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China Strives to Save Grassland as Farmers Grab "Rich" Plant

Deutsche Presse-Agentur
April 21, 2006

Amid its worst sandstorms this year, China issued an emergency notice ordering local authorities to "strike hard" against a resurgence in the illegal harvesting of a precious plant that helps to conserve grassland.

The digging-up of the plant known as fa cai, or hairweed, is "seriously damaging the ecological environment of the grassland" in parts of the northern regions of Inner Mongolia, Gansu and Ningxia, the agriculture ministry said on its website.

The plant is an expensive delicacy in southern Chinese restaurants, where fa cai, while bland, is most often used in soups and primarily consumed because its name is a homophone for "get rich".

"At least 4,000 to 5,000" people have been detained this year while gathering fa cai in the worst-hit area, Inner Mongolia's Alashan League Left Banner, and returned to their homes in Ningxia, a grassland protection official told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa by telephone.

"This year, they were mainly from Tongxin, Haiyan and Guyan counties in Ningxia," said the official, who gave only his surname, Zhang.

Thirty people alone were detained Wednesday and sent back to Haiyan and Tongxin, Zhang said.

The quarry these hunters were after is a thin, black type of moss that intertwines with grass. Its roots stabilize the soil, and when it is dug up, the exposed soil quickly dries out and blows away, feeding the sandstorms that hit a 2,000-kilometre-long stretch of northern China each spring, blowing to Beijing and Tianjin and sometimes to Japan and the west coast of the United States.

The people arrested are all "extremely poor" and are attracted by a price of about 150 yuan (19 dollars) per jin, or 500 grams, of fa cai in Ningxia's wholesale markets, Zhang said.

"Recently, in some places, activities of gathering fa cai have been on the rise again, causing deterioration of the grassland, intensifying desertification and seriously damaging the ecological environment of the grassland," the agriculture ministry said in its emergency notice this week.

The notice was issued as areas of northern China experienced their worst sandstorms this year.

"Every locality should increase the power of law enforcement, and strike hard against the activities of illegal fa cai gathering," the ministry said.

However, if authorities catch people with fa cai, they usually burn the plants and send the farmers home without paying any fines. Many of them return to Alashan again, spurred by the knowledge that an illegal wholesale market for fa cai continues to operate in Ningxia.

Consumers in the affluent southern city of Guangzhou were paying about 460 yuan for 500 grams of fa cai, more than three times the wholesale price in Ningxia, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post said recently.

For many years, thousands of poor farmers have flocked to the grassland to harvest the plant, selling it to traders in Ningxia.

Armed clashes sometimes erupted between ethnically Han and Hui farmers from Ningxia and the mainly Mongolian herders who live in Alashan, prompting some farmers to carry weapons.

China banned the collection of fa cai in 2000 as it started forestation projects in Inner Mongolia to help reduce the impact of sandstorms on northern cities.

Last year, the government said Inner Mongolia had lost 420,000 square kilometres of land to desertification, or 35.5 per cent of the region's territory, mainly because of overgrazing and non-sustainable farming over several decades. Nationwide, the annual rate of desertification was estimated at 2,460 square kilometres, the government said.

But illegal fa cai picking has grown again since 2004 as prices continued to rise, Zhang said, adding that prices in Ningxia before 2000 was 50 to 80 yuan.

Last year, about 50,000 people were thrown out of Alashan for fa cai harvesting with spring and autumn the peak seasons, he said.

Another group of about 250 people were caught last month after they dug up 300 jin of fa cai in two days in Alashan.

The farmers, who were equipped with more than 200 rakes and other tools, travelled to Alashan on six three-wheel tractors, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Police confiscated the farmers' tools and vehicles before sending them back to Ningxia.



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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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