By Isabel Galwey
Today's political zeitgeist gives rise to a relentless focus on walls: their construction and their deconstruction, their ‘how’s and their ‘why’s. Such barriers exist primarily to control the movement of people. However, the patterns of demographic migration which sparked this geopolitical trend are increasingly caused by the realities of large-scale climate change.
Against such a backdrop, ‘green walls’ stand out. Any living barrier of trees or other vegetation which plays a protective role in the surrounding environment qualifies as a green wall. Rather than limiting demographic movement, green walls push back against the effects of climate change itself. The language used by proponents of green walls largely focuses on transnational ecological consciousness, regeneration and community empowerment.
Green wall projects exist across the globe, taking root in areas as diverse as Sub-Saharan Africa, North China and Japan. Three of the most well-known recent projects are the ‘Great Green Wall’ on the southern edge of the Sahara; the ‘Three-North Shelter Forest’ program in China; and Tōhoku’s community-led ‘Great Forest Wall’ in Japan. The Great Forest Wall was designed by Dr Akira Miyawaki in response to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Through community tree-planting projects, Miyawaki’s goal was to create a natural sea wall, re-greening the coast in devastated areas, and generating a natural defence against future disasters.
Each of these green wall projects initially bloomed from the unique needs of local communities. In North China and the Sahel, desertification around the Gobi and the Sahara led to soil erosion and dust storms. The land became arid and uninhabitable, and populations were forced to migrate elsewhere, leading to widespread poverty and displacement. Both regions imagined the growth of a green wall as a chance to halt the damage and revitalise the areas' economies.
I was drawn to focus on Tōhoku’s green wall because it broadened my perceptions of what such walls could do: the Great Forest Wall is unusual among the examples above in that it stands against an ocean rather than a desert. However, it shares a number of characteristics with other green walls globally, both in the challenges it faces and the opportunities it creates. The implementation of other green walls can help us understand the material and symbolic potential of the Great Forest Wall for Japan’s North-Eastern prefectures, as well as the various difficulties which hindered its construction.
Calls for a Japanese green wall emerged after concrete breakwaters proved woefully insufficient in preventing devastation from the 2011 tsunami, as did the groves of non-indigenous, ornamental pine trees which previously lined much of the coast. The tsunami left the area in desperate need of ecological regeneration. Large-scale tree-planting projects gained traction due both to their symbolic resonance, and to hopes of future economic dividends generated by coastal recovery.
However, as Miyawaki’s Great Forest Wall moved from concept to reality, problems began to emerge. Diverse parties, from local community members to municipal officials to ecological scientists, began to dispute the exact form the project should take. Was the Japanese preference for native species over more recent imported tree varieties based in science, or a nationalist rhetoric which reinforced essentialist barriers between Japan and the rest of the world? Should the demands of a central planning body take precedence over those of the local communities? In the long term, would the science of a green wall actually stand up?
Tree Walls as Sea Walls in Coastal Tōhoku
The origin of the Tōhoku green wall goes back almost ten years. 2011 saw a chain of natural and man-made disasters ravage Japan in quick succession: a magnitude 9 earthquake, a tsunami, and the meltdown of Fukushima’s nuclear power plant. Many coastal towns were obliterated and their citizens forced to relocate. Those who remained battled with both material hardship and the trauma of large-scale loss.
Prior to the 2011 tsunami, Japan had built large concrete sea walls along much of its north-eastern coast. However, these massive structures ultimately failed to prevent catastrophic damage to Japan’s North-Eastern coastline. The government’s official reconstruction plan post-2011—rebuilding the original walls, but bigger — was met with criticism by many scientists, who warned that doubling down on conventional sea walls could have far-reaching environmental consequences.
Furthermore, some local residents had grown suspicious of the vast, industry-backed construction projects, which were damaging to local scenery and habitats without necessarily providing adequate coastal protection. A natural tree-wall was welcomed by a broad coalition of community groups as a less ecologically intrusive solution.
Similarly, natural disaster also prompted China to invest in a far-reaching green wall project: the Three-North Shelter Program. This green wall was proposed to combat fierce ‘yellow dragon’ dust-storms that blew in from the Gobi desert. The wall comprised thousands of imported, fast-growing, deep-rooted trees that would stabilise the eroding soil, while bringing economic benefits through logging. Yet the priorities for Tōhoku’s residents differed considerably from those living near the Gobi. Soil erosion is a gradual but constant process, while a tsunami may only hit the Japanese coast once in a generation. Tōhoku’s green wall thus required a thorough approach which could withstand a single massive impact.
Another key aspect of Tōhoku’s Great Forest Wall was its emphasis on community and culture. It shares this emphasis with the Great Green Wall of Sub-Saharan Africa. There, high temperatures, desertification and drought, exacerbated by climate change, have devastated communities, leading to large-scale displacement and fuelling calls for concrete and wire walls in less affected areas further north. After the Tōhoku earthquake, local communities were likewise left scattered and fragmented. Tree-planting efforts offered a powerful symbolic opportunity to reconnect with the physical landscape itself. Local authority figures and religious leaders encouraged the planting of trees – one Buddhist abbot, Hioki Dōryū, even offered his temple precinct as a tree nursery for the Great Forest Wall. In an area which had been blighted socially and economically, planting trees became a method of social mobilisation. This symbolic act of reclamation was strengthened by the use of non-hazardous tsunami debris in the landscaping process of the tree wall.
Seeds of Discontent
Despite this early momentum, in the years since its inception the Great Forest Wall has run up against difficulties. The most significant obstacle has been gaining cooperation from all the many municipalities concerned. Some local governments chose to rebuild concrete sea walls along their sections of coast, while others replanted the traditional, but in fact non-native, pine groves associated with the region. The former option created local jobs and, perhaps, provided a more technological perception of security. The latter restored the landscape to a semblance of its pre-tsunami self: black pines have been associated with the region for centuries and resonate strongly with both local residents and visitors. However, these pine trees fared far worse against the tsunami than their native counterparts, snapping like matchsticks and adding to the debris.
China’s Three-North Shelter Forest program also demonstrates that non-native tree varieties can do more harm than good in environmentally stressed regions. Jianchu Xu, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Science, argues that the benefits of afforestation ‘come at a high cost’: deep-rooted trees can tap into water reserves, but once these reserves run dry the trees die, leaving the soil in even worse conditions. Chinese researchers have suggested that native species of trees or even shrubs and grasses are more suitable for green wall projects than fast-growing plantation trees.
By contrast, the Great Forest Wall was widely praised for its emphasis on local species such as broad-leafed laurels. However, this praise was not universal, and in some quarter’s Tohoku’s reforestation projects fell prey to a distinct, but related objection: that any intensive renaturing of the land is in itself unnatural. Some ecologists have criticised afforestation in regions hit by the tsunami on the grounds that the land should be allowed to recover by simply being left to grow wild. ‘There’s something wrong with a forest-creation project that destroys the living things – flowers, insects, birds and grasses – that managed to survive the massive tsunami,’ ecologist Hirabuki Yoshihiko wrote shortly after the project’s implementation. ‘In this era of respect for the importance of ecosystem services and biodiversity, I can’t help thinking Japan is making an irreversible mistake.’ Elsewhere in Japan, diverse forests have been replaced with cedar monocultures, leading many ecologists to treat large-scale tree-planting projects in general with skepticism.
Other, more conceptual criticisms have also been levelled at Japan’s afforestation drive and their sometimes inflated importance as part of the country's identity. Some observers, such as academic Aike P. Rots, have also noted a nationalistic trend in the language surrounding such projects. ‘The notion of Japan as a ‘forest civilisation’ is a recurring theme in post-war nationalist scholarship,’ he observes in his 2019 study on Tōhoku afforestation projects. He argues that the vehement rhetoric advocating ‘native’ or ‘traditional’ species, combined with ritualised tree-planting events, has historically been closely linked with narratives of patriotism and national rebirth. Even if the science behind the use of native trees is solid, relying on such rhetoric to propagate tree-planting projects can undermine their credibility. Nationalist rationales can also infuse the discourse surrounding green walls with a protectionist tone, implying that native trees are superior in some essential way rather than simply suited to the local habitat. In this way, some of the arguments put forward in support of tree-planting in Japan -- an activity often used to amplify nationalist notions of Japan as a uniquely nature-loving country — ironically resemble those calling for the construction of concrete and barbed-wire walls to protect national borders.
Grassroots for Green Walls
Of course, the Great Forest Wall is not the only tree wall beset by such problems. The Great Green Wall in the Sahara encountered similar difficulties early in its implementation. However, advocates responded to such challenges by focusing on the local, encouraging a grassroots approach. Thanks to these efforts, the Great Green Wall is developing not as a belt of uniform trees but as a mosaic of lands reclaimed using indigenous species and planting techniques, all the while maintaining a transnational and Pan-African vision. Large-scale, headline-grabbing tree-planting initiatives do continue: this year, Ethiopia broke a world record by planting 350 million seedlings in a single day.
Grassroots solutions don’t need to involve humans – they can be quite literal. In North China, ecologists have begun to advocate a hands-off approach, noting that in the province of Inner Mongolia, native species returned to degraded land in as little as two years when the area was left to its own devices.
And what of Tōhoku? The Great Forest Wall is far from complete, and may never live up to its originators’ grand vision. In fact, in 2016, the program officially changed its name from the Great Forest Wall to the Chinju no Mori Project: the ‘protective’ or ‘guardian’ forest project. In Japanese, this name suggests the conservation of existing community forests rather than the planting of new ones. As Rots concludes: ‘the ambitious forest wall project has given way to a more pragmatic approach that takes into consideration local possibilities and sensibilities.’ Within this more modest framework, many of the wall's local sections are flourishing.
Conclusions: Room to Grow
The Great Forest Wall has not failed, but neither has it grown and evolved in quite the ways that Dr Miyawaki expected. The competing interests of local and national actors problematised the Great Forest Wall as a one-size-fits-all solution for Tōhoku. Although the project fostered creativity and collaboration between some parties, it met with competition and opposition from others. While the Great Forest Wall — like other green walls the world over — may not have lived up to its initial lofty aspirations, it still provided and continues to provide a strong impetus for community reconstruction in an area which suffered massive environmental degradation.
Just like their concrete counterparts, green walls can cause more problems than they solve. This is partly because any attempt to turn back the tide on natural disaster or climate change will be an uphill struggle. The success of green walls requires a delicate balance between the wishes of local residents who want to conserve or restore a unique sense of place, industry actors hoping for economic growth, and scientists and ecologists who may contest the direction taken by conservation efforts. Such differences can render the realisation of grand visions impossible.
However, the need for negotiations between diverse stake-holders also ensures that successful green walls develop as collaborative and inclusive endeavours. Whether local, national or transnational in scope, ‘green walls’ by and large occupy a different social and political space than their conventional concrete counterparts. Tree-planting is laden with symbolic meaning in many cultures, evoking a potent sense of environmental responsibility — but also one of ecological belonging. Although the symbolic power of afforestation projects is felt on a global scale, it is ultimately at the local and individual level that their true impact is determined.
Isabel Galwey recently graduated from a BA in Chinese at St Hilda’s College, University of Oxford. She currently works as a production assistant at a sustainability-focussed media company.
Art by Natanin Rachapradit