“The Great Green Wall and the Fight against Desertification in China”

Opening remarks
Thursday, June 28, 2012

Asia Institute Seminar

“The Great Green Wall and the Fight against Desertification in China”

The Asia Institute seminar on the noble fight against desertification was a wake-call for all of us. I must admit that although I was pleased by the enthusiasm of the participants, I was shocked that we did not have a larger crowd. After all, the spread of deserts in China is perhaps the most serious challenge facing East Asia today and is a crisis that calls for a global solution.


Lecture by Ambassador Kwon

Yet attendance was less than for our seminar on nuclear power in North Korea—an important topic, but not anywhere as significant.

Kwak Sang-soo of Korea Research Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology talks with David Seol, advisor to Asia Institute for external relations.

Ambassador Kwon Byunghyun spoke about his NGO Future Forest which brings together Koreans and Chinese organizations, and Korean and Chinese students to work together towards a solution to the spread of deserts. Future Forest has launched a “Great Green Wall” along the Eastern front of the Kubuqi Desert which has slowed down the spread of the desert. But the challenges are so great and the number of students volunteering to go to Inner Mongolia and fight the spread of deserts remains still small.

Professor Kwak Sang Soo of KRIBB (Korea Research Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology) spoke about his work using radiation to modify sweet potatoes so as to be viable cash crops on marginal lands for poor farmers.

Kwak Sang-soo describes how he developed sweet potatoes that can survive in arid land.

He is involved in one of the most significant issues of our time and has travelled to China more than 50 times to build long-term relations with experts working on developing the sweet potato as a viable crop that allows poor farmers in rural areas to support themselves without destroying the environment.

Below are my opening remarks from the event.

Emanuel Pastreich

Opening remarks by Emanuel Pastreich

Our team rode by bus from the prosperous city of Baotou in Inner Mongolia to the Dalateqi region, a charming rural area featuring fields of semi-arid land where goats and cows graze dotted with small farms. Walking due West for one hundred meters, however, brought us face to face with a very different reality. Before us stretched endless waves of sand, without the slightest sign of life, stretching as far as the eye can see.

The Kubuqi Desert has been moving ineluctably East towards Beijing and threatens to engulf the region. Its sands are carried off by the strong winds and cloud the air over Seoul. That sand is found as far away as the East Coast of the United States.

Our team was made up of Koreans and Chinese students who have banded together as part of Future Forest, an innovative NGO devoted to planting trees along the edge of the Kubuqi Desert. These youth are using their wits to slow down and halt this slow motion tragedy. Under the leadership of former Ambassador to China Kwon Byung Hyun, they have joined up with local people to plant trees and secure the soil, and for the first time, their “Great Green Wall” project has managed to partially stop the desert no one thought could be halted.

The idea of bringing together youth from Korea and China to respond to this shared threat is striking and inspiring. But if you talk to Ambassador Kwon, you will learn just how difficult it was to bring about this extremely commonsense cooperation.

At a time when the threat of Islamic radicalism seems a political problem more appropriate for the negotiating table than for the actions of  drones and special forces, when the postulated Chinese threat seems unconvincing in light of the unprecedented degree of economic and cultural integration between the China and the West, there is an emerging threat a massive scale that demands our full attention. Climate change threatens to overwhelm us.    

Although the spread of deserts is accelerating, we have not even started to develop the technologies, the strategies and the long-term vision necessary to take on this security threat. Needless to say, our aircraft carriers, our guided missiles and our cyber warfare are as useless against this threat as sticks and stones are against tanks. Although we imagine scenarios in which missile attacks from abroad could kill people, these deserts are killing people right now. 

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