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  Attention is called to Inner Mongolia’s “Environmental Emigration”

May 4, 2002

Since March this year, blotting out the sky and the land, northern China’s sandstorm not only has swallowed the whole region of northern China, but also reached Taiwan, Japan and even the west coast of America across the ocean. Northern China’s desertification problem is receiving attention from people around the world. In order to solve the problem, the Chinese government has adopted a series of environmental measures including a policy of evicting ethnic Mongolian herders from their lands. They have been resettled to other areas in an effort to relieve the burden on the grasslands and thereby restore the fragile ecosystem. However, the so-called “Environmental Emigration” policy has caught the attention of human rights organizations who argue that the “Environmental Emigration” will not really solve the problem but will destroy the already weakened Mongolian traditions. This is a report covered by Radio Free Asia correspondent Shi-Shan.


When the Chinese trace back to the sources of the sandstorm in the Mongolian Plateau, they are surprised that the local ethnic Mongolian herders have seriously been victimized by sandstorms for long time. An exile in the United States, Enhebatu, president of Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, said to Radio Free Asia: “Accelerating environmental destruction has deeply affected ethnic Mongolian herders’ lives, especially the successive years of severe drought has led up to the herders’ total bankruptcy. ” Enhebatu also provided the station with a telephone record revealing the current tragic situation:



This is a telephone conversation between Enhebatu and an ethnic Mongolian herder in Shiliin Gol League’s Sunid Right Wing Banner recorded last year. Over the phone, the herdsman could not speak for a while for his sobbing before he said that most of his livestock had died during the drought and the rest are too thin to be sold. He told Enhebatu that, now, the herders in grassland have no way to make livings.

Located in the eastern part of Inner Mongolian Plateau, Shiliin Gol League, has 200,000 square kilometers territory which was known as the most well-preserved natural grassland in the world. However, now, the ecosystem in this area is getting worse. According to “The Northern Economy” published in China, in Shiliin Gol League, the deteriorated grassland area counts for 64% of the whole usable grassland, the soil eroded grassland area counts for 65% and the grassland area already turned to desert counts for 22% of the whole region. 2,969 square kilometers territory of Guun Shand area in Shiliin Gol League has become a mobile desert and is expanding with the speed of 60 square kilometers per year. Because of the accelerating speed of the desertification, especially the expanding speed of the seriously affected areas, most of the grasslands have become barren areas.

Current situation of Shiliin Gol grassland is just a miniature example of ecological destruction occurring all over the region. According to Xinhua News, usable grassland in Inner Mongolia is only 50 million hectares which is an 18% decrease compared to 10 years ago; The desert areas have tripled to 8.3 million hectares and are increasing 86,000 hectares every year. Ulaanchav Grassland, Horchin Grassland and Ordos Grassland which are three of the five largest grasslands in Inner Mongolia have almost completely disappeared and turned to sand.

Facing up to the tragic situation, the Inner Mongolian authorities have launched the “Environmental Emigration” policy. Currently, Shiliin Gol League is one of the main targets of this policy. An official from Shiliin Gol League Planning Commission admitted the fact that the comprehensive “Environmental Emigration” plan will start to be carried out from April of this year. But the official refused to reveal details.


The so-called “Environmental Emigration” is aimed at the eviction of the herders from the desert lands. According to the government’s explanation, the policy could bring recovery to the land, as well as help herders to overcome their sense of hopelessness.

However, the plan has caught the close attention of ethnic Mongolian human rights organizations overseas. Enhebatu, president of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center said this policy has not only deprived the ethnic Mongolian people’s right to own their native land, but has also destroyed their traditional culture and life-style.


Enhebatu revealed that the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center has already submitted a communication to the United Nations in order to draw the international community’s attention to the “Environmental Emigration” policy. He is suspicious about the Chinese government’s claim of “volunteer environmental Emigration”.


According to the Chinese official news media, 160,000 herders have already been “environmentally migrated” over the past two years and in the up-coming decade, 600,000 ethnic Mongolian herders will be forced to leave their native land under the “Environmental emigration” policy. An official from Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region Planning Commission also refused to talk about the “Environmental Emigration” issues when we interviewed him over the phone. Another official from the Economical Research Department of Inner Mongolian Social Academic Institution also refused to express his opinion on this issue because he said the “Environmental emigration” problem is an extremely sensitive issue.


“Environmental emigration might be one measure to solve the problem but the government must accept most of the responsibility” said an exile in Germany, Mr. Xi Hai Ming (Temchiltu), leader of the Mongolian students’ movement in Inner Mongolia in the early 80’s and the President of the Inner Mongolian People’s Party.


Cao Chang-Qing, an author in New York City, said all of the policies by the Chinese authorities including economical policies are suspect before the Inner Mongolians get their real autonomy.


According to a Xinhua News report, over the past century, Inner Mongolian grassland has shrunk 200 kilometers to the north and 100 kilometers to the west. The main reason for the desertification of the grasslands is the large-scale over-cultivation since the 1950’s. Mr. Xi Hai Ming (Temchiltu) told the station that they had protested the policy of converting grasslands to farmland for the use of Han Chinese emigrants into Inner Mongolia. He said this is the only effective measure to control the environmental destruction in Inner Mongolia.



“ In the foot of Moni Mountain, vaulting over Chilee Plains, the sky is so blue and so high, the land is so vast and so green, the fair wind shows you sheep and cows from the bottom of a grassy sea.”

This is a poem written a thousand years ago, describing the Inner Mongolian grasslands. However, today, the grasslands have disappeared, the livestock is dying and the herders are forced to move from their native lands to alien lands. Total destruction of northern China’s ecosystem has not only claimed Mongolian herders as victims. The expanding desert close to Hua Bei Plains is also affecting the whole nation of China. The roaring sandstorm is just the beginning of nature’s retaliation.

(Report by Radio Free Asia correspondent Shi-Shan, English translation by Enhebatu Togochog)

During these meetings, we tried to engage in a dialogue with both the Chinese and Taiwanese groups, agreeing or disagreeing to various issues. The Tibetan delegation was also delighted to have met one Tibetan from Beijing who was attending the Johannesburg Summit as a representative of the "Chinese Society for Human Rights'. The People's Republic of China first presented this organization as an "NGO" during the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993.


A wide range of Chinese organizations, sponsored by the Chinese Government is attending WSSD Johannesburg. Mr. Gabriel Lafitte, a member of the Tibetan Delegation has been following their activities in the past few days. In this update, we publish his observations on these Chinese groups.


The Chinese groups here at WSSD Johannesburg are based in wealthy urban centres, but have a nostalgic concern for wilderness and the importance of conserving nature, which often leads them to work in remote areas, including the headwaters of the Ma Chu (Yellow River) and Dri Chu (Yangtze River). One example is Wang Li. She is a senior partner of one of China's biggest law firms, with a Beijing office in the prestigious Chang'an district, and also an office in The Hague. She has launched legal action against a paper mill in Inner Mongolia whose pollution is destroying the grassland of nomads in Inner Mongolia. I asked her what motivated her to do this, as the area is near the border of independent Mongolia, Inner Mongolia and Russia, very remote from Beijing. Her answer says much about today's China: "During the Cultural Revolution when educated youth were sent down to the countryside to serve the masses, my husband was sent to that area, and he stayed there for 11 years before he could obtain permission to get back to Beijing. He saw the hard life of the herders. He was there so long it became part of him, and it still is. He knows the grass used to be lush and long, but now it is so short."


So Wang Li launched a law case to hold the polluting factory and the local cadres accountable for the pollution, and seek compensation. She describes it as a case of implementing executive liability. She is also using the resources of her law firm to mobilise other resources to alleviate poverty among the nomads.


She has arranged for many of China's relevant laws to be translated into Mongolian, and had the copies distributed among the indigenous inhabitants, so they know their rights.


At WSSD she is urging the many Chinese participants to consider her idea for an action plan which would put proposals to WSSD that the rich countries should accept greater responsibility for poverty alleviation. This is very much in line with Chinese foreign policy and China's stance in the UN and WSSD, in particular.

  Wang Li's story emerged in a meeting of Chinese groups, fifty people packed tight into a small room, the entire proceedings in Chinese. Neither she nor any of the other Chinese who described their work were trying to impress the outside world, because the audience was entirely Chinese, and many of them did not know each other, as China is so big.


Of course not all these organizations were as inspiring. At the opposite extreme were several organisations that are direct organs of the Communist Party, or exist to directly implement government policy. This includes the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. They work in Africa, and say they have established relations with 100 NGOs beyond China. Another group argued that the rich globally should do more to help the poor is "Green Earth Volunteers" based in Beijing.


There are also several organisations seeking to boost their international standing, connections and access to money, including some semi-private academic think tanks, and even the Shanghai Venture Capital Company.


But most of the Chinese organisations, as they took it in turn to stand in the overcrowded room and introduce themselves, are closer to Wang Li's end of the spectrum. Some are small and very new, and work at the local-level. Some are well established and work in many areas. Many combine conservation work with uplift of the poor, and environmental education. Perhaps this is the rebirth of patronage by the rich, who make public their own high standard of civilisation by setting up projects for the poor.


Perhaps the best illustration of the extraordinary diversity of today's China is the All-China Women's Federation and the Chinese Women Entrepreneurs Association. On the surface the Women's Federation is a mass organ of the Communist Party. It has a huge membership. Yet anyone who has read the book of an American anthropologist Hill Gates (Looking for Chengdu) will know that the members use this legitimate structure to do many useful things, for which no other organisation can be formed. At the "Chinese NGOs Caucus" meeting, Women's Federation members made it clear that in addition to looking after the interests of women, they do much community development work. But they didn't say much, perhaps because they are so well known within China.


The Women Entrepreneurs are from China's most modern city, Shenzhen, a city without a past or roots. They say there are many tens of thousands of women in the organisation. They say they do poverty work, programs for the elderly and education. This is entirely believable as China's social security system even in rich cities is very limited, and it is up to community organizations to fill in the many gaps. Many entrepreneurs in Shenzhen are now so rich there is no longer anything left to buy, and they have wealth to spare. While their husbands spend money on junior wives and second apartments for these mistresses, the wives show they are more cultivated, by doing social work.


All these groups are loosely coordinated by a remarkable German woman Dorit Lehrack, who found herself in Beijing when her husband was transferred, and invented a new job for herself, and used her previous experience as a Friends of the Earth campaigner to write a grant proposal and obtain funding from the German government's Centre for International Migration (an offshoot of the German government aid agency GTZ). This energetic young women helped set up over the past 18 months the "China Association for NGO Cooperation" (CANGO), the first umbrella organisation for all "NGOs", with Huang Haoming its executive director.


Of special interest are the groups working in present-day western China. There are several. Among those listed in the CANGO booklet are the Snowland Great Rivers Environment Protection Association, Green Plateau Institute, Yunnan Eco-network, but these are just a few. Yunnan is especially a province where NGOs can set up, far from Beijing. Some, such as CBIK Centre for Indigenous Knowledge specialise in honouring the traditional knowledge of the indigenous inhabitants, who are many in present-day Yunnan.


We need not assume these Chinese groups operating in present-day western China feel as fondly towards Tibetans as they do towards the rivers that are the fount of all life in China. One participant from these groups said that the reason the west remains a "Shangrila" is because there are no roads, and it is important to promote the idea that no roads should be built, because roads will ruin "Shangri-la". This seems to me to be a very modern nostalgia for a lost golden age when life was simple, quite similar to the way the British in India loved the mountains, the wildlife, the rivers, Everything but the Indian people. Another man stood up and said he went into the mountains where the poor live, pointed to a tree and asked a child if it is permitted to cut it. The child said yes, we need to cut it. This proves the ignorance of these people, and why we need to educate them.


Some of the biggest Chinese organizations are based in Hong Kong, and it was the Conservancy Association of HK that hosted the caucus meetings and may be poised to take a parental role in the ultimate strengthening of a culture of NGOs in the People's Republic of China. The Conservancy Association is one of the few groups from PRC aware of global issues under debate at WSSD, and argued at the caucus for a World Environment Protection Association to keep environmental issues from being swamped by WTO and trade. Hong Kong based NGOs spoke about the need to focus on consumption, and promote Sustainable consumption. Oxfam HK is part of a worldwide organisation, familiar with critiques of globalisation.


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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