Course:FRST370/Desertification Control and Afforestation Projects in Northwest China and Preliminary Results – A Case Study of the “Ant Forest” Public Welfare Project of Alipay

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This case study examines the practices focused on desertification control and afforestation in Northwest China. Multiple references are used to explore tenure arrangements and the contribution of 'Ant Forest' public welfare projects in Alipay. Alipay is a third-party online mobile payment platform in China, covering life services, financial management, insurance, public welfare projects and other industries, with a large user base. It analyzes the process of policy supports, technology development and users' psychological changes, and compares the transformations before and after the environmental improvement in this region. Both affected and interested stakeholders make great impacts on desertification governance in Northwest China, among which the function of the ‘Ant Forest’ project plays an indispensable role. The ‘Ant Forest’ project, appears to have greatly promoted the process of desertification control in China, and its reasons and impacts are worth exploring.


Introduction of Alipay's‘Ant Forest' Project

Figure 1 Interface of Ant Forest App This is a screenshot about Ant Forest application of my smartphone. It shows that I got 63g 'Green Energy' by walking. Users can collect this kind of energy to plant trees.

Alipay's ‘Ant Forest’ project, a Mini-program and tree-planting initiative, was awarded the 2019 Champion of the Earth Inspiration and Action by the United Nations Environment Programme., symbolizing the great contribution of the tree planting practice in China to addressing the problem of desertification in northwest China and climate change issues[1]. The ‘Ant Forest’ project first came to public attention as a social functional App on the Alipay platform. Users collect ‘Green Energy’ - the carbon emissions that people reduced in daily life - to plant trees in the real world[2] (Figure 1). By August 2017, this platform had attracted 230 million users to participate in environmental welfare projects[3], which means that more individuals in China have started to pay attention to and participate in environmental restoration activities. Users use the collected ‘Green Energy’ to plant real trees or sand-fixing plants in northwest China for desertification control.

Introduction of the Three-North Shelter Forest

The 'Ant Forest' project is implemented mainly in western and northern China, also known as the Three-Northern Shelter Forest regions. In the north of China, from the eastern three provinces in the northeast, to Shanxi, Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia in North China, then to Qinghai, Gansu and Xinjiang in the northwest, there is a ‘Green Great Wall'[4] (Figure 2). Half a century ago, due to excessive land reclamation and population growth, the ecological environment of the region became fragile and desertification was serious. As a result, Chinese Government  and the State Forestry Bureau decided to designate the Three-Northern Shelter Forest and set up the Three-North Shelter Forest Construction Bureau in 1979 to manage the sand rehabilitation and afforestation projects in the area[5].  The main purpose of the shelterbelt construction is to control soil erosion and sandstorm hazards through afforestation, and to provide local timber resources.

The project selects suitable species for planting according to specific geographical location and conditions. Areas with good conditions and some soil erosion areas, arbor forests, willow trees, Eucalyptus robusta, Pinus sylvestris, Pinus tabulaeformis, or larch will be chosen to plant[4]. In drought and water-deficient areas with general conditions,  the mainly developed shrubs, Caragana arborescens, Haloxylon ammodendron, Hedysarum scoparium Fisch, and Hedysarum mongolicum Turez are planted[4]. In some places with relatively good water resources and soil conditions, some fruit trees, pears, apples, apricots, walnuts, red dates, etc. will be planted to develop fruit trees, so that farmers can increase income in the process and gain some benefits[4].

Figure 2 A map of the region of Three-North Shelter Forest in north China.[6]

Tenure and Authorities

From 1950s to 1980 was a period of collectivization in China. Land and natural resources were owned by the citizens of China and administered on their behalf by the government[7].

In 1978, after Chinese eleventh CPC Central Committee Third Plenary Session, the government began to establish a sound legal system, that the forestry ownership changes with policy adjustments[8]. In 1978, the state proposed to strictly implement the annual cutting level (AAC levels). In 1979, the Three-North Shelter Forest Construction Bureau under the State Forestry Bureau was constructed[5]. In 1982, changes in tenure across the whole Chinese mainland happened. Communes in China were disbanded, replaced by the ‘household responsibility system’. The individual farmer households had the tenure of land use and it was up to 30 to 70 years[7]. In 1982, the property on forest in China has been divided into 3 parts: State property, Communal property and Individual property. State property forest is owned by the national government accounting for 60% of China’s total forestlands. Communal property forest is owned by a collective with a group of people accounting for 30% of the total forestlands. And the individual property forest is owned by an individual or a group or company with a household tenure certification, accounting for 10%[7].

In June 2008, the State Forestry Bureau comprehensively promoted the reform of the forest property rights system and clarified the system of property rights contracting to households[9].  In 2008, The State-owned forest is reduced to 42% of the total forestland, while the collectively-owned forest increased to 38% and household tenure certificated forest doubled and increased to 20% of the total forestland[10]. Since 2017, President Xi delivered a report at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. He mentioned that lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets and implemented our fundamental national policy of conserving resources and protecting the environment[11]. Environmental protection became an increasingly important role in Chinese national construction.


Affected Stakeholers

Local Residents

Local residents are the people who live for their daily life and work based on local environment like farms, grasslands and forests in Northwestern China. The program helps set up the protective forest belt, the Three-North Shelter Forest, which prevented the eastward invasion of the desert and played an active role in the restoration of natural vegetation and improvement of the ecological environment on the eastern edge of the Tengger Desert, and promoted the development of surrounding agriculture and animal husbandry[12].

Planting Labor

Planting labors are mostly from the local people who are employed by the Million Forest program to plant the trees in the local area. They get job opportunities and earn money from the program and benefit their local environment through planting trees. And there are also experts who help them plant environmentally friendly tree like Hippophae rhamnoides Linn. which is drought and cold resistant and can absorb 1.66kg of carbon dioxide per year[13]. Meanwhile, farmers can increase their income by harvesting the fruits and leaves of Hippophae rhamnoides Linn.[13].

Interested Stakeholders

NGO Programmer

NGO programmers are the experts who lead the desertification control and afforestation programs, such as Million Forest Program. They do research and land management in northwest China. They work on dealing with the soil erosion problem and desertification, and they do practices to explore efficient solutions which are suitable for local conditions and desertification control. As a result of these targeted scenarios, the impact of sandstorms has been reduced in number as a whole, and the intensity of sandstorms has been weakened. The construction of the shelterbelt system has greatly contributed to reducing the overall dusty weather in northern China[4].

‘Ant Forest’ App Users

'Ant Forest' users is people all over the country who are outside the community. They choose an area they thought very needed to plant a tree in the map and raise virtual trees in digital word (Ant Forest application). And it contribute to the real afforestation by the programs in specific area[2]. They are interested in and concern about the environment of northwest China. And they promote local planting through 'Ant Forest' in the distance[2]. This virtual plantation requires real green low carbon lifestyle of the users. Therefore, it helps modern users be aware of individual green lifestyle and live greener and healthier.


Since 2019,  Chinese government has formed a national policy support, enterprise operation, social participation in desertification control experience and mode[14]. Huanshui Zhou, deputy director of the Northwest Forestry Institute of the National Forest and Grass Bureau, said that the Chinese government has launched a series of ecological projects such as the Three North Protection Forest, 'returning farmland to forests' projects, and the Beijing-Tianjin sand source management to control and manage the desertification[14].



Figure 3 Great transformation from desserts to well vegetation-covered area from 2007 to 2017 according to NASA.[15]

Achievements in Desertification Control and Environmental Improvement

By the end of 1999, China had 174.3 million hectares of land under desertification, accounting for 18% of China's total land area[16].  Before the construction, forest coverage in the region was only about 0.5 percent. However, the forest coverage reached 12% with 4.06 million square kilometers in the Three-Northern Shelter Forest region in 2016, and China accounts for almost half of the world's total artificial afforestation area[17].

According to Zhen [18], in 2019, the ‘Ant Forest’ project has accumulated over 1 million mu (equal to 66666.67 hectares) of afforestation in northwest China. Through a series of brand public welfare activities, there has been a total of 1.55 million mu (equal to 103333.33 hectares) afforestation, a total of 110 million trees, and more than 1 million people participated in the public welfare project.

According to images released by NASA in 2019[19], China's green space has changed a lot from the past, with the desert seen in the 2007 satellite image now turning green (Figure 3).In addition, it can be clearly seen in the photos that the original desertification of the land is now covered with vegetation, and even some early planted vegetation has grown into shrubs, and is open to the public for tourism (Figure 4).

Figure 4 Users are able to visit the real place as a tourist where they plant a tree in Ant Forest.[20]

Positive Development of Economic

In the last century, the direct economic loss caused by desertification and sandstorm in northwest China is about 64.2 billion Chinese Yuan per year, with an average daily loss of 176 million Chinese Yuan. It is estimated that annual economic losses caused by sandstorms exceed 1.3 billion Chinese Yuan. The indirect economic losses caused by desertification and its derivatives are about 288.9 billion Chinese Yuan per year[16].  Currently, ‘Ant Forest’ project cooperation can promote local forestry and agricultural production, and provide employment and income for local residents (Figure 5).

In Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, there are more than 200 households directly benefit from the Million Forest Program. And more than 1,000 indirect beneficiary households, mainly those engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry around the afforestation area[12]. In Gansu Province, the planted vegetation can bring 400 Chinese Yuan of income to local residents per mu (1 mu equals about 0.067ha). After the total planting area of this project reaches 20,000 mu, the direct economic benefits will reach 8 million Chinese Yuan[21].

Awareness Improvement in the Public

Figure 5 Picture of tree samplings taken by tourists in northwest China.[22]

In August 2017, Ant Forest had more than 230 million users, reduced emissions by 1.22 million tons. Alibaba's public welfare platform promoted nearly 4.7 billion people's participation in the whole society[3]. More than 310 million buyers and 1.778 million sellers participated in the public welfare through the Alibaba platform. According to user data, more than 70 percent of users are under the age of 35. In 2016, users made online donations of 488 million Chinese Yuan through Alibaba’s public welfare platform[3]. According to the survey of college students' use of Ant Forests[23], more than 70 percent of the students are using the Ant Forest online public service platform[23]. 41.7% of the respondents strongly agree that "Ant Forest" can truly implement online carbon public welfare[23]. 85.81% of them are willing to participate in environmental protection activities, while only 5.52 percent of them are not. 63.47% of those surveyed think it is necessary to build a carbon public welfare platform in colleges and universities[23].


On the Desertification Control

NASA assess that China is leading the way in greening the planet, which is a positive comment of Chinese desertification and afforestation programme[19].The large increase of China's green space and afforestation area indicates that China's desertification control and afforestation  projects have achieved remarkable results in the past few decades. The desert area in northwest China is shrinking so that the destroyed lands and farmlands recovered their natural ecology, giving way to shrubs and shelterbelts that have provided the basis for restoring biodiversity and ecosystems.The increase of green space also has a positive effect on the amelioration of global warming, and provides learning cases and research topics for combating desertification.

On Economic Development

The ‘Ant Forest’ public welfare program provides employment opportunities for the residents of the area, including forestry, agricultural development, fruit production, and timber income. Residents who once had to relocate because of environmental degradation are no longer troubled by the problem of survival. Instead, they participate in projects to get jobs and improve the ecological environment of their hometown. While improving the environment, and with the help of the government and technicians, the development of forestry and agriculture to raise the income of residents has also boosted the local economy.

On the Public Awareness

Getting involved in social causes and afforestation through mobile devices and Apps is an activity that appeals to the younger generation.The 'Ant Forest' project captures this by engaging them in a low-carbon lifestyle. Increased participation means that people consciously live in a low-carbon way and participate in public welfare projects. Also, the large amount of younger user group means that environmental awareness is becoming a popular trend. In addition, the transformation from virtual green energy into a tree in the real world enables users to have a sense of reality, which attracts them to participate in the project for long time, and continuously improves users' environmental awareness and enthusiasm for environmental protection.


The intention of the 'Ant Forest' Project is to lessen the environmental problems in the northwestern region in China and effectively control desertification through the joint efforts of the entire public. At the same time, citizens' awareness and participation in environmental protection public welfare projects is also increased.

There are risks and challenges associated with the 'Ant Forest' project. From the perspective of desertification control projects, there is no precedent of operations like Ant Forest. There has been controversy because this program is eager to achieve success and plant too quickly. It might be self-defeating and no one can guarantee whether it will achieve a certain effect in a long term[17]. From the user's perspective, people's willingness and motivations to join in the public projects may be decreased as time goes on. It is a challenging activity to maintain a low carbon lifestyle and participate in environmental welfare projects for a long time. How to maintain the relationship between projects and contributing users is a problem worthy of attention.

The case of desertification control and afforestation in the Three-North Forest region can provide a reference for India's desertification control which is facing desertification in 1/4 of the geographical region and Mongolia whose desertification is spreading rapidly due to overgrazing and climate change[24]. The governance technology and terms of scenario planning of Tengger Desert in Inner-Mongolia can provide valuable information and data. In Mongolia, the methods of Inner Mongolia would be effective because they have similar cause of desertification and climate. However, due to the different latitude and climate, the cultivars selection in India should base more on heat tolerance and drought tolerance. Meanwhile, species invasion should be avoided.


On the one hand, to prevent the useless efforts, technical issues should be concerned more with issues like effective selecting seed with fire and drought tolerance, and efficient breeding with scientific methods. At the same time, those areas that have been planted should be kept under constant observation, and data such as vegetation growth index and biodiversity index should be monitored for a long time to determine whether the governance of the area is meeting expectations.

On the other hand, people need fresh simulation to stay motivated, such as newly developed protected areas, newly cultivated planting projects, or attractive interactions and content on the App. It is necessary to mobilize the enthusiasm of users and improve their participation in this project. Giving users a level of identity, discounts or increasing interaction may help.


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  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Alibaba Foundation. (2017). Ali's grown up! Target the fifth largest economy, take more responsibility, make the sky bluer, heart warmer. Retrieved October 13, 2019, from
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This conservation resource was created by Cai, Zimu; Wang, Ziyue. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.