Course:FRST370/Projects/Achieving rural development while preserving natural resources - a case study of the Great Green Wall across the northwest rim of China

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The northern arid and semi-arid China has long been suffering from soil and water erosion, desertification and sandstorms. In an effort to restore the ecosystem, China has developed a series of forest shelterbelts since the 1950s. However, the afforestation projects were unsuccessful until 1978 when China began the world’s largest tree-planting project, the Three-North Shelterbelt Program, in the northeastern, northern, and northwestern China. The project which is also called the Great Green Wall, has made improvements in combating desertification as well as provided great social-economic benefits. However, there is an argument that afforestation has sometimes produced unintended environmental consequences and failed to achieve the desired benefits. For example, planting fast-growing exotic tree species may lead to an ecological mismatch which would result in lower ground water table and plantation mortality. Additionally, the lack of local participation in land conservation planning and unclear land use rights may decrease the effectiveness of the program. Therefore, the true effect and significance of the project need to be reassessed. 


China is the third largest country in the world with an area of about 9.6 million km2 (Li et al., 2012). However, more than 40% of the total territory is comprised of arid and semi-arid regions with an insufficient annual rainfall which is less than 450 mm (Wang et al., 2010; Li et al., 2012). The harsh environment in combination with inappropriate pastoral and agricultural systems leads to severe land degradation which restrict the development of local economy and negatively influences the life of millions of people (Li et al., 2012). Therefore, although China is now the world’s largest economy, poverty reduction and food security remain fundamental challenges (Ahrends et al., 2017). Additionally, rapid urbanization and industrialization and their competition with agriculture for land result in great pressures on natural resources, including forests (Ahrends et al., 2017). In order to restore the degraded environment, combat desertification, and control dust storms, China has launched multiple afforestation programs, particularly in the northeastern, northern, and northwestern regions. However, due to the insufficient field investigations including the landforms, geomorphology, soil characteristics, and moisture at the work sites, the afforestation programs were ineffective (Wang et al., 2010). After several years practice, the Chinese Government initiated the Three-North Shelterbelt Program in 1978 which is the world’s largest tree-planting program (Li et al., 2012). During the past few decades, China has made great effort and invested huge amounts of money to restore ecosystems by launching various afforestation programs (Cao et al., 2011). Four of the major programs are implemented in the Three-North area including the Three-North Shelterbelt Program (TNSP), Natural Forest Conservation Program (NFCP), Green for Green Project (GGP), and Beijing-Tianjin Sand Source Control Program (BSSCP) (Cao et al., 2011; Zhang et al., 2016).

The timeline of afforestation programs in the Three-North area (Wang et al., 2010; Zhang et al., 2016):

- 306 – 250 B.C. – The afforestation in Northern China has a long history which can be traced back at least 2300 years ago.

- 1950s – The modern Chinese government started a series of afforestation programs due to recognition of the negative impacts of desertification and dust storms on the living of nearly 200 million people.

- 1960s – To protect farmland, extensive afforestation projects were carried out by planting narrow and tightly spaced shelterbelts. However, the protective efficiency of the plantation was low.

- 1977 – The afforestation covered only 4.9 million ha, accounting to only about 4% of arid and semi-arid China.

- 1978 – TNSP was launched.

- 1987 – TNSP was named the “Great Green Wall” of China.

- 1994 – TNSP received the “Global 500” award from the United Nations Environment Programme.

- 1998 – Natural Forest Conservation Program (NFCP) was launched.

- 1999 – Green for Green Project (GGP) was launched.

- 2000 – Beijing-Tianjin Sand Source Control Program (BSSCP) was launched.

An overview of the Three-North Shelterbelt Program

TNSP is known as the “Great Green Wall” because of its wide coverage (Duan et al., 2011). Ranging over 4,069,000 km2 which accounts for 42.4% of the total land area of China, TNSP covers 521 counties in 13 provinces and autonomous regions (Duan et al., 2011). The program will take place in three stages (1978-2000, 2001-2020, and 2021-2050) following eight engineering schedules (Wang et al., 2010). On completion of the program, the forest coverage is expected to increase from 5% to 15% in arid and semi-arid China (Wang et al., 2010). As a result, farmland and pastures will be protected by the shelterbelt from sand storms and soil and water erosion (China’s Ministry of Forestry, 1986). Additionally, the increase in production of timber and other forest products may solve the problem of fuelwood shortage and develop the local economy (China’s Ministry of Forestry, 1986).

The Three-North area is typically occupied by the shallow-rooted vegetation including small halophytic subshrubs, steppe and savanna vegetation, and herbaceous vegetation (Lu et al., 2018). To restore the ecosystem, the program needs to be tailored to the local environmental conditions by selecting appropriate plant species and carefully designing afforestation forms (Lu et al., 2018). After the start of TNSP, there are mainly three forms of afforestation based on different goals: sparse plantings of trees close to farmland, roads, and buildings; plantings on the surfaces of mobile and semi-anchored dunes; and plantings on sand sheets (Wang et al., 2010). 

Communities in the Three-North area

Desertification and degradation are among the major environmental issues in the Three-North area (the World Bank, 2012). Researchers have recognized that economic losses are associated with the ongoing environmental deterioration (Cao et al., 2010). This phenomenon can be so called a poverty trap, in which poverty leads to land degradation and land degradation deepens poverty (Cao et al., 2010). The communities in the northwestern rural area where TNSP located is suffering from this dilemma because of their narrow income source, vulnerability to natural hazards, and the harsh environment that they are living in (Cao et al., 2010). Therefore, to sustain the afforestation program, it is important to take into account local people’s needs and promote local economic development (Lu et al., 2002). 

Tenure arrangements

The tenure arrangements of forest resources are more complicate than land ownership in contemporary China (Liu, 2001). Land is either state- or collective-owned while forestland ownership has been divided into four categories: state-owned, collective-owned, private-owned, and jointly ownership in the form of shareholding systems (Liu, 2001). The last three types of forest tenure arrangement are grouped as non-state ownership (Liu, 2001). Non-state forests are managed by local communities or households within communities, thus, multiple forms of management can be found in different areas (Liu, 2001). For example, indigenous management is retained in remote ethnic minority areas (Liu, 2001). Although non-state forests play an important role in timber and other forest products production and account for nearly 60% of national forestland, they are not evenly distributed though the country and still under considerable regulation and supervision of the state (Rozelle et al., 2000; Liu, 2001). The proportion of non-state forest coverage is as high as 90% in southern China while the forestland in northeastern China containing the richest timber resources is mostly managed by the state (Rozelle et al., 2000; Liu, 2000).

The timeline of changes in forestland tenure arrangements:

Prior to 1950 – Before the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, private ownership and household management were dominant types of tenure (Liu, 2001). Private forests were either owned by rural families or wealthy landlords and peasants while common forests were managed by a social group such as a village or several villages (Liu, 2001).

1950 - 1955 –  Tenure arrangements of  non-state forests have experienced great changes in China since the early 1950s when the Land Reform Act was initiated (Liu, 2001). The Land Reform Campaign permitted the government to confiscate the common forests and the forestland owned by the landlords (Liu, 2001; Lu et al., 2002). Some of the confiscated forests were nationalized while the others were distributed to farmers (Lu et al., 2002). During this period, there were only two types of tenure, either state-owned or individually-owned (Lu et al., 2002). Only three years later, the government initiated the policy of collectivization and the era of cooperatives came (Lu et al., 2002).

1956 - 1980 – Advanced cooperatives gradually established leading to the end of private ownership of forestland (Liu, 2001). Collective ownership was dominant until the people’s commune was created in 1958 (Liu, 2001). Households were required to pool their agricultural land, forests, and other means of production and the total income was distributed on the basis of individual contribution to the communal resource pool (Liu, 2001). The creation of the people’s commune in combination with the Great Leap Forward caused the first wave of deforestation (Liu, 2001; Lu et al., 2002). To improve the situation, the government initiated the policy of decentralization to devolve the control to lower levels (Liu, 2001). However, the policy did not last long due to the Cultural Revolution initiated in 1966 leading to the re-establishment of communes (Lu et al., 2002).

1980s - Present – Followed the early success of the Household Responsibility System in agriculture, forestland tenure arrangements experienced new reforms and more emphasis had been shifted from the state sector to collective sectors (Rozelle et al., 2000; Lu et al., 2002). Production plans for collectively managed forests were determined by local needs and the state’s procurement plan (Rozelle et al., 2000). Rural households regained their ownership to the land (Lu et al., 2002). Hills with few trees were allocated to households and the rights could be inherited (Liu, Liu, & Wang, 2017). Households who owned the land were supposed to plant trees there for subsistence purposes (Liu, Liu, & Wang, 2017). In addition, forests owned by the state or communities could be contracted to individual household ranging from 5 to 15 years (Lu et al., 2002). However, the period was so short that some tree species cannot reach maturity (Liu, Liu, & Wang, 2017). Subsequent reforms in collective forestland varied among different areas, however, generally productivity remained low and households showed only few interests in managing their forests (Liu, Liu, & Wang, 2017). In the collective ownership system, forest income belonged to all members of the collective rather than the person who created the forest, thus, the enthusiasm of farmers for forestation, forest protection, and forest production was restricted (Hu & Hodges, 2014). Since the late 1990s, the government launched a series of reforms in collective forests to improve the security of the household tenures (Liu, Liu, & Wang, 2017). For example, in 2003, the government implemented the Rural Land Contract Law (Hu & Hodges, 2014). This reform reallocates the forestland tenure right to individual households which gives farmers more autonomy in making forest management decisions (Hu & Hodges, 2014).

Administrative arrangements

The forest sector plays an important role in China’s economy by being a significant source of employment and providing 40% of the country’s rural energy (Rozelle et al, 2000). Since the early 1980s, the government launched a series of collective forestland tenure reforms and devolved control over forests (Rozelle et al., 2000; Wang, Van Kooten, & Wilson 2004). As a result, only 20% of the country’s forests are managed by the state (Rozelle et al., 2000; Wang, Van Kooten, & Wilson 2004). However, as a country with social-market economies, the Chinese government remains the most important entity in overseeing the forestry sector (Lu et al., 2002).

The government operates an extensive hierarchy including five levels of forestry administration in order to effectively oversee forestry activities (Lu et al., 2002). The State Forestry Administration (SFA) is the highest level department established in 1998 to replace the Ministry of Forestry (Yang, 2004). The SFA has an increasing emphasis on environmental protection and is in charge of afforestation programs (Lu et al., 2002; Yang, 2004). The SFA works with provincial and prefecture forestry departments, county forestry bureaus and town forestry stations within the hierarchy (Lu et al., 2002). Forest farmers have the right to regulate nearly all production activities within their assigned geographic jurisdictions, though they need to report to local forest stations which are the lowest level of the State Forestry Administration command hierarchy (Rozelle et al., 2000; Lu et al., 2002).

Affected Stakeholders

Peasants in the Three-North area whose farmlands have been converted into forests:

Agriculture is competing with land-use for afforestation, thus, local peasants whose farmland has been converted into forests are highly affected by TNSP and GGP (Rozelle et al., 2000). Appropriate financial compensation should be offered to affected peasants to make up their economic losses due to the conversion (Yang, 2004). Additionally, improved crop cultivars and agricultural techniques and increased off-farm employment would be provided (Yang, 2004). According to Yang (2004), local peasants just passively implement the afforestation program as long as the financial compensation can cover the loss of grain. Liu et al. (2008) indicated that GGP has helped local farms change their income structure by shifting from farming to other activities (Liu et al., 2008). For example, in Wuqi County of Shanxi Province, 15,000 farmers switched from farming to mainly construction, transportation, and restaurant businesses between 1998 and 2003 after reforesting 103,700 ha of their cropland (Liu et al., 2008).

Local herders/loggers:

Their livelihoods are affected by the ban on logging and grazing. If their economic losses cannot be adequately compensated, their life will be adversely affected (Cao et al., 2009).

Local forest workers:

Local people who make a living by working in the forest industry including tree planting and timber harvesting. They not only rely on the afforestation program for income but also care about the local environment. Afforestation may protect soil and water resources as well as provide fuelwood for subsistence purposes.

Local people who run fruit orchards:

To promote local economic development, the construction of TNSP has combined the plantation of economically important tree species in its second and third phases (Gansu Forestry Department, 2018). One noticeable change in rural China’s forest area is the expansion of commercial plantations consisting of oil bearing trees, fruit and nut orchards, and other non-timber product tree crops (Rozelle et al., 2000). The afforestation program has not only solved land degradation but also provide great economic returns. 

Interested Outside Stakeholders

Forest workers from outside the Three-North area:

TNSP and other afforestation programs provide the workers employment opportunities, however, they do not have spiritual links with the land and they can move to other places for work. As a result, they only have interests in the Three-North area and the afforestation programs implemented in the area but not really care about the local environment and development.

Both local and state government officials who run the program:

Their job is to promote forestry sector development, however, for most of them whose hometowns are not in the Three-North area, local development will not fundamentally affect their lives.

Local government officials:

Local governments may receive financial burdens because no taxes on the converted cropland have been collected since the implementation of the afforestation program. Additionally, they need to pay farmers financial compensation to cover their grain loss. However, local governments can always make money from other industries, thus, the income of government officials will not be affected.

State forest farms/ state-owned timber companies:

According to Rozelle et al. (2002), the state-owned forest farm managers never expected to endure long tenures at any given site, thus, they tended to have short planning horizons and use forests less efficiently.


They seek to protect the environment and study global environmental problems. They may show interests in the implementation of the afforestation program, however, whether being successful or not, the program will not affect at least the income of the environmentalists.

Foreign investors/ companies:

The main goal of them is to acquire economic returns, thus, they do not really care about the local environment and development.

Urban citizens that benefit from sand storm control such as people living in Beijing and Tianjin:

One goal of TNSP and other afforestation programs is to solve sand storms and improvements have been made. However, although urban citizens could benefit from the better air quality, they have no tight spiritual link with the Three-North area and their income source will not be affected. 



Over the past 30 years after the initiate of TNSP, important achievements and benefits have been brought to local people and the environment through soil and water conservation, sand dune fixation, and economic development (Li et al., 2012). The forest cover increased from 5.05% in 1978 to 10.51% in 2008 (Li et al., 2012). In addition, the program has provided increased employment opportunities for local people (Li et al., 2012). 

Unintended environmental consequences

There is an argument that large-scale afforestation has failed to solve the desertification problem in many parts of arid and semi-arid China (Cao et al., 2011). According to Cao et al. (2011), afforestation has sometimes produced unintended environmental, ecological, and socioeconomic consequences, and has failed to achieve the desired ecological benefits. Due to the aggressive implementation of China’s forest polices, there is a shift from natural vegetation to man-made forests (Cao et al., 2011). The native plant species in the Three-North area are usually shrub, steppe, and savanna vegetation (Cao et al., 2011). However, fast-growing exotic tree species have been preferred by foresters to get attractive results in a short period (Lu et al., 2016). Additionally, despite the highly variable climatic conditions, only a small range of tree species have been used for afforestation on degraded lands (Cao et al., 2011). The mismatch would result in lower ground water table, soil erosion, and plantation mortality (Cao et al., 2011).

Although the State Forestry Administration claims that the afforestation program has made improvements in environmental restoration, there is strong evidence to reject the claim (Cao et al., 2011). For example, the study of Lu et al. (2016) showed that there was a potential decline in groundwater table ranging from 21.5 m in Shananxi Province to 40.0 m in Xinjiang Province due to the planting of poplars (Populus spp.) and other deeply rooted woody vegetation. Poplars will experience water stress and mortality when tree roots cannot reach deep soil water (Lu et al., 2016). Studies have found that the tree survival rate in the Three-North area was only 15% from 1952 to 2005 which support the idea of Lu et al. (2016) (Cao et al., 2011). As a result, the desertification may be worse than before because the groundwater table may be too low to support the growth of native shallow rooted vegetation (Lu et al., 2016). Additionally, Wang et al. (2010) indicated that the decreased frequency of dust storms in the TNSP project area may be mainly caused by climatic change but not afforestation. Additionally, the TNSP has not targeted the area suffering most from desertification and dust storms (Wang et al., 2010).


Conflicts of interests and objectives among different stakeholders

Given the different interests and responsibilities of different stakeholders, their objectives often vary (Yang, 2004). For example, local farmers prefer economically significant plant species while environmentalists require them to plant trees of high ecological benefits. If local participation is excluded from the management process, which is quite often in a top-down management system, local people would not support the implementation of the program. However, local attitudes and supports are important for the effectiveness of the afforestation program (Yang, 2004). Therefore, it is important to consider about local people’s need when the government makes a decision. Additionally, the frequent changes in tenure arrangements over the history has left local people with a lack of confidence in the security of their property rights (Liu, 2001). Tenure insecurity may make local farmers refuse to invest in reforestation or even over exploit the forestland before the policy changes again (Liu, 2001).Your assessment of the relative power of each group of social actors, and how that power is being used.


Ecological perspective:

 More tree cover gains have been observed in areas with more rainfall and less extreme low temperature, in other words, areas classified as suitable for tree growth (Ahrends et al., 2017). Generally, less investment has been given to these areas (Ahrends et al., 2017). To maximize the increase in forest cover, more effort and investment should be put into suitable areas and plant ecologically appropriate and/or native species. Policymakers and scientists should carefully assess the local conditions, hydrology, pedology, and other biotic factors to come up with effective and sustainable ecological restoration programs (Lu et al., 2016). Additionally, biodiversity conservation is as important as forest cover increase when concerning about ecological restoration.

Administrative perspective:

A sustainable policy can only be formulated by integrating policy developers, competing government departments, and other stakeholders (Lu et al., 2016). Active local participation and their positive attitudes toward the program are important in policy implementation. Over the past decades, economic reforms in China have led to income-source diversification (Démurger, Fournier, & Yang, 2010). To sustain the afforestation program and improve local development, the government is expected to provide employment opportunities other than agricultural production only. Establishing fruit orchards in the Three-North area is a nice try. In addition, it is important to clarify property rights and give local people confidence that their tenures are secured which may inspire them to work more effectively.Your recommendations about this community forestry project


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