China spent $100 billion on reforestation. So why does it have ‘green deserts’?

Beijing’s Grain-for-Green program has helped blanket the country’s hillsides with trees, undoing damage from decades of blistering development. But fostering biodiversity remains a challenge, conservationists say.

Standing on a hillside, Liu Minfang looks down at the lush landscape that surrounds her home in the remote mountains of southwestern China. Terraced slopes that farmers once used for growing crops are now filled with cedar trees and bamboo. A waterfall cascades down a distant cliff. In the valley below, a muddy river flows through a patchwork of rapeseed fields and rice paddies.

The landscape has changed a lot since Ms. Liu was a child. The fields have long been here, but most of the trees are new, planted over the past 18 years as part of the largest reforestation effort in the world. China has spent more than $100 billion on trees in the last decade alone. Nearly 22 percent of the country is now covered in forest, compared to 19 percent in 2000, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Places like Hongya County, Sichuan province, have been entirely transformed.

“It looks completely different,” says Liu, who is raising two young boys while her husband works in a car factory more than 600 miles away. “My children wouldn’t recognize the old valley.”

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