Desertification affects about 36 × 106 km2 of land around the world, two‐thirds of the world's countries and one‐fifth of its population, but poverty prevents these people from developing effective solutions. To balance the need for sustainable development with environmental protection, China's scientists have tested a new and more environmentally friendly approach based on ecological restoration projects that simultaneously provide a sustainable livelihood for the citizens affected by the projects. This strategy for controlling desertification requires cooperation among governments, scientists, and researchers from many disciplines and the communities affected by the program. To document the effectiveness of this strategy, we monitored the implementation of a programme to combat desertification in the Alxa League of China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Our study showed that the new strategy can significantly increase vegetation cover, species richness, aboveground biomass, soil organic matter content, and soil nutrients. The successful ecological restoration provides potentially important lessons for other parts of the world that face the joint burden of poverty and environmental degradation.