The “Three-North” Shelterbelt Program of China



It was in November 1978, right with the policy of the reform and opening-up, that the Chinese government made a decision of historical significance to construct the “Three-North” Shelterbelt Program (TNSP) to improve the natural and economic conditions of the Three-North for sustainable development.

This unveiled one of the most significant and poetic chapters of ecological construction in the world.

The TNSP construction is implemented in 551 counties of 13 provincial units covering 4,069,000km2. The planned construction period is made of 8 phases in 3 stages. It was planned to plant and conserve 35,080,000 ha of trees and shrubs to increase the forest coverage the Three-North from 5.05% to 14.95%.

Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of China’s socialist reform, opening-up and modernization inscribed “Green Great Wall” to the TNSP in 1988 in celebrating its 10th anniversary.

By connecting the past and the future of this piece of land, the TNSP, along with the Great Wall, has witnessed the misery, hardship and fight that Chinese nation has come through and dreams we hold.

The TNSP is supported by people living in the region and the international community. Since its commencement, 25 countries and over a dozen international organizations and institutions have donated a total RMB¥1.6 billion through 58 collaborative projects to the TNSP. The Three-North Shelterbelt Construction Bureau received UNEP Global 500 Award in 1987.

In 2018, the United Nations awarded the TNSP with Certificate of good Practice to the implementation of the United Nations Strategic Plan for Forests 2017-2030 and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals.

Since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, the TNSP has been conscientiously implementing the thought of President Xi Jinping on ecological civilization construction in the new ear. This is the period with the fastest progress of the project construction, the largest increase in investment, the most obvious improvement of the living environment and the most substantial benefits for the local people.

In the recent 40 years, the conserved afforestation of the TNSP has accumulated to 30.14 million ha. It serves as a Green Great Wall in the north frontier of our Motherland to protect us from dusty wind, desertification, water erosion and soil loss in favor of agriculture and animal husbandry.

  • The forest coverage in the TNSP area increased from 5.05% 1977 to 13.57 in 2017.
  • The volume of living trees in the TNSP area increased from 720 million m3 in 1977 to 3.33 billion m3 in 2017.
  • The vegetation coverage in the TNSP area increased from 331.70% in 1978 to 42.41 in 2017.
  • The value of forest ecosystem services increased from RMB¥480 billion in 1978 to RMB¥2.34 trillion in 2017.
  • The carbon sequestration of the planted vegetation in recent 40 years has totalled to 2.31 billion tons, which is equivalent to 5.23% of China’s industrial CO2 emissions of the same period.


The sandified land stretching from Heilongjiang to the east to Xinjiang to the west in three-north totals 1,438 million km2.

During 1960-1970s, tens of million hectares farmland and grassland was damaged by sand and wind erosion. Trains running from Uda to jilantai were even forced to stop or derailed 797 times alone due to sand drift in the year 1997, nearly 2.2 times a day.

Effective sand prevention and control requires the joint efforts from forestry workers, officials and farmers of all ethnic groups; depends on grouping of various measures including grass grid, windproof net, surface fixation, water-diversion for flushing sand dune, sand closure for vegetation regeneration, artificial planting, pasture closure for grass regeneration and aerial seeding; and benefits from all types of ecological restoration projects that combine trees, shrubs and grass formed in lines, strips and networks.

In the recent 40 years, the sand fixation forests in the TNSP have extended by 6,410,000 ha, protecting, and improving more than 10 million ha of degraded grassland.

One generation has spent their life planting trees to fight against the encroaching sand. Through the TNSP around 336,200 km2 sandy land is managed and converted into fertile farmland, fruit yards and pasture. As a result, the annual average of desertified land is reduced by 1,183 km2.

The 5th National Monitoring of Desertification and Sandification disclosed in 2015 shows that from 2009-2014, the net decease of desertified land in 8 provinces (Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Shaanxi, Hebei, Ningxia, Shanxi, Xinjiang, Qinghai) is 11,497 km2, or 94.86% of the total net decrease in the whole country. Three major sandy lands (Mu Us, Khorchin and Hulun Buir) have achieved net decrease in sandy areas and thus entered a new stage of desert utilization.


China is a large country of agriculture and the Three-North is China’s major area for agricultural and stock-breeding production. However in the 1970s tens of million hectares of farmland and pasture in the Three-North region were under the threat of wind erosion, which happened throughout the year destroying seedlings and caused a very low production. Farmers relying on the crops lived a poor life at that time. 

Protecting the farmland and pasture to ensure and increase yield is one of the major tasks of the TNSP. After 40 years shelterbelts that have formed into networks are able to protect the farmland and pasture from sand and wind erosion.

In the recent 40 years, the farmland protection forests in the TNSP have effectively protected more than 30,000,000 ha of farmland. 44.1% of the farmland are protected by the protective forests. The climatic hazards such as dry hot winds, hails and frost against agriculture have been basically rooted up. With the help of the protective forests, the annual production of grains increases by 10,600,000 tonnes.

By providing refuge to the land and its people, the TNSP is expanding the liveable habitats and oasis.


Yellow river, loess and sand are typical geographical features of the region, and soil and water erosion is the disastrous problem. Before the TNSP was initiated, the river bed accretion at downstream was at 10 cm per annum due to 1,600 billion kg silt flushed from Loess Plateau into the Yellow River each year, causing tremendous threat to the livelihood of people residing along the river.

Soil and water conservation is an important mission of the TNSP. Key to success: integrated planning of mountain, water, farmland, forest and road development; combination of biological and engineering measures; exploration and establishment of shelterbelts that serves both ecological and economic functions; combination of trees, shrubs and grass based on mountain range and catchment division; and integration of mountain closure for regeneration, grazing ban, conversion of farmland to forest, conversion of pasture to grassland.

In the recent 40 years, soil conservation forests in the TNSP have increased by 11.94 million ha, accumulatively covering 447,000 km2 of eroded lands, the TNSP has achieved a dual decrease in soil erosion area and intensity in the region. It is estimated that every year around 400 billion kg silt in the Loess Plateau is prevented from flushing into the Yellow River.

Once exposed to numerous criss-crossing gullies and barren hills, the Loess Plateau is now covered by thriving farmland, grassland, fruit yards and green mountains where the ancient Yellow River is running across smoothly.


The Three norths mean the Northwest, the North and the Northeast of China, where hosts lots of minority – ethnic, remote and poverty-stricken areas. Because of limited vegetation and barren farmland, the people are living in poverty. In the process of vegetation building, the TNSP also contributes to the income generating and livelihood improvement in favour of the local people. The once barren sandy land and hills has become sources of green treasures nowadays.

Fruit plantations of 4.63 million ha have been planted to build industrial belts with outstanding features, reasonable distribution and competitive marketing capacity of apples, red dates, fragrant pears, wolfberry, chestnuts and so on. The annual production of dry and fresh fruits amounts to 48 million tons with output value of RMB¥120 billion. Around 15 million people get rid of poverty with fruit production.

With the help of the TNSP, there are vigorous rises in cropping, livestock development, processing, eco-tourism and so on. The people living in the Three North generation by generation are realizing their dreams for better-off and prosperity. The green has brought forth great harvests and happy and peaceful livelihood.

The development of fruit trees is on the basis of local conditions, which remarkably helps the farmers with income generating. The construction of forestry industrial belts and chains with outstanding features has strengthened the marketing competition in favour of local economic-social development.


The TNSP is a cross-century program which benefits all mankind and will be inherited by people in the region, as well as a green program which symbolizes the renaissance of the Chinese nation. All walks of life, from government officials to local residents, from soldiers to ordinary citizens, from businessmen to students, are participators, supporters and protectors of the TNSP.

Making concerted efforts and united as one, people in the Three-north are pooling the China strength that is invincible.

Striving to survival while holding on to dreams, people in the Three-north are demonstrating the China spirit that keeps pace with present-day;

Led by the State and participated by the masses, people in the Three-north are moving forward on the China path of ecological progress.

For nearly half century, tens of thousands of forestry workers have devoted their life to the TNSP. Those individuals who have made extraordinary contributions are the backbones of the TNSP and exemplify the spirit of Chinese Nation hard-working, persistent, aggressive and optimistic.


Being the home to 84% of sandified land and 60% of land suitable for afforestation, the Three-north region is the main area for tree planting and ecological restoration.

The TNSP is challenged by severe drought and dry lake basins are major sources of the sandstorms. Tree-planting in arid areas and management of saline land remain the top priority and key issue of the TNSP.

The Chinese government has put forward in the National development Strategy to give high priority to making ecological progress and incorporate it into all aspects and the whole process of advancing economic, political, cultural and social progress, work hard to build a beautiful country, and achieve lasting and sustainable development of the Chinese Nation.

The Chinese government gave important instruction to the TNSP construction, emphasizing that the TNSP construction is a major ecological program implemented with China’s reform and opening up to the outside world, and that it is an important landmark program for the construction of ecological civilization. With 40 years of unremitting efforts, the program has achieved tremendous ecological, economic, and social benefits, and has become a successful model of global ecological governance. At present, the ecology in the Three-North is still fragile. Continuing to push forward the TNSP construction is not only conducive to the regional sustainable development, but also conducive to the sustainable development of China.

The Chinese government emphasizes that we should persist in making long-term contributions, innovate the system and mechanism, improve policies and measures, continuously promote the TNSP construction, constantly increase the quantity and quality of forest and grass resources, continuously improve the ecological environment in the Three-North, consolidate and develop the green ecological protector in the northern part of our motherland, and make new and greater contributions to the construction for a beautiful China.

At a time when the entire world is pursuing ecological progress, it is those nations who bear strong awareness of green are able to achieve long-lasting sustainable development. The Three-North region shoulders the top priority, key issue and hope in making ecological progress and build a beautiful country.