Books: rethinking China’s grasslands

In Pastoral Communities Under Environmental Pressure, Wang Xiaoyi rebuts mainstream views on a deteriorating environment in Inner Mongolia. Liu Shurun agrees that valid nomadic practices and ecosystem networks mustn’t be ignored.

Pastoral Communities Under Environmental Pressure
Wang Xiaoyi
Social Sciences Academic Press, 2009

It is generally held in China that deterioration of the grasslands of Inner Mongolia is due to increases in human and livestock populations. Policy in Inner Mongolia has proceeded accordingly, but problems have arisen. Wang Xiaoyi, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Sociology, visited six locations in Inner Mongolia to produce this book, which presents an alternative point of view.

The mainstream view is that population increases damage the grassland environment – and so that population is relocated. But Wang’s research finds that the population of the grasslands is not now at its highest. Drawing a simple link between population pressure and environmental degradation, and then reducing the population, will not achieve the hoped-for results.

In some areas, herders have been removed from the grasslands – but they still rely on grassland resources, and may consume even more after the move. Some localities relocate herders from the areas they most wish to save, and then give the freed space to business and incoming populations. With no reduction in use of the grasslands, they shrink and are further damaged.

Many blame overstocking of cattle for the grassland damage, resulting in policies enforcing fallow periods or banning of grazing altogether.

But Wang finds that strict enforcement of these policies is not possible. The use of straw or purchased fodder to raise cattle in enclosures will only result in the use of more natural resources and funds – grass, water, chemicals, labour and fuel – and the herders will lose money.

Nor is it possible to keep cattle enclosed permanently, particularly in spring. Spring is when the cattle most want to eat fresh grass, so grazing at night, or in secret, is inevitable. Secret grazing results in cat-and-mouse games between the herders and government, and local authorities now see the resulting fines as a regular source of income.

So the grazing restrictions only increase costs for the herders and enrich local officials, while failing to reduce the actual amount of grazing taking place.

When grasslands are parcelled out to specific households, herders start to shift to agriculture. At the start, herding benefits from the profit and fodder produced. But this is at the cost of damage to large areas of grassland and the loss of both earth and water. When the herders no longer have free access to large areas of land, and the costs of fertiliser, pesticides, tools and machinery, health care and education increase, their livelihoods become unsustainable.

The author mentions two villages that thought developing irrigated land would both protect the environment and improve the local economy. The local government gave full backing to improving cattle breeds, and raising pigs became popular. But this required more fodder, which had to be obtained from agriculture.

Herding, which relies on rainwater, is replaced with agriculture, which relies on groundwater. Temporary profits give rise to a greater environmental burden and the waste of water resources – and this is unsustainable.

These issues are discussed against a background of two major changes seen in the Inner Mongolian grasslands in recent decades. In the 1980s and 1990s, Inner Mongolia allocated grazing lands to households, staying in line with national policy and bidding farewell to thousands of years of nomadism. Secondly, to stop degradation of the grasslands, there came a set of reforms such as grazing bans, relocation of populations and the use of pastures for agriculture, industry and urban expansion.

These changes failed to improve the environment and reduced herders’ incomes, and local culture started to suffer.

Before the allocation of pastures by household, Inner Mongolia had never seen large-scale drought or other natural disasters. The grasslands remained healthy, even during the Cultural Revolution. Damage to the grasslands coincided with household allocation; this was the key factor in the ending of nomadism and the start of environmental damage.

Rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and the use of enclosures for livestock raising has seen Inner Mongolia overtake Heilongjiang as the province with the largest amount of newly utilised land.

Environmental degradation extends to the deep soil, rivers, lakes and ground water. Enclosed land is not trampled by cattle, and there is a resulting drop in biodiversity and productivity, causing greater damage.

In the last century, grassland herders generally had better lives than farmers and city dwellers. After allocation of pastureland, the government encouraged the keeping of livestock, and good prices meant the herders often got rich.

But the good days didn’t last. Damage to the grasslands led the government to implement a range of policies limiting grazing, costs increased and the herders quickly burned through their savings, becoming poor and polarised. This led to conflict between the locals and government, to the detriment of a half-century of ethnic harmony. Even the Cultural Revolution did not do this.

It cannot be said that the government does not care about the grasslands. The problems of the grasslands have resulted in more investment that at any other time, and significant efforts. But this has mostly been directed at fixed small-scale and intensive agriculture, rather than the ancient herding practices – and so the hoped-for results have not been achieved.

Wang presents ample facts to show that the environmental characteristics and long-standing and still valid nomadic practices of the grasslands must not be ignored. Local herders must be relied on, and the opinions of local officials and those scientists with practical experience should be listened to. A simple application of experiences from inland China and overseas – some of which already has been shown to fail – will not work. Orders and compulsory enforcement will not work. We must admit errors and change our methods, rather than continuing to implement our mistakes.

The grasslands are an ecosystem including the herders, government, grass, livestock, wild flora and fauna and a range of environments. They create a network that cannot be severed. It is not possible to change, punish or remove any “member” – such as removing livestock to restore the grasslands or banning grazing. We can only manage the relationships between them.

This book uses actual facts to explain grassland changes, and is worth reading. It will be of particular benefit to anyone concerned about the grasslands, and in particularly government leaders and officials.

Liu Shurun is a grassland ecologist who lived in Inner Mongolia for many years.