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  Scholars Question Division of Pastoral Lands

China Development Brief

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 herders’ lives.

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 year.

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 rangeland.

“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 own.

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.

Government re-think

Scholars’ and NGOs’ views have been heard by the government, according to Hu Jingping (胡敬平), 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 03 2007

Details of next year’s conference are posted on our Chinese website


From Yeke-juu League to Ordos Municipality: settler colonialism and alter/native urbanization in Inner Mongolia

Close to Eden (Urga): France, Soviet Union, directed by Nikita Mikhilkov

Beyond Great WallsBeyond Great Walls: Environment, Identity, and Development on the Chinese Grasslands of Inner Mongolia

The Mongols at China's EdgeThe Mongols at China's Edge: History and the Politics of National Unity

China's Pastoral RegionChina's Pastoral Region: Sheep and Wool, Minority Nationalities, Rangeland Degradation and Sustainable Development

Changing Inner MongoliaChanging Inner Mongolia: Pastoral Mongolian Society and the Chinese State (Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology)

Grasslands and Grassland Science in Northern ChinaGrasslands and Grassland Science in Northern China: A Report of the Committee on Scholarly Communication With the People's Republic of China

The Ordos Plateau of ChinaThe Ordos Plateau of China: An Endangered Environment (Unu Studies on Critical Environmental Regions)
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