Shanghai Roots and Shoots: Data Driven

Jul.29.2014

There are a few startling numbers on the Million Tree Project’s website: 1,012,903 trees donated; 675 hectares of desert turned back; and, at 250 kilograms of CO2 per tree, a grand total of 253,225,750 kilograms of total poisonous carbon eaten by the organization’s efforts.

That is just today though. Those numbers will only go up with each successive tree donated. The Million Tree Project (MTP), an arm of Shanghai Roots & Shoots, is successfully pushing back the tide of desertification in China. But it is just the start.

While the exact definition is argued, desertification, at its essence, is when fertile land degrades into desert. The land, which is probably already fragile and dry to begin with, becomes arid. Water sources evaporate, nutrients deplete and vegetation disappears (followed quickly by wildlife). The infertile desert expands, and any living organisms trying to survive on that land have to migrate outwards. The land is dead, and it becomes more difficult to reestablish with each passing year.

In 2009, The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting launched a project specifically to report on the desertification in China.

In China, nearly 20% of land area is desert. As a result of a combination of poor farming practices, drought and increased demand for groundwater, desertification has become arguably China’s most important environmental challenge. As the effects of increasing desertification appear, farmers are forced to abandon their land, levels of rural poverty rise and the intensity of sandstorms, which batter northern and western China each year, continue to intensify.

To combat desertification, you need plants. A border of trees, for example, fixates and fertilizes the ground. They act as windbreaks that slow erosion while naturally enriching the soil. It both stops the desert from expanding its boundaries and creates an environment for new plants to take root.

This is why Chen Ting asks people to donate trees (or the funds to buy a tree). Ting is the Director of the MTP. She is short and girlish, so much so that she easily disappears into a group of high school volunteers. She is also eloquent and knowledgeable on the state of China’s environment. And she is a whiz with numbers. With an undergraduate degree from the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics and a Master of Statistics from Örebro University in Sweden, Ting is not just a fundraiser. She is the data expert fighting back the desert in the Korqin Sandy Lands of Inner Mongolia.

Ting became involved with Roots & Shoots during her second year at Shanghai University. She was bored, and they love volunteers. She worked her way up through the ranks before leaving for graduate school. When she returned to China, her newly acquired credentials paired with former experience made her the perfect candidate step into the Director position.

In 2007, the newly formed MTP aimed to reach its namesake goal by 2016. The project snowballed quickly, doubling the amount of donated trees each year. In July 2012, having significantly underestimated their own organizational powers, they planted their one millionth tree.  According to the MTP website, “By planting a large forest in Kulun Qi, Inner Mongolia, the project’s designs not only halt the process of desertification in the area, but also help to alleviate poverty in a primarily agricultural society, and help urban residents fight climate change by offsetting their carbon dioxide emissions.”

This is only the surface of the project though. Ting is quick to point out that MTP is not a Western NGO that steps into China, plants some trees, takes some pictures and heads home. They are a mixed culture organization that is China-born, China-based and part of the local community. Most onlookers just see the trees. They miss the full-time forestry managers that live on-site; the educational programs that work with local governments and local schools to help monitor and maintain the trees growing on their land; the local citizens empowered by being employed to plant and look after 99% of the trees; and the retreats that bring staff, volunteers and sponsors to the planting sites to get firsthand experiences of how they are impacting the community. They also often miss Ting’s specialty: databases of trial-and-error projects that aim to improve long-term project development.

This is what makes the MTP special. Burkhard Bilger, in his lengthy 2011 report on the desertification of the Sahara for The New Yorker, “The Great Oasis,” explained why temporary planting projects have failed here in the past.

China is a cautionary example. Most of its reforestation has been done involuntarily, by villagers obliged to meet national quotas. “If you add up all the acres, more trees have probably been planted there than anywhere else,” Nick Menzies, the executive director of the Asia Institute at U.C.L.A., told me. “But the survival rates have been dismal.” Farmers have set seedlings in the poorest soil, to keep their crops and pastures clear, or planted them upside down, to spite the authorities. They’ve laid them in identical grids, regardless of the terrain, and never bothered to water or thin them out. They’ve plowed up tenacious old prairies, where trees rarely grew, then left the seedlings and the topsoil to blow away. Decades after the reforestation along the Gobi began, the desert still claims more than a thousand square miles of land annually. “Every year, we plant trees,” one popular saying goes. “But we never see a forest.”

The MTP may not be as big as the much larger government-sponsored endeavors, but it has proven more successful. It is not about looking green; it is about creating a sustainable environment for the soil to fertilize and to stop the crawl of desertification. And it is about saving Inner Mongolian communities that are facing relocation because they cannot grow food or raise livestock. Unsurprisingly, their trees have survived.

Ting does not speak in quite as grandiloquent statements. She is grounded and numbers-driven. Education and spreading information one curious ear at a time is more important to her than a fundraising gala or a photo-op. On the evening I spoke with Ting, she was helping coordinate 21 school groups from across the city to hear a lecture by Dr. Jane Goodall, the famous British primatologist and founder of Roots & Shoots. While the younger volunteers were jockeying for position to meet Dr. Goodall, Ting was out buying them dinner. “Chen has to go get the food,” an MIP coordinator told me, “She is the most responsible person we know.”

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