Course:CONS200/2019/Ecological Benefits and Costs of China's Green Great Wall

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Location of Green Great Wall in China

Green Great Wall, or Three-North Shelter Forest Program, or Three-North Shelterbelt Program, is a sequence of artificial shelter forests in northwestern, northeastern, and northeastern regions of China[1]. It starts ranging from Binxian County in Heilongjiang Province in the east to Wusongbeili Mountain in Xinjiang in the west, and from the northern border in the north to Hai River, Yongding River, Wei River and Tao River, Burhan Budai Mountain[1]. The construction of the Green Great Wall covers 551 counties (flags, cities, and districts) in 13 provinces (autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the Central Government) with a total area of 4.069 million hectares, accounting for 42.4% of the country's land area[1]. Among these aras, there are 12 Gobi, deserts and sand lands with an area of 133,000 km, as well as 0.367 million hectares Loess Plateau that has severe soil erosion, sparse vegetation and lots of gullies[1].

The project began in 1979 and its planning period is 70 years[2]. By 2050, the planned afforestation area will be 535 million hectares, and the forest coverage rate in these three regions will increase from 5.05% in 1979 to 15.95% in 2050[2]. Until 2018, the afforestation area has been completed to 30.149 million hectares, and the forest coverage rate of the project area has increased to 13.59%[2]. At present, China’s Green Great Wall has gained great ecological achievement but has generated a great number of financial costs. Meanwhile, various problems have emerged and impeded the project to proceed, in terms of ecology, finance, policy, and society. Those existing problems will be discussed, and recommendations that correspond with different aspects will be suggested.

Green Great Wall in northern China in detail


Green Great Wall in Pinglu Qipan Mountains

China is one of the biggest countries in the world, covering approximately 9,600,000 square kilometers, with diverse climate types and varied terrains. With ever-accelerated development, the formation of ecological problems was facilitated to some extent, especially where ecological conditions are fragile.  The Green Great Wall is one of the ecological engineerings trying to ease this situation. [3] In order to solve the problems of wind-sand disasters and water-soil erosion from the root, the construction of the three-shelter forest became stringent. Wind-sand erosion problem is acute in this area, and sandstorms are frequent. In the past 20 years from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, 6.69 million hectares of land were desertification, and more than 13 million hectares of farmland were affected by sandstorms. It has a significantly harmful impact on local ecology situation, resident daily life, and the development of local economy.[4]


With the progress of the Great Green Wall, the wicked situation is relieved to some extent. The inherent benefits provided by the program is that many residents do not have to keep moving from place to place. The anxiety of the dust burying the building is no longer exists for the local.

What is more, the biomass power plant gradually becomes one of the economy income pathways. The branches of Salix psammophila can be the essential electricity generating material. Salix psammophila is a vital vegetation to prevent wind and fix sand. This kind of plant has a unique physiology feature. Only when the lateral branches are cut, the main stem can grow taller and thicker. In this case, the local people collect the ‘unnecessary’branches and hand to the specific material company. The company uniformly deliver the materials to the power station. The local area gradually formed an  industry chain integrated with planning, management, protection, storage and processing. With the constant planting of the Salix psammophila which provides the benefits of preventing strong wind and fixing sand, the grass could also be planted in the area. In this case, more sheep could be fed in the land. A virtuous circle is happening from residents to the private sector to state-owned enterprises.[5]

For a government perspective, the investment in this project is a significant expense. From 1978 to 2007, the total investment in the construction of the three north shelterbelts was 6,026,529,300 yuan, of which the working capital of the masses was 4,704,430,000 yuan, the state investment was 8,329,77 yuan, and the individual investment was 4,865,080 yuan. [6]Since the launch of the fourth phase of the "three north shelterbelt" project, the state's special investment to support the construction of the project has been mainly from national debt and the central budget.Among them, Treasury funds account for the vast majority.However, with the adjustment of the national financial management reform, the total amount of national debt issuance has been reduced year by year.[6]

Ecological Benefits

The Three-North Shelterbelt has significant protection and regulation for the climate, soil and agriculture of the entire three-north region.

Effects Statistics
Regional Climate Regulation
  • Wind preventing
  • Temperature regulation
  • Air moisture regulation
  • According to the measurements of the three-north region, the effective distance of the forest belt to reduce the wind speed has been about 20-25 times higher than the height of the forest belt, and the wind speed has been reduced by 27-40%[7].
  • Green Great Wall has had a warming effect in spring and autumn with an average temperature increase of about 0.5-2°C, a cooling effect in summer with an average temperature decrease of about 6-10 °C, and the temperature rise in winter is 1-3 °C[8].
  • The evaporation of the three-north region is reduced by approximately 14% on average, which facilitates the development of local dry farming[9].
Soil Improvement
  • Soil moisture regulation
  • Soil physical properties improvement
  • Soil fixation
  • The soil evaporation has been reduced by 15-20% than the forest network, and the water surface evaporation is reduced by 20-40%[9]. Plant transpiration varies by species, generally reduced by 20-30%[9].
  • The three-north shelterbelt has the function of perfecting the water-soluble constituents of the soil. The proportion of Ca2+ in the soil of shelterbelt has been increased, while that of Na+ has been decreased, which enhances permeability and arability of soil[9]. Trees growing in the shelterbelt have the ability to absorb salt, such as poplars, willows, sorghum, etc.
  • Taking the Loess Plateau as an example, when the vegetation coverage is 20-40%, it has a significant effect on reducing soil erosion[7].
Increasing Agriculture Productivity
  • Crop production improvement
  • The ecological environment of farmland has been enhanced by the effect above, promoting crop growth and yield. Corn and rice yields rates have increased by 14% and 15% respectively[9]. The emergence of corn seedlings has been 2~3 days in advance, and the maturity period is 4~5 days early[9].

The Evidence for the Problem

Ecological problems

Violating the health living principles

To reach the long-term goals, the Green Great Wall Project followed a principle called "easy before difficult, from near to far"[10]. In other words, the process of afforestation first started from the areas with easy living condition, then moved to the areas with tough living condition. However, with the step-by-step promotion of afforestation, the relatively easy parts of the project have already completed. The rest are mostly left because of their poor natural conditions, inconvenient transportation, and bare of humanity[10]. The poor site conditions vastly decrease the growth rate, survival rate, and preservation rate of afforestation.

Much worse, people who involved in the project only pay attention to seeking quick success and instant benefits of the project, ignoring to put the right tree at the right place. In some cases, shrubs are more suitable in some arid and water-scarce desert areas rather than trees like the poplar and spruce. Large amount of water absorbed by long roots of trees as well as the added water evaporation by large leaves will aggravate the shortage of water resources in the region[11]. Hence, planting too much arbors in arid and water-deficient desert areas will not achieve good results diametrically. Under this circumstance, the ecological functions have been sharply diminished.

Low level of biodiversity

Biodiversity plays a significant role in ecosystems which directly influences the ecological processes. High level of biodiversity can increase the ecological functioning while low level of biodiversity decreases the efficiency of ecological communities to capture biologically essential resources, produce biomass, decompose and recycle biologically essential nutrients[12].

Low level of biodiversity has acted as a long-term ecological problem in the Green Great Wall since it has been put into implemented. In the early stage of the project, a large number of pure artificial forests with high survival rate or fast-growing tree species were planted. Those pieces of forests only contain one specific species such as poplar and willow, which can bring enormous economic benefits from forestry production, and improve forestry management efficiency in short period. However, this kind of forest pattern results in simple forest structure with less mixed tree species and more same-age forest stands, which indicates the low level of biological diversity. Meanwhile, the lower level of biodiversity is accompanied by the weaker resilience of the forests. Those artificial forests are extremely easy to be infected by diseases and pests, and it can cause extensive damage once infected[13]. For example, more than 130,000 pure poplars in Yongdeng County, Gansu Province has been destroyed by longicore since the end of the 20th century[10].

Stand degradation

Limited by the development of economy and technology at the early stage, the quality of the artificial forest stands is generally low, followed by large scale of stand aging. Started from the 1970s, the action of afforestation has led to the existence of a great amount of mature forests, taking a relatively large proportion of overall tree number[10]. When forests reach the overripening stage, the functions of the project decline due to the slow-down growth speed and reduced biomass of the forests[14]. Therefore, the stand aging accelerates the speed of stand degradation.

In addition, some places blindly pursue the quantity of afforestation while neglect the stand quality, regardless of the natural mechanisms and the priority of ecological benefits. As a consequence, the situation of stand degradation tends to be more severe, affecting the overall effectiveness of the project to move forward smoothly.

Socioeconomic problems

Lack of public participation

The Green Great Wall Project started at 1970s when Chinese Economic Reform occurred[15] . The Economic Reform stimulated public’s enthusiasm to do what government told them to do[16] . Moreover, people did not have many choices to earn money while agriculture is the main industry. The project was attractive because participant could get relatively considerable profits and subsides. Therefore, local communities were willing to join in the project and plant trees, and the first stage of great wall project was successfully done. However, after the soaring of economy in 1990s, people were no longer unsatisfied with the profits of growing trees when they have more choices[17] . With the deepening of reform, farmers' interest in afforestation, especially shelterbelt, begun to decline. The connection between shelterbelt and farmers' profit stream was not as close as in the early stage, which was inconsistent with the goal of farmers' rapid income growth[17]. Some of the preferential policies originally formulated were no longer attractive to the masses, and farmers have gained greater choice and corresponding preferential policies from the reform.

Lack of funding

The conflict between the government’s expectation and people’s interests has become increasingly clear since 1990s[17]. The project is a large-scale public welfare undertaking which gives priority to protection and concern on environment. And public have main purpose on making money. As a developing country, government had financial problems. Funding was inadequate from the beginning of the project. Individual could only get fifty-one Yuan as pension after they afforestation one hectare[17] . Farmers preferred to give priority to the projects with large benefits and quick results. Also, because most of forests in project were shelterbelt which could not bring much economic benefits, people are not willing to get involved in the project. Instead, they relatively preferred to grow economic forests.

Inappropriate management system

The role of the management system should not be underestimated. However, with the deepening of the reform, the government system that used to play the overall function has been changed. Some local forestry departments were merged, and some local organizations were cut off the financial support. Those organizations were forced to make live with other stuffs which might be illegal and negative to the project. For instance, those local organizations would authorize an already forested area as project area to get pension. While they would not build up shelterbelt. Therefore, the foundation of the management system became unstable, and its function was weakened.


Based on the problems above, here are some recommendations to alleviate the problems.

  1. Improving biodiversity
    • Increase the richness and evenness of new-planted tree species.
    • Improve the ratio of mixed stand by allocating various species.
      • First, the stand structure should be planted combining with different layers from trees, shrubs, to grass.
      • Secondly, it should include both conifers and broad-leaf species as well as general-growing tree species with fast-growing tree species.
  2. Improving stand structure stability
    • The newly planted forest should focus on selecting native tree species with good stability. Also, introducing suitable exotic plants with equivalent or similar niche can be one solution as an important supplement to native tree species.
    • If the natural vegetation is preserved in good condition, the afforest area can be sealed by fencing, signage, artificial management and artificial promotion. In that case, the quality of new-planted forest can be improved and the stability of ecosystem can be enhanced by using nature's self-healing ability[10].
  3. Applying multiple conservation mechanisms
    • Build up Ecosystem payment system - People would have opportunity lost when they decide to be involved in Three-North Shelter Forest Program. To ensure people will not avoid project because of their lost, governments should establish ES payment to compensate those people who pay for ecological benefits.
    • Community-based forest conservation - China's Green Great Wall is a vast construction project that involves different groups of stakeholders. To address the existing problems, stakeholders should positively connect with each other and collaborate for efficient multidirectional communication. Meanwhile, it is significant to clarify the authority of land ownership, use rights, and other bonds of rights by legislation for the local community because they are the most affected stakeholder group.
  4. Adapting to local conditions
    • One-fit-all model will lead Three-North Shelterbelt Program to failure and it is also one of the main causes of current problems. Therefore, different governance modes and regional governance methods should be selected according to the resource advantages and governance status quo of different regions.
  5. Revising policy for modern conditions
    • Since China's reform, the process of policy design has been constantly promoted along with changes in the situation. When the promotion effect of a policy decreases due to changes in the objective environment. New policies should be issued accordingly, either to strengthen the effect of the original policy or to produce new effects.
  6. Enhancing economic efficiency
    • It is an effective approach to stimulate the constructors' enthusiasm and initiative through enhance the economic attraction of the project itself. While governments focus on improving the ecological environment, they should also promote the economic benefits from project, such as setting up green industry and developing sand tourism, to help project out of the wood.


Green Great Wall is an enormous project in the three-north region of China to prevent wind and fix soil. In the process of this project, lots of stakeholders participating in. Also, there are some ecological benefits generated, including regional climate regulation, soil improvement, and increasing agriculture productivity. However, some problems have emerged, in terms of ecology, society, and economy. For the ecological problems, broken health living principles, low biodiversity, degraded stand are the main problems. Besides, the lack of public participation, funding, and appropriate management system can be seen in the socioeconomic aspect. Although some problems are intractable, the ecological benefits from the Green Great Wall cannot be overlooked. Finally, it can be expected that these recommendations will be useful to alleviate the problems.


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This conservation resource was created by Lauren Chen; Hongkai Qiu; Lingsen Kong; Yixuan Yu. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.