons of fertile soil from the city to plant trees in the sand. “Dunhuang is an oasis. You can’t overstate the importance of trees to this place.” Liu asked to be identified only by his last name.

The problem is money. One of President Xi Jinping’s most quoted environmental slogans says “clear waters and green mountains are as valuable as gold and silver mountains.” But local governments want more than metaphorical gold and the trees don’t provide an income. “It’s hard to eliminate illegal deforestation as long as there are economic lures,” said Pan Wenjing, forest campaign manager for Greenpeace East Asia. “It’s time for China to work out how the green mountains can really be turned into gold mountains.”

How Wine Grapes Are Uprooting Trees in China’s Green Great Wall

Dunhuang’s cultural importance means that factories that could pollute its ancient treasures are not allowed. Each summer, thousands of tourists come here by plane or train to see the world-famous Mogao Caves, which contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art, spanning more than 1,000 years. Tickets are sold out weeks in advance to enter the subterranean temples built into cliffs of crumbling sedimentary rock.

To supplement the income from tourism, the only other option is agriculture and Dunhuang grapes have become superstars in China’s wine industry thanks to the clear summers and well-drained sandy soil. And wine and tourism mix well. Each September, Dunhuang hosts an “international grape festival,” with vineyard visits, grape-eating competitions, and of course, plenty of wine tasting. One company accused by the government of turning 329 acres of forest into vineyards and a tourism site sells “Mogao Cave wine.”  

The success of the industry has drawn hundreds of migrants to try their luck at viticulture. Between 2013 and 2018 the area under vines around Dunhuang expanded 42% to 33,000 acres. “There are conflicts,” said 52-year-old grape grower Zhang. “Farmers want more sunlight, more land, more water. People even say the caterpillars on the trees disrupt the grapes’ pollination.”

The phenomenon is not restricted to Dunhuang. All across Gansu, vines have been springing up. The province is now China’s fourth-biggest producer of wine grapes.  In Zi Xuan Wine Estate, four hours’ drive from Dunhuang, visitors follow a guide down into a cellar deep underground where it’s cool enough to store over 7,000 barrels of wine.

“Gansu produces the world’s best grapes, together with Bordeaux in France and California in the U.S.,” the guide insists, recommending a 2007 Zixuan Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon “Claret” priced at 4,680 yuan ($728). 

How Wine Grapes Are Uprooting Trees in China’s Green Great Wall

For many local officials, the vineyards are a success story, turning the desert green and alleviating poverty, as well as filling government coffers. Grape-related businesses are “some of the pillar industries to help families get richer,” says a government website.

An investigation by non-profit group China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation found that Dunhuang’s forestry administration issued at least 24 licenses between 2012 and 2018 to cut down trees in Yangguan in the name of “replacing and improving forests of bad quality.” In 2019, the city recorded that the forest was three times bigger than it actually was, according to state media.

Yangguan Forestry Farm replaced and improved degraded forests over the years according to related laws and rules, Tian Baohua, deputy director of the Gansu Forestry and Grassland Administration, told Chinese media in January. He said the administration had found no instances of trees being cut to clear land for vines. A notice on a board outside the farm’s office says it took “50 years of hard work” to grow a “sand prevention screen stretching 5 kilometers in the desert, like a green wall that safeguards the Dunhuang Oasis.”

At the heart of the conflict is water. Dunhuang gets an average of 37 millimeters of rain a year, less than Dubai. And while carefully selected trees can survive the arid conditions, stabilize the ground and return carbon to the soil, vines need a lot more water to fruit and can worsen erosion because of the practice of covering the trunks in winter with loose soil that’s easily blown away. Worse still, winemaking has one of the worst carbon footprints of any type of arable agriculture because of the amount of carbon dioxide produced during fermentation. By one estimate, a liter of grape juice produces 60 liters of CO₂.

Besides, without the protection of the forest, even the vines will fail. “The grapes need the trees,” said farmer Zhang. “When the dust comes, it covers the grape leaves and disrupts the growth of flowers and young fruit. Without the sand-prevention screen, the grapes won’t grow well.” 

How Wine Grapes Are Uprooting Trees in China’s Green Great Wall

Dunhuang’s deforestation is not unique, said Greenpeace’s Pan, who led an investigation a few years ago in the eastern province of Zhejiang, where large areas of trees had been destroyed in the name of improving “bad quality” forest and the land used instead for agriculture. Local governments often need the land to make up for the loss of farms to urban expansion, Pan said. Reports of illegal cutting also surface from time to time in the local media. In 2013, an investigation by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV found that 160,000 acres of forest had been degraded or lost in Inner Mongolia. In one village alone, about 2,300 acres of trees had been cut to expand farmland.

The Dunhuang story underlines a long-standing question about China’s Green Great Wall: How many trees actually survived? An employee at Dunhuang Wine Co., who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that when the company rented its land many of the trees were already dead. He said the poplars only live for about 50 years, and officials had failed to upgrade the forests with new trees. 

Bloomberg made a number of attempts to speak to Dunhuang Wine about these allegations, including visiting their offices in Yangguan, but were not able to obtain an official response.

The potential fallout from the mismanagement of the land became all too clear for residents and farmers alike this spring when the city was hit by one of the heaviest sandstorms in years. For a whole week in March, the city was coated with dust blown in from the Xinjiang Gobi. 

“The root of the problem is evaluating local officials’ performance only by GDP,” said Zhou Jinfeng, director of China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation. “If we only focus on GDP, it won’t take long before the economy becomes unsustainable. That’s a lesson we all should have learned long ago.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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