The unstoppable force in the battle against desertification in China

Tong Jun never thought that a deed from 50 years ago – which she accomplished with 53 other girls – would become a national legend. The girls, whose age averaged 18 at the time, were among the first in China to take environmental protection initiatives and work toward turning the desert in northwest China's Shaanxi Province green.

None of the girls complained about how difficult the task was back then, Tang says. "Every day, all we thought of was how to grow more trees in the area so that the people who live here don't have to suffer the terrible environment any longer."

The Mu Us Desert is one of China's four major deserts, covering 42,200 square kilometers, half of which is in Yulin City. Prior to the 1950s, the city experienced strong sand winds throughout the year and was gradually engulfed by the expanding desert. Because of the harsh conditions, the city was forced to relocate three times in its history.

Recognizing that retreating was not a viable option for dealing with the deteriorating climate, the local government began to encourage people from all walks of life to "fight back" against the marching desert. One of the earliest actors was an all-women unit, led by Tong.

But their battle was doomed to be tedious and difficult.

The young women had to walk about 20 kilometers to get the seedlings they needed. Then carried them through the desert, braving the fierce winds. Sunburns and frostbites were common occurrences because they always prioritized the trees over their health.

And just when they thought their efforts finally paid off, an unusually strong sandstorm pushed them to the brink of disappointment. "The sand brought by the wind completely buried all the seedlings we planted, which was heart-wrenching to many of us," Tong recalls.

After consulting with experts, they learned that removing the sand that had covered the seedlings was the only way to save the trees. They acted without a second thought. After six days and nights of continuous work, over 2,000 cubic meters of sand were removed by hand. And the seedlings were successfully saved.

Their pain eventually led to considerable gains. By the end of 1976, they had leveled more than 10 sand dunes of various sizes, planted over 100,000 trees, and created close to 70 hectares of forests. Slowly, an oasis was taking shape.

The following generations were able to turn the desert green even faster thanks to technological advances. Over the last 70 years, Yulin City has steadily reduced the area of the Mu Us Desert, with an annual desertification reversal rate of 1.62 percent. The rate of forest coverage has increased from 0.9 percent in the 1950s to 34.8 percent at present.

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