The millionth tree planted in Inner Mongolia by Shanghai Roots and Shoots

In a country full of rumors, scandals and frequently negative news, its nice to see a positive item that doesn’t revolve around something bizarre happening.

In my time in China, I’ve watched many NGOs attempt to make change in their communities. While some are successful many more seem to fall to the great challenges any organization faces, attempting to make social reform in an authoritarian state. However, this week a project came across my desk that overcame these challenges that I thought worth a mention.

In 2007 a bright eyed bunch of volunteers in a nascent NGO called Shanghai Roots & Shoots, had a dream to help fight desertification in China. Their dream: to plant one million trees on the edge of the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China.

China’s deserts have been growing for many years and in response, the government’s Great Green Wall program has planted trees across China. However, often in places where tree planting was not appropriate due to environmental conditions and often lack of ground water availability. In addition, many of these trees have not been cared for and up kept after financial incentives led farmers to simply drop them in the sand.

Shanghai Roots & Shoots had a different plan. Not only to plant trees, but to take care of them and educate the communities around the desert of their potential benefits. In addition, experts helped the NGO identify areas where ground water was available to give the trees the best chance of survival.

This was the Million Tree Project.

Volunteers Planting
Volunteers Plant trees in Kulun Qi.

Their aim was to raise community awareness of the Earth’s precious environment while focusing on steps individuals can take to lessen their negative impact on the natural world. The project gives individuals and organizations an opportunity to fight global warming by planting oxygen-producing trees. It also encompasses true capacity building as the local population became involved with and benefited from every step of planting, maintaining and monitoring the trees.

The Million Tree Project was designed to improve both ecological and humanitarian conditions of Kulun Qi, Tongliao municipality, lnner Mongolia. They chose this project site because the area suffers severely from desertification and its consequential sandstorms, while at the same time, having available ground water. These sandstorms strike Inner Mongolia and its surrounding areas each spring, destroying local homes and forcing many people to flee their native land.

Wind Whipped Child
An Inner Mongolian child, shows the effects of living in an area prone to sand storms.

The NGO cooperated with national and regional government as well as local communities to help secure and rebuild the land. Since 2007, thousands of students, individuals and corporate donors have donated time and muscle to buying and planting trees.

This summer, the NGO planted their one millionth tree this summer.

I had been shooting this project since 2009 when they called and asked me to make a quick video that they could share with their volunteers and tree donors. While the video is intended for their audience, I believe their project is a good example that shows actual results from an NGO working in a difficult political and social environment, worth sharing with a greater audience.

MTP Volunteer
A member of Shanghai Roots & Shoots helps monitor tree planting in Kulun Qi.

Looking into the future, the NGO is now pledging to plant one million more. The first million, was just the beginning.

To Shanghai Roots & Shoots: Congratulations on this massive accomplishment.

— Jonah Kessel is a freelance, visual Journalist based in Beijing working with the New York Times. See his work at his web site, blog or follow him on Twitter.

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