Books: simple ecology, complex issues

In The Logic of the Grasslands, Han Nianyong and his team provide a framework for studying China’s declining pastures, where many sectors’ interests conflict. Open minds and new approaches are needed, writes Wang Xiaoyi.

The Logic of the Grasslands (1-4)
Han Nianyong (editor)
Beijing Science and Technology Press, 2011 

China’s grasslands make up 40% of its territory and have been in steady decline. The last decade has seen some good news, however, as grassland pastures have finally come to the attention of policy-makers and academics. Along with financial support, a series of policies has been issued on protecting the grasslands and developing pastures.

But all this may be outweighed by the bad news: despite possible localised improvements, the grasslands, overall, are still deteriorating. In other words, our policies and schemes have not had the impact expected.

Why is this so? The leading view blames inadequate funding and policy implementation. For example, the compensation for turning pastures into grasslands is much less that for turning farmland into forests; and grasslands supervision is much weaker than forestry management. Even today there are still large areas of grassland that have not been leased to individual households. 

Given this, the conclusion is clear: increase funding and strictly implement policies; that is, provide adequate financial compensation and strict law-enforcement to reduce the number of people and livestock on the grasslands (ideally, to none at all). That way, the dual aims of protecting the grasslands and developing pastoral areas will both be achieved.

This approach leaves all parties happy: the herders will have more income, the local government will have money to spend, and academics will have more research funding.

But is it that simple? In some ways, the grassland pastures may be less complicated than other areas. They are located in arid and semi-arid areas, or on high plateaus, and often have simple ecologies. Their economic and social structures are relatively homogenous. But this relatively easy-to-understand area has become a complex issue because of the number of conflicts focused on the grasslands: the livestock industry versus grassland protection, agriculture versus tourism, and the interrelationships between the state, the market and grass-roots communities.

To explain the logic behind these phenomena, Han Nianyong, director of the Beijing Institute of Human Ecology Engineering, and his small team have spent years interviewing herders, talking to academics and forming an understanding of a complex social reality. The result is a set of four books, The Logic of the Grasslands.  

The first book explores the expansion of farming. The author holds that contracting the grasslands out to farmers, who put up fences to raise cattle or produce fodder, is an inappropriate application of agricultural methods of production to grassland pastures. For almost 30 years, however, this approach has been widely applied. This isn’t just seen in the direct use of land as fields (for fodder or opened up as agricultural land for resettled “ecological migrants”), but also in agricultural methods of operation being applied on the grasslands (such as the contracting of land and fencing in of livestock).

In the author’s view, bringing agriculture to the grasslands goes against the basic ecological characteristics of the region, and the poverty of herders and deterioration of the land is, to a very large extent, due to this.

The second book discusses nomadic herding culture. The popularisation of agriculture is due to a misunderstanding of nomadic herding; theories of social evolution see nomadism as backwards, to be replaced by more advanced agricultural methods of production. But for the author, nomadism is not backwards – it is an adaptation to the grassland ecology.

Many of the contributors to this section agree that local knowledge has been built up over generations of practice – in particular, knowledge of how to protect the local environment. We must learn from the locals, and respect them and their practices if we are to develop and protect the grasslands.

The third book describes market problems. When the livestock industry became part of the market, herders who relied on purchasing fodder to supplement grassland grazing were pushed into poverty and had to rely on loans to expand or maintain production, leaving them in debt. Herders rented out their land, and their pastures became damaged.

Why did the market fail? The authors hold that limitations of nature mean that grassland herding can never be a growth industry, and trying to apply simple market principles throws the relationship between man and nature out of balance as people seek short-term profit and plunder resources. An unruly market does not favour the strong and eliminate the weak; it leads to bad money driving out good.

The contributors to this book hold that another kind of market is necessary here, one that encourages cooperation as well as competition, and the pursuit of sustainable development that will protect the grasslands, rather than short-term profits.

The fourth book discusses the state’s ecological projects. Neo-classical economists say that when markets fail, the state should intervene. The market and the state act as opposite ends of a see-saw, compensating for each other’s ebbs and flows. Recent years have seen steady increases in state investment in ecological projects, with compensation for herders who incur losses due to environmental protection. But it is not clear if these are effective, and may even have the opposite effect, with schemes designed to protect actually causing harm.

In the past many researchers thought the ineffectiveness of state environmental-protection schemes was due to inadequate funding. But the authors of this book take an entirely different view: the problem was the direction in which the schemes worked. For example, water is a crucial resource for these arid regions, and when policy-makers banned herding and forced herders into agriculture, they were abandoning a way of life that uses little water for another way that consumes large amounts of water – and the inevitable result was further environmental damage.

The authors point out the designers of state projects take an outside view of the grasslands ecology and view local herders as destroyers of the environment, who need to be controlled in order to protect the ecology. But as the book says, there can be no environmental protection if the locals themselves are not motivated.

The books portray the grasslands in all their diversity and complexity. In considering the existing simplified logic that has been applied, the authors avoid replacing it with another, also simplified, alternative. Many prescriptions have been written for the grasslands in the past 30 years: first, land was contracted out to households, but when that didn’t work fences were erected; then herding was banned; then local people were relocated; then subsidies were increased.

At the time, all of these plans seemed as if they would solve the problem, but as the authors point out, solving one problem caused 10 more. The largest contribution of these books is to make the reader realise how complex the grasslands are. We should study that complexity with open minds, rather than simply applying the same set of policies we use everywhere else. 

The books also provide a three-part framework in which to consider the grasslands: firstly, a bottom-up view, stressing respect for herders’ choices and viewing herders as a part of the grasslands; secondly, finding the points at which protection and utilisation (or government and herders) work together, rather than simply placing them in opposition; and thirdly, an ecological civilisation perspective, going beyond linear development ideas of herding, farming and industry to find a way for humanity and the environment to exist in harmony.

Reconsidering the logic of the grasslands is not just of significance for grasslands policy-making; it may also encourage us to reconsider our way of life.

Wang Xiaoyi is a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Centre for Rural Environmental Social Studies.

Translated by Roddy Flagg.