Course:FRST370/The degradation and development of 3-North Shelter Forest Program in Liaoning Province, China

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The distribution of the 3-North Shelter Forest program amongst the 13 provinces involved in the afforestation project. Liaoning can be found in the Southeastern corner of this region.

The 3-North Shelter Forest program is one of the largest afforestation projects in the world. This wiki focuses on one of the regions participating in this program, the Liaoning Province of China. Afforestation is an approach to ecological restoration in which fast-growing tree species are planted in order to improve forest cover in a region that has experienced losses to biodiversity, soil health, water health, and other aspects of the ecosystem due to deforestation[1]. There are a total of 13 provinces involved in the program, including the Liaoning province which this project focuses on. The overall program region borders the Gobi desert, which has been expanding since the 1950s due to deforestation related to an increasing industrial use of timber. The afforestation efforts have been found to be largely successful in preventing sand storms and soil erosion. However, the sustainability of this project has been questioned by researchers and there have been negative impacts to environmental and social well-being related to the selection of nonnative tree species and to a lack of appropriate policy surrounding poverty alleviation[2]. For more information, visit this video

Key themes

Afforestation, Long-term Leaseholders, Ecological Restoration, Three-North Shelterbelt Forest, China


The project began in 1978 to mitigate the impacts of deforestation such as soil erosion and sand storms[3][2]. Deforestation in the region is largely attributed to China’s timber industry which is one of the largest global manufacturers of wood products[4]. Industrial agriculture and urbanization are also causes of deforestation in the north of China. Among the ecological impacts of deforestation, there have also been negative impacts to agricultural productivity as well as social impacts such as displacement of residents who can no longer use desertified land[5]. The project is set to complete in 2050[5].

Site Overview

Liaoning is located in the north of China along the coast. It is one of the provinces involved in the 3-North project.

The northern region of China ranges from arid to semiarid with little precipitation[1]. It is mountainous with native plants typically being grasses and other steppe vegetation. It is also an impoverished area with a lot of land being used for agricultural production[1]. Residents are mostly poor farmers[1].

Liaoning is one of the northeastern provinces involved in the Three North program. This province has experienced greater improvements than other Three North provinces in terms of “net benefit per unit area of afforestation”, measured by Cao in 2020 through a novel research methodology[1]. This is due in part to it being a semi-humid climate which can support the moisture requirements of tree species planted in afforestation efforts[2]. In terms of forest production efficiency, which is more related to sustained growth and development in the timber industry, Liaoning has experienced little changes over the past two decades[4].  The region has also experienced outcomes from the Three-North program such as reduced ecological vulnerability, prevention of land desertification, and enhanced water and soil conservation[6].

Hongsen sophora – suitable tree species for afforestation in the Liaoning region.

Three-North's overall plan

On the basis of protecting the existing forest and grassland vegetation, the project has adopted methods such as artificial afforestation, afforestation by aeroplane seeding, closing mountains and closing sand for afforestation and grass cultivation. This is with the intention to build wind-proof and sand-fixing forests, soil and water conservation bodies, farmland shelterbelts, pasture shelterbelts, firewood forests and economic forests.  The project aims to establish a combination of arbor, shrub, grass and plants; a combination of forest belts, forest nets, and forests; a rational configuration of multiple forests and multiple trees; and coordinate the development of agriculture, forestry and animal husbandry.

Construction timeline

The planning of the Three North project started in 1978 and ends in 2050. The plan lasts for 73 years and will be constructed in three phases and eight phases:

1978-2000 was the first phase, which was divided into three phases.

2001-2020 is the second phase, which is divided into two phases.

2021-2050 is the third phase, which is divided into three phases.  

2021-2030 is the sixth phase.

2031-2040 is the seventh phase.

2041-2050 is the eighth and final phase.

Tenure arrangements

History of tenure arrangements

As Xie et al. summarized, ownership of forest land was divided between the government and village collectives following a period of great collectivization in China in the 1950s[7]. Shortly after the launch of the Three North program, the Three Fixes policy was passed in 1981 which had three mandates to decentralize forest management through further inclusion of local farmers as forest managers:  “(1) [clarify] forest rights, (2) [delimit] private forest plots, and (3) [establish] a forestry production responsibility system”[7]. Individualization was not a part of the reform at this point, yet some villages already began to pass collective management of forest land to individuals. The results of these reforms varied across the region, with some areas experiencing greater rates of forestation and others not.

Due to the informal transfer of management from village collectives to individual farmers, the government observed challenges in “enforcing forest conservation”[7]. Forestry provided little income for these rural farmer households so they were unlikely to plant trees when they gained individual management rights through the community. This led to a new reform which granted villages formal rights to transfer management responsibility and long term leases to individuals. A province must adopt the reform to initiate the process of individualization at the local level. Then, the policy goes through a period of research and consultation at each level of local government starting counties, townships, and then villages. At this point, the leadership or representatives of the village are given the right to vote for the passing of the reform within their community. If the reform receives a majority vote for its passing, then collective ownership is distributed to individuals in the form of leaseholds of forest land[7].

Long-term leaseholders

Currently, the majority of village residents in Liaoning province involved in the Three North program have individual tenure. In the early 2000s, collective ownership of forested land was devolved and individual households then had statutory rights “to transfer, inherit, and mortgage their forest rights” [7]. This was done through a reform called the Chinese Collective Forest Tenure Reform which recognized the positive relationship between afforestation and tenure security of the local community. There have been reforms prior to this point that have aimed to decentralize management of forests in the Three-North provinces, however, the Chinese Collective Forest Tenure Reform furthered these reforms by awarding households formal leasehold tenure up to a maximum of 70 years [7].

Regardless of these statutory rights, village residents may not perceive their lease agreements as permanent and therefore may not feel secure enough to plant trees on their land which can provide short-term constraints yet long-term financial gains[7].

Administrative arrangements

Governing bodies

The institutions involved in the Three North program are the Federal government of China, who provides funding for this program, as well as the State Forest Administration (SFA) who oversees the implementation of this project [1]. Other branches of government are also involved for more specific aspects of the program implementation such as agricultural outcomes, ecological conservation, and poverty alleviation[1]. Various levels of government within provinces deal with tenure reforms.

While SFA oversees implementation of the Three-North project, management of forest land is carried out by local communities as well.

Statutory rules in the Three-North program

Under the Chinese Collective Forest Tenure Reform, leaseholders who are typically farmers in rural villages must follow the Forest Law which “prohibits conversion of forest lands to non-forest lands (Article 15), and stipulates that timber harvesting shall be regulated (Article 29), reforestation is required within two years after harvesting (Article 31), and any logging must be permitted by the forest administration through a logging permit (Article 32)”[7]. The forest land is the region is categorized as shelter forest, which means that logging is “prohibited or highly restricted (Article 31)”[7].

Affected Stakeholders

Farmers and Forest Workers

The affected stakeholders in the region mainly consist of “farmers, livestock grazers [& herders], and forest workers”[1]. Their main objectives are to sustain their livelihoods through farming and managing the land, but there is increased interest and care in ecological restoration if the financial conditions are present to support this kind of stewardship. Such financial conditions include incentives from the government to ensure that livelihoods are not impacted by turning agricultural land into forested land[1]. Other conditions include tenure security through long-term lease agreements so that farmers a have financial incentive to plant trees which they can use and sell for timber in the future [7].

Relationship to Three-North Forestation

A worker plants trees for the Three-North project.

These stakeholders are incentivized to plant trees on their agricultural land[1]. Some residents are encouraged to plant shrubs and other vegetation because of the negative impacts they experience from desertification, rather than doing so through government enforcement. For others, forestation activities are carried out because of the financial incentive given to local residents through PES programs or the permissions to harvest and sell timber in the future from tree planting on their individual leaseholds[7]. While there have been financial incentives for residents to engage in activities that support the Three-North objectives, other aspects of the project such as logging bans have negatively impacted some residents' livelihoods[1].

Regulated by Forest Law and Tenure Reforms

In terms of relative power, the local communities must abide by Forest Law and mandates by the government that dictate logging bans and other aspects of the afforestation project. Gaining the right to transfer ownership at the local community level requires a lot of bureaucratic steps and levels of governance. The distance between decision-makers and the local community means that the provincial governing body may not account for individual communities' needs when choosing whether or not to initiate tenure reforms.

While the formalization process of tenure reform and lease agreements are carried out through the provincial government, villages have been found to take grassroots action to award and transfer land tenure themselves. In Liaoning province, individual ownership was already awarded to some residents by the village collective prior to the 2003 tenure reform[7]. The reform in 2003 changed the status of this ownership from informal to statutory.

Interested Stakeholders

Government departments

Relevant government departments in China have both high importance and influence in the Three-North Shelter Forest Program. They have great power, such as promulgation of laws and regulations related to the Three-North Shelter Forest Program, appointment and removal of personnel related to the project, funding for the project construction and so on. They have no direct connection with Liaoning Province. Their goal is to increase forest coverage and improve the country's ecological environment through the Three-North Shelter Forest Program. At the same time, the three-north shelterbelt project can also bring economic benefits and promote the economic development of Liaoning province and even the whole China. For example, many jobs were created during the construction of the project, which brought more tax revenue to the government.

Environmental NGO's

Environmental NGOs have low importance but high influence. They usually do not live in Liaoning and have no direct contact with Liaoning Province, but they are concerned about global environmental issues and the progress and results of the construction of the Three-North shelterbelts.


They concern about the process of the Three-North Shelter Forest Program, and so some researches to identify problems in the implementation process. However, they have little power and the land management in this project does not directly affect their livelihoods.

Residents near Liaoning Province

They do not live in Liaoning and have no direct connection with the forests of Liaoning. But they have benefited from the success of Three-North Shelter Forest Program in Liaoning province. The climate and ecological environment in Beijing have been greatly improved due to the construction of Three-North Shelter Forest Program, such as the improvement of air quality, wind speed reduction and so on.

Investors outside of Liaoning

Investors from outside the province are linked to Three-North Shelter Forest in Liaoning by means of investment, hoping to gain returns through their investment. But as long as they don't want to invest, they have nothing to do with the community forest, thus they don’t have a long-term dependency on the forest area in Liaoning Province.

Power Analysis

This power analysis examines both affected and interested stakeholders in terms of their level of importance and level of influence in the management and outcomes of the Three-North program.

The power analysis of stakeholders
Stakeholders Level of importance Level of influence
Residents and farmers in Liaoning Province High Low
Researchers Low Low
Residents outside but near to Liaoning Province Low Low
Government departments High High
Investors outside of Liaoning Low High
Environmental NGOs Low High

Residents and farmers who live Liaoning Province would be in the “high importance but low influence part”. Because the residents and farmers who live in the project-edge communities are direct affected stakeholders who are made up with locals, and both play significant roles in achieving project outputs. As for the reason for low influence part, residents and farmers would normally do most have the rights to present at the negotiation table, which means they cannot participate in decision making, so they have low influence.

We would say researchers and residents who live near Liaoning Province have low importance and low influence because they are not naturally connected with the certain project area, at the same time, they could do little and make tiny impact on this project due.

Government departments related to Three-North Shelter Forest Program would be high importance and high influence. Three-North Shelter Forest is state-owned, and the government have the legal land title and they can make rules and regulations about the program, which play a significant role in the project process and outcomes.

Investors outside of Liaoning and Environmental NGOs are low importance but high influence, since the former provide an important part of financial support for the project, and the latter provide financial, technical and knowledgeable support, at the same time, they both do not naturally connected with the certain project area and do not have legal rights to decide something.


Project aims

By 2050, complete the planning and construction tasks of the Three North Project, so that the forest coverage rate will reach 15%, and the wind and sand damage and soil erosion will be effectively controlled [1]. The ecological environment, the production and living conditions of local people will be fundamentally improved.  The final intention of this program is to obtain a relatively complete forest ecological system, a developed forestry industry system and a relatively prosperous ecological and cultural system.

Project achievements

A section of the Three-North Shelterbelt Forest which has seen successful increase to forest cover.

After 30 years of continuous construction, afforestation area of ​​24.469 million hectares has been gradually completed, and the forest coverage rate in the project area has increased from 5.05% in 1977 to 10.51% now[8]. The wind and sand damage in the key control areas has been effectively curbed, and soil erosion in some areas has also been controlled.  At the same time, the project promoted regional economic development and increased income of local farmers and herdsmen[8]. However, due to increased treatment costs and relatively insufficient investment, there are currently 1 million ha of inferior forests in the Three-North area, which not only has low protection efficiency, but also has serious diseases and insect pests, which urgently need to be updated.

Conflicts and challenges

The biggest challenge currently facing the Three North Shelterbelt is insufficient investment and lack of motivation for development [1].  Due to the low state subsidy standard, the imperfect investment structure, and the lack of reform funds, the sustainable development of the ecosystem in terms of quality, function and efficiency is restricted[3].  In addition, due to the continuous increase in labor costs, the serious imbalance between the low level of national investment and the high growth of afforestation costs has made ecological construction more and more difficult.


After 30 years, the Three North Project has innovated a large number of scientific and technological achievements, formed a relatively complete project construction management system, accumulated rich construction experience, and cultivated a large number of outstanding technical personnel and management teams [8]. They gradually promoted more than 1,300 advanced and applicable technologies for the Three North Project, covering an area of ​​330 hectares [8].

Local governments are paying increasing attention to improving people's living environment and increasing greening, and their investment in forestry ecological construction is increasing year by year.  Liaoning plans to invest 23.2 billion yuan in forestry production and construction in the next ten years.

Despite these efforts, low state subsidy standards and insufficient investment have become one of the biggest reasons restricting the development of the Three North Shelterbelt[9]. The three-north phase four project completed only 2.312 billion yuan invested by the central government, accounting for 30.8% of the planned investment.  Compared with the assigned afforestation tasks, only 43.34% [9].

The Three-North Shelterbelt is an ecological project, which focuses on the pursuit of ecological benefits. It is difficult for farmers to obtain benefits from the protection operation[9]. However, for a long time, the Three-North Project has only had construction funds. Lack of management and protection funds, and resource management and protection, to a large extent have led to reliance on local governments at all levels.  With the reform of township and village levels and the diversion of personnel, resource management and protection cannot be achieved in many places [1]. In addition, the implementation of compensation funds for ecological public welfare forests is not in place, causing man-made damage and livestock damage, which has offset the project construction results to some extent.


Develop the undergrowth economy and forest tourism

By developing the undergrowth economy as well as forest tourism, the potential of the forest land could be realized in terms of economic value for local people while maintaining its focus on ecological restoration and protection. At present, the economic forest mainly composed of dried wild fruit has been formed in Chaoyang City of Liaoning Province, and the development is relatively mature, but the development of undergrowth economy (such as peanut, undergrowth ginseng and other low-growth or native plants) is less carried out at present[6].

Communities should pay more attention to the development of undergrowth economy, such as planting some undergrowth cash crops such as undergrowth ginseng, motherwort and peanut in shelterbelt areas, to make full use of the advantages of space stratification[6]. While developing the construction of forest ecological systems, it also drives the orderly development of related forest by-industries, increases farmers' taxable revenue which benefits the State and increases the gross product.

Ecotourism could also play a positive role in shelterbelt development. For example, in Zanzibar mentioned in Required Readings, racialization helps to develop ecological tourism, which has attracted a lot of foreign exchange and investment.

Increase public motivation

Since the project began, the protection forest construction has always been a focus of community forestry, with insufficient recognition of the work of the management. The enthusiasm of community members is not high, coupled with the weak forest resources transformation ability, the forestry industry development speed is relatively lagging, thus providing fewer jobs[6]. What is more, due to hard working conditions and huge workloads, fewer people are willing to work.

As for the lack of enthusiasm by local residents, it is suggested that relevant government units allow local forestry farmers to enjoy the right to the management of local shelterbelt and let them participate in it by means of contracted jobs and transferred management rights[6]. At the same time, relevant departments can also subsidize the positions of special posts.

Three-North Shelter Forest Program should deepen reform and make institutional innovations: actively encourage non-public ownership to participate in afforestation renovation in accordance and broaden financing channels by means of forestation by loan, participation of enterprises and input from the public.

It is also an effective way to strengthen the ideological education of the sense of responsibility, mission and sense of urgency to the relevant cadres and the masses in their daily work, and make more people realize the great significance of the implementation of the Three-North Shelter Forest Program.

Process of governance should follow the laws of nature

To prevent the encroachment of sandstorms and control the desertification of grassland, we should start from the source of sandstorms and desertification, and respect the natural law to restore the local vegetation, rather than just rely on shelterbelts[6]. Moreover, most of the Three-North areas are semi-arid and arid steppe areas, so it is not suitable for continuous large-scale afforestation. Therefore, efforts should be made to restore damaged vegetation.

It is suggested that Three-North Shelter Forest Program should stop afforestation in arid and semi-arid areas and instead of the "Three-North vegetation restoration system construction project"[5]. The construction work should conform to nature, prevent and control from the source, and focus on the treatment of original grassland desertification, rather than the great desert formed in the past.

Increase capital input

The development of community forestry is inseparable from financial capital. Capital can be invested to improve the survival condition and protection effect of shelterbelts by repairing and maintaining tree species, improving the skills of technicians and planners through education and training.

Based on the investigation and summary of the actual situation of some areas that have been repaired, the repair cost of poplar is 5000 ~ 15000 yuan /hm2, the repair cost of acacia is 6000 ~ 10000 yuan /hm2, the repair cost of pine is 5200 ~ 10500 yuan /hm2, and the repair cost of shrub is 2500 ~ 7000 yuan /hm2. The subsidy standard of the Ministry of Finance is 3000 yuan/Hm2 for the tending and repairing of moderately degraded trees and shrubs, and 1500 yuan/Hm2 for the flat stubble rejuvenation of shrubbery[9]. From the actual update and repair, the state funding is far from enough. The accounting of funds released should be combined with different regions, types and repair modes, and the accounting of repair costs should be done well. In particular, the costs of cutting, clearing diseased and dead trees, digging roots and other links should be accounted scientifically[9]. In addition, governments can consider appropriate investments to provide long-term training to relevant members of the community forestry community.


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 Cao, S. (2011). Impact of China's Large-Scale Ecological Restoration Program on the Environment and Society in Arid and Semiarid Areas of China: Achievements, Problems, Synthesis, and Applications. Critical Reviews in Environmental Science and Technology, 41(4), p. 317-335. doi:10.1080/10643380902800034
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Cao, S.X. & Xia, C.Q. (2020). Payoff from afforestation under the Three-North Shelter Forest Program. Journal of Cleaner Production, 256.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Hu, Y.G., Li, H., Wu, D., Chen,W.,  Zhao, X., Hou, M. & Zhu, Y.J. (2021). LAI-indicated vegetation dynamic in ecologically fragile region: A case study in the Three-North Shelter Forest program region of China. Ecological Indicators, 120.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Wang, C., Chu, X., Zhan, J., Wang, P., Zhang, F., & Xin, Z. (2020). Factors Contributing to Efficient Forest Production in the Region of the Three-North Shelter Forest Program, China. Sustainability, 12(1), 302. doi:10.3390/su12010302
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Li, J.D.(2014). Reflections on the "Three-North Shelterbelt System Construction Project". Grass Science, 12, p. 2195-2197.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Wang, Y.R., Ge, J.L., Han, D.X., & Wang, G. (2019). Effect and Problems of shelterbelt construction in the "three Northern regions" of Liaoning Province -- a case study of Chaoyang District. Green technology, 03, p. 155-157 + 159. Doi: 10.16663 / j.carol carroll nki LSKJ. 2019.03.062.
  7. 7.00 7.01 7.02 7.03 7.04 7.05 7.06 7.07 7.08 7.09 7.10 7.11 Xie, L., Berck, P., & Xu, J. (2016). The effect on forestation of the collective forest tenure reform in China. China Economic Review, 38, p. 116-129. doi:10.1016/j.chieco.2015.12.005
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Zhang, G.Q. (2020). Development Strategy analysis of shelterbelt in western Liaoning. Modern Agricultural Science and Technology, 09, p. 165+168.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Che, X.F. (2020). Analysis of restoration strategy of three North shelter forest Degraded stand. Shelter Forest Technology, 08, p. 80-81. Doi: 10.13601/j.issn.1005-5215.2020.08.031.

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