6 August 2021

Anti-desertification Chinese sea buckthorn brings a new hope for Asia


The experience of Tibet and scientific evidence mark a new chapter in the fight against desertification. A dangerous trend affecting Central Asia in particular

by Matteo Cavallito


Desertification can be defeated with a green barrier. An example of best practice designed to tackle one of the most dangerous threats to soil health and the ecosystem comes from China. The setting is the village of Mangtso, Tibet, and the cover story is 70 years old Samten, or the “sea buckthorn grandma” according to government press agency Xinhua. For half a century, in fact, the lady takes care of what has become a large green area stronger than the sand. Which has fueled an authentic natural revolution from an ecological and economic point of view, Chinese authorities say.

A barrier against the desert

The village of Mangtso is located in the river Luntse area where the average altitude exceeds 3,800 meters above sea level and desertification is a well-known problem. Every year, when the rainy season is over, the river dries and the wind spreads the sand from its basement to to the land. Fifty years ago the local government started to plant different tree species including sea buckthorn. Today the plant have established strong roots and the green area has expanded 50 square kilometers. According to Chinese authorities, this is the largest artificial forest in the world.

Environmental and economic benefits

The implications, Xinhua says, are clear: “The forest vegetation has gradually flourished, and cattle and sheep now have forage grass to graze. The precipitation has also increased, improving the air quality of the area, while the land salinity has decreased, boosting the production of highland barley.” In 2020 over two thousand forest rangers have been patroling the area while the sale of of sea buckthorn’s seedlings and fruits generated about 3 million yuan (almost half a million dollars) in revenue.

News must be taken with caution since the story, reported by the state media, has been reported but not deeply investigated abroad. The Chinese experience, anyway, could be very promising.

A hope for most vulnerable areas

Sea buckthorn’s potential against desertification, in fact, has been under review for some time. In 2019, a research conducted by scientists of the ICAR-National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources in Dehli has shown that some peculiar properties – wide adaptability, fast growth, efficient nitrogen fixation – make the plant particularly suitable for conservation of soil and water and reforestation in the most fragile mountain areas. For this reason, sea buckthorn seems to be very important for Central Asia where desertification, researchers say, is accelerating due to climate change. According to estimates, this trend is currently threatening the future security of half a billion inhabitants.