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Desert Storm

The Irish Times
June 3, 2006
By Fintan O'Toole

The once-lush pastures of the Alxa Meng region of Inner Mongolia are turning to desert, bringing sandstorms all the way to Beijing and choking the economic life of this region, writes Fintan O'Toole in Bayanhaote

It is a breathtakingly picturesque Mongolian scene. Wild horses are galloping across a huge swathe of vividly green grassland that stretches all the way to the hills on the horizon. Shimmering blue lakes in the middle distance mirror a sky flecked with benign white clouds. A traditional herdsman's yurt nestles beside the water. On his office wall in the town of Bayanhaote, Bao Jintai has a map of Inner Mongolia, the vast semi-autonomous region of China, where he works as director of the regional bureau of agriculture. Part of the map is this panoramic picture of an idealised Mongolian landscape. Variations on this idyll adorn Bayanhaote's restaurants and hotel lobbies.

If you want to witness this beautiful, folkloric landscape, it is best to stay indoors. On the two-hour drive from the airport at Yinchuan, capital of Inner Mongolia's neighbouring province Ningxia, around the 3,500-metre-high Helanshan Mountains, past the remnants of an early section of the Great Wall, and into a vast, high plateau, the scenery no longer bears any obvious relation to the pictures. Where once there was grassland, there is now mile after mile of exposed and desiccated ground: small clumps of grass interspersed with long stretches of tawny sand and bone-dry grit. The odd tree clings to life and the occasional small flock of goats hunts forlornly for food.

This place can seem a very long way from the skyscrapers and traffic jams of Beijing, but it is still much too close for comfort. In March and April this year, the Chinese capital was enveloped eight times by choking sandstorms that damage the health of both its people and its economy. Such storms are not in themselves a new phenomenon. Before the middle of the 20th century, they occurred once every 30 years. Between 1950 and 1990, the frequency was once every two years, and in the 1990s it increased to five or six a year. Now, the going rate is around 20 times a year. And this is why the relentless advance of the desert in Inner Mongolia is a major national issue. Most of the storms originate in the region of which Bayanhaote is the capital, Alxa Meng. Along with the dust, they carry messages about the precarious balance between development and the environment in China, and about the complex relationship between the dominant Han majority and the ethnic minorities whose experiences were, until recently, largely disregarded.

The Mongolian tribes who inhabited the vast grasslands may have terrified the world and destroyed civilisations, but they and their descendants had a gentle ecological presence. They were, for very good reasons, nomadic. They kept large herds of goats, sheep and horses, but they understood the fragility of the terrain. These plateaux may look like valleys but they are high and dry - vulnerable to sun, wind and drought. The Mongolians preserved the grass by moving their herds regularly, allowing the grazed areas time to recover. Oases, forests and areas of fixed sand formed natural barriers against Alxa Meng's three major deserts, Tengger, Badain Jaran and Wulanbuhe.

The opening of this Mongolian "wasteland" began in the 19th century as the Qing Dynasty rulers encouraged Han farmers to settle in the region and plough up areas of grassland for the cultivation of grain. The influx accelerated after the revolution, and Mongolians now account for only about 20 per cent of the population. The rising numbers of people and animals, and the shift from nomadic pastoralism to agriculture, led to a vastly increased demand for water and the cutting down of the forests for firewood. More recently, the strain on the environment has been exacerbated by climate change, bringing declining rainfall and harsher winds.

"When I was a kid," Boa Jintai says, "my grandparents told me they remembered years when there was plenty of rain. I don't remember any years like that."

More damage was done by the craze for facai grass in parts of south-east Asia. The name of this grass sounds the same as the Chinese words for "get rich" and it came to be regarded as a lucky plant. In the 1980s and 1990s, large numbers of farmers from neighbouring Ningxia and Shaanxi, themselves impoverished by droughts, began to make expeditions to Mongolia, gathering vast amounts of facai to sell to eastern markets, in the process destroying large areas of grassland.

The result has been an environmental disaster. According to Ma Yen Wei of the Society of Entrepreneurs for Ecology (SEE), a private environmental initiative in Alxa Meng, about half of the pasture land in the region has now become desert. The SEE is part of an emerging Chinese civil society, formed and funded by around 100 national business leaders with the aim of reversing the process of desertification. Ma Yen Wei is one of its young, bright activists, working at village level to encourage and support sustainable development.

He lists the symptoms of the disease: "The major lakes, Dongjuyanhai and Xijuyanhai, dried up in the early 1960s. The oases have shrunk from 6,500 to 3,300 square kilometres. Eighty-three per cent of the land in Alxa Meng now belongs to the desert which eats up another 1,000 square kilometres a year. If things continue at this rate, the three major deserts in Alxa Meng will join together, in which case it will be an irreversible ecological disaster."

Ye Jinbao, director of the official Alxa Meng Environmental Bureau, agrees. "If the deserts come together," he warns, "the result will be bigger than the Gobi Desert is now."

Ma Yen Wei takes me to the village of Holan Dui, about 30 kilometres from Bayanhaote. It is, in a sense, a kind of ecological refugee camp. The people who live here have moved gradually over the last 30 years from the grasslands 20 kilometres away. Made up of both Han and indigenous Mongolian families, they suffered equally from the advance of the desert. As the land deteriorated, the government decided that they and their animals would have to move.

"The grasslands," explains environmental director Ye Jinbao, "simply cannot sustain their current population. The government decided that some of the herdsmen would have to move away from the mountains, to give the pastures a chance to recover. The most effective thing is to remove the people and the animals to a place where they can sustain themselves."

Bao Jintai, the agricultural director, reckons that, of the 30,000 people who herded animals on the grasslands here, around 20,000 have to be moved, either to work in the cities or to farm in villages such as Holan Dui which now houses 700 people. Their homes, some of brick and some of mud, are clustered in the middle of long fields of corn that are irrigated by clear water pumped from a deep well. The place itself seems nomadic, wandering between tradition and modernity. There is no paved road, just a gravelled track that was, until last year, a dirt trail. The irrigated fields and mud-walled pens where the villagers keep their sheep, goats and pigs could be from the Middle Ages. But most people carry mobile phones, and the more successful farmers have satellites that bring them dozens of TV channels and give them access to the internet. When I have dinner with the Wong family in their neat brick house, their young son is glued to a 30-inch, flat-screen TV. A yellow Mickey Mouse clock keeps the time and a blue Snoopy mat covers the low table. One of the boy's toys, a plastic American army jeep with a heroic GI in the driving seat, sits on the floor.

The villagers I speak to accept the inevitability of the government policy of moving them off the grasslands, but still mourn their old way of life.

"We understand that the government took these measures to protect the ecological balance," says one of the elected village leaders Wong Sueyi. "It gave us compensation and kept together groups of families that know each other well."

He was just eight years old when his family became one of the first to move into Holan Dui, but he remembers that the land was becoming "very poor". He also recalls that in the past the vegetation at the foot of the mountains was so high that "people could not walk through it. Now, you could drive a truck along the ground."

Wong Sueyi is resigned to the fact that it may take "several decades" before the grasslands have recovered enough for people to be able to return, and by then he expects that many of the children growing up here will have moved away to the cities.

"Maybe they will get access to a better education here, and if they are smart go to universities and become doctors and teachers. If they have the chance, they'll move downtown." But his resignation goes hand in hand with an insistence that people are worse off after the move. "There were more ways of making money before. We spent part of the time herding goats and sheep and part growing crops. Now it's nearly all crops. Our income is not as good. Before, the average income of these families was maybe 4,000 yuan [ around EUR 400] a year. Now, it's only 3,000 yuan [ around EUR 300]. There's just too little land here compared to other villages, and each year the water level is getting lower. The old people miss their old life, but they can't go back."

Walking around the village, I meet Wong Ming and Sa Ren Gao Wa, indigenous Mongolians who have arrived here more recently, and who feel the loss of income even more severely.

"I never went to school," says Wong Ming, "but I spent 40 years raising animals." He and Sa Ren Goa Wa were part of a group of eight families that herded 4,000 animals between them. "I could earn 20,000 yuan (around EUR 2,000) a year. Now I have just 20 animals, and I earn 7,000 yuan (around EUR 700) a year. I had saved a lot of money but down here my children want to go to secondary school and it costs me a lot of money. I wish I could go back."

The price being paid by the villagers of Holan Dui may be a high one, but it may be worth it, especially if Chinese society as a whole learns the lessons from the disaster in Alxa Meng. There are signs that it may be doing so. The incentives are immense: China has 22 per cent of the world's population but just 7 per cent of its arable land. Desert already accounts for 40 per cent of China's territory, with a further 2,500 square kilometres of desert being added every year. The nation simply cannot afford to lose arable land at this rate. The sandstorms that darken the skies over Beijing present a metaphor too portentous to ignore.

Talking to officials in Alxa Meng, it is hard not to notice a new note in their language: humility. For decades, the revolutionary movement treated the natural world almost as another class enemy or foreign invader to be tamed and humbled, and huge projects like the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River still attest to a pride in the human alteration of the landscape. But Alxa Meng presents a different, darker kind of alteration: the transformation of green pasture into stony sand.

Listening to officials like Ye Jinbao and Bao Jintai talk about the advance of the desert, two things stand out: a rueful respect for the indigenous Mongolian culture and a sense of being humbled by nature. Bao Jintai says: "In the past, the indigenous people had a strong sense of how to live in this environment. Then people moved in who had no such sense and no scientific understanding of the balance that needed to be preserved."

Ye Jinbao adds that "in the past, local governments promised that people could take on nature and defeat it. Now, people see that humans are very small compared to nature. They see that if you want nature to treat you well, you have to treat nature well."



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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