July 3, 2007
Grassland conservation and
development cannot be separated from pastoralist culture and
people, but decision-makers have ignored this over the past
decades, academic experts and environmentalists say.
Some have started initiatives
to bring people involved in grassland issues together for
better policy-making and research.
At the 16th International
Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences
Conference to be held in Kunming in July 2008, the Chinese
Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) will host a parallel
meeting to discuss the grassland environment and changes in
The session is now calling
for papers on how herders’ livelihoods are impacted by
various factors, including climate change, environmental
degradation, land ownership reform and government policy and
programs. The meeting also welcomes papers on how herders
are responding to these changes.
According to Wang Xiaoyi (王晓毅),
a CASS scholar organising the Kunming conference, after
years of huge investments to tackle desertification in Inner
Mongolia—which is home to one of the world’s largest
grasslands areas and most complicated ecosystems—there is no
sign of degradation coming to an end or even slowing.
Surveys show that more than
90% of China’s 400 million hectares of grassland suffer from
various degrees of degradation. In the past two decades,
only 10% of desertified land has been treated. Meanwhile,
two million hectares of rangeland turns into desert each
While most mainstream
scientists and officials cite population pressure,
over-grazing and climate change as the primary cause of
grassland degradation, some academics are highlighting land
tenure systems and culture.
“Why has so much effort
achieved so so little? It is because the underlying policy
is wrong,” says Liu Shurun (刘书润),
a scholar who has spent his life studying grasslands and
their people. The solution he advocates is to go back to the
nomadic style of living and production.
Divide and spoil
More and more researchers are
questioning the policy, which started in the 1980s, of
dividing Inner Mongolia’s grasslands into smaller plots and
allocating them to individual families. Policy-makers have
applied agricultural logic to pastoral areas, failing to
recognise key differences in the management of farmland and
“This fundamentally changed
the nature of people’s lives on the grasslands, forcing
herders to become settlers and farmers and leading to the
erosion of grassland culture,” says Wang.
“Chances are the original way
of living and production had their value and rationale in
maintaining a more sustainable ecosystem that is destroyed
by the agriculturalisation and industrialisation of the
grassland,” he suggests.
Liu points out that
grasslands culture, which is rooted in nomadic lifestyles
that date back many hundreds of years, is disappearing even
faster than the rangeland itself. It is believed that only
20% of herders in Inner Mongolia are skilled horse-riders,
while most have turn to motorcycles. Some herders now buy
beef and diary products as they are unable to produce their
But the current policy-making
and mainstream analysis focus more on the technical side of
the issue and tend to ignore the people and cultural
factors, Liu adds.
He and other scholars are
trying to bring more cultural and people-centred
perspectives into grasslands conservation. A Grasslands
Conservation Network, launched last November with funding
support from the Ford Foundation, changed its name in May to
the People and Grasslands Network.
“We want to stress the
development impact on people and to analyse government
policies and systems from a cultural perspective. We will
also pay more attention to herders’ opinions and empower
them,” says Hao Bing (郝冰),
coordinator of the Network.
She suggests that although a
return to nomadic lifestyle is not practical, new
technologies such as solar energy and Internet might give
herders a better chance of reshaping their traditions.
Scholars’ and NGOs’ views
have been heard by the government, according to Hu Jingping
who is leads the policy and regulatory division of the
National Commission of Ethnic Affairs.
She agrees that some policies
have failed in many places and says that there is discussion
within the government to re-think the relationship between
nomady and the ecosystem.
In the fields, some herders
have merged their fragmented pasture and graze their animals
together, a semi-nomadic way of herding in the new era.
Co-operatives have also been established among herders.
“We are studying these new
approaches, which are more productive and
environment-friendly. Cooperatives could be a solution,
which will benefit the herders while minimise the impact on
the environment,” she says.
Report by Chang Tianle, July
Details of next year’s conference are posted on our Chinese