Region Felled by Nature's Blows
By ERIK ECKHOLM
Erik Eckholm/The New York Times
and his family are spending
their days at a temporary site
the government fenced off their
ruined pastures to try to
China, It doesn't quite match the 10 plagues of ancient Egypt,
the pastures here have not been overrun by frogs or fleas, at
least not yet.
But after three years of
calamities including drought, an earthquake, a killer
blizzard, a plague of locusts that ate the grasslands clean
and a flurry of blinding dust storms, the sheep and cattle
herders of Inner Mongolia are bewildered, and they look to the
coming winter with dread.
"I don't understand what's
happening," said Jibutsima, 78, an ethnic Mongolian woman who,
like hundreds of thousands of others in this part of northern
China, sees her life falling apart.
While a reckless surge in herd
sizes during a decade of good weather and booming demand for
meat weakened the region's pastures, the immediate crisis was
set off by an extraordinary sequence of natural disasters.
Local officials worry that their region is an early victim of
global warming, brought on by rising concentrations of carbon
dioxide and other "greenhouse" gasses.
"I think these disasters are
linked to global climate change," said Yang Wenyi, deputy
chief of meteorology for Xilingol Prefecture, the large
central region of Inner Mongolia that is one of the most
The case for a human-induced
change in the weather cannot be proved, but the strange
patterns here in recent years are consistent with scientific
models of global warming, international experts say. If the
greenhouse theory is correct, then the woes of Inner Mongolian
herders give a taste of vaster social and environmental
stresses to come.
Generations of Ms. Jibutsima's
family have tended livestock on these same prairies. They were
nomads until the early 1980's, when they settled within the
thousand acres of range land they were allocated, like many
other local families, by the government. In the 1990's, with
the demand for mutton soaring and the rains good, she and her
sons saved enough to buy a motorbike for herding and even a
cheap truck for the three-hour drive through rutted pastures
to the nearest market.
But now the truck sits broken,
and with the pastures barren and no hay in store for the
frigid months ahead, the family plans to sell off most of its
animals in a desperate effort to try to save breeding stock
?and their future.
"Can it be that nature is
changing?" said Ms. Jibutsima, who, like many Mongolians, uses
a single name. "Maybe the heavens are disturbed," she added,
pointing to the barren hills that should be deep green now and
ripe for cutting hay,
The troubles started in the
summer of 1999, when the always-meager rains nearly
disappeared and an earthquake destroyed many homes. In 2000,
the rains failed again.
By last fall the grasses were
spotty at best and the livestock thinner than usual as the
herders faced what is always their hardest period, the winter.
Many families went deep into debt buying hay from other
Then came the blizzard. For 72
hours, a savage mix of snow and fine sand howled through the
air, blowing so thickly that a veteran herdsman got lost and
perished walking right outside his home.
Many animals froze and in the
weeks that followed many more starved to death. Hopes of
relief sprouted briefly in May, when a rainstorm brought the
pastures to life.
The locusts followed, frenzied
hordes that ate most of the emerging grass. Little rain has
fallen in the ensuing months, the summer was hotter than
normal and more than 20 colossal dust storms have blown away
much of the topsoil.
For a brief time after the
blizzard, the travails of Inner Mongolia attracted outside
attention, and food aid from international donors has helped
tens of thousands of stricken families to avoid hunger. Still,
officials say there may be a chronic food shortage in the
Ethnic Mongolians account for a
good share of the herders in this central pastoral region,
although decades of migration into Inner Mongolia by Han
Chinese, the country's dominant group, has left the Mongolians
a small minority in the province over all.
In the current drought, the
responses of ethnic Mongolian and Han Chinese herders have
tended to differ, said Zaorgetubater, the deputy chief of the
county-level government in Abaga Banner. "The Mongol attitude
is that you keep some animals until you have nothing left,
because if you lose your livestock you lose your way of life,"
he said. "I think for many Han it's more just an economic
Ms. Jibutsima, for one, is
fearful and sad. A few years ago, the family had 200 sheep and
100 cows. They are down to 100 sheep and 20 cows, and now most
of these must be sold to buy hay for the remainder.
Hundreds of families have
already lost everything. Magjia, 50, his wife Alatanqige, 43,
and their three children are spending bored days at a
temporary site around their ger, the traditional felt tent.
They sold off the last of their sheep and goats, and the
government fenced off their ruined pastures, one of many such
areas that are now under protection to help the grasses
Theirs is one of 100 displaced
families that are scheduled to move into a resettlement area
on the outskirts of Xilinhot, the regional capital. With World
Bank aid, the government is building 100 brick houses with
cattle pens. Once Mr. Magjia scrapes together $480 through odd
jobs, he plans to buy three cows and start a small dairy
Mr. Magjia tried to put the
best face on his family's altered state. "We'll get by because
I'm a jack of all trades," he said. "I can slaughter sheep.
I'm a good singer, or I could even be a tourist guide."