|Globe and Mail
|March 6, 2008
|By Geoffrey York
In an effort to fight desertification, China
has forcibly moved thousands of Inner Mongolians off traditional
pastures and into crowded cities
Baylia, left, and Bator are Mongolian herdsmen who
were forced to abandon their lives on the vast
grasslands of Inner Mongolia and live in town
raising dairy cows. (Geoffrey York/The Globe
WU XING, CHINA — For as
long as anyone can remember, Bator and his ancestors were
horse-riding herdsmen, free to roam the vast grasslands of Inner
Mongolia with their animals.
On a spring day in 2002, his freedom was
abruptly cancelled. A Chinese official drove his jeep to Bator's
pasture, brandishing a piece of paper and announcing that the
government was terminating the Mongolian way of life.
Since then, Bator has not been on a horse.
Today he lives in a small brick house in a new Chinese village,
crowded among hundreds of other dispossessed herders. He
survives on a paltry income from three dairy cows that the
government forced him to buy, supplemented by labouring jobs at
a railway station.
He yearns to go back home to his grasslands
and his horses. "I feel like a bird in a cage," Bator says. "We
have no freedom and no land."
Bator is among thousands of Inner Mongolians
who have been forcibly moved off their traditional pastures in
the past few years as China fights desertification, the
ecological disaster that has triggered massive dust storms
across northern China, sending clouds of pollution toward Japan,
Korea and even as far as British Columbia.
The Mongolian herders, like millions of other
impoverished people around the planet, have become environmental
Their ranks are rapidly growing. There are
already an estimated 24 million environmental migrants around
the world, twice as many as the number of refugees fleeing wars
or political persecution.
By 2010, the United Nations has warned, as
many as 50 million people could be displaced by crises such as
desertification, deforestation, droughts, famines, floods and
climate change. And by mid-century, the number of environmental
refugees could swell to 200 million.
Around the world, examples abound. In the
low-lying river deltas of India and Bangladesh, global warming
has forced thousands of villagers to flee from islands that are
threatened by severe storms and rising sea levels.
In Africa, desertification is triggering an
exodus by farmers abandoning barren fields. Regions such as
Darfur are suffering from water shortages that contribute to
their refugee crises.
In the Pacific Ocean, whole islands are on
the verge of disappearing. Rogue waves have sometimes swept
across the entire length of populated islands.
In East Asia and Southeast Asia, droughts and
floods are expected to grow worse as climate change accelerates,
with millions more losing their homes. Many people are still in
refugee camps after the giant tsunami of 2004.
And even in North America and Europe,
thousands have died or lost their homes because of bushfires,
heat waves, hurricanes and floods, believed to be linked to
For those forced to migrate, the dislocation
is traumatic. The herders of Inner Mongolia, who found
themselves on the front lines of the desertification crisis,
were among the first to pay the price for China's belated
efforts to tackle the problem.
Since 2001, more than 800,000 people in Inner
Mongolia have been relocated from their pastures in an attempt
to reduce overgrazing and sandstorms. Grazing has been
prohibited in more than one-third of Inner Mongolia's territory.
"Ecological immigration is a painful,
disruptive and involuntary process that is not only against the
will of the local Mongolians but also against nature," said a
report by the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information
Centre, a U.S.-based group.
It said the relocation policy has endangered
the very existence of the Mongolians as a people. Those who
resisted the relocation were arrested, detained or assaulted,
and their property was destroyed or confiscated, the report
China insists that the heavy-handed tactics
are necessary. More than 27 per cent of its territory is now
covered by deserts, compared with 18 per cent in 1994. China's
grasslands have shrunk by 15,000 square kilometres every year
since the early 1980s. Sandstorms from the expanding deserts are
blowing into China's northern cities, choking millions of people
and causing respiratory diseases and eye infections. Beijing
alone is hit with a million tonnes of desert dust annually. The
dust binds with airborne pollutants from factories and coal
plants, creating a toxic haze that drifts to Korea, Japan and
Much of the desertification is a result of
overgrazing by new farmers from the Han Chinese ethnic majority,
who poured into Inner Mongolia to raise goats when the cashmere
industry became lucrative in the 1980s. Today the number of Han
Chinese in Inner Mongolia is five times greater than the number
of Mongolians who traditionally lived on the grasslands.
By the 1990s, cashmere had become a highly
profitable business, allowing China to export millions of cheap
cashmere sweaters to Western consumers. And by 2004, there were
25 million goats in Inner Mongolia, more than 10 times the
number in 1950. With their sharp hooves and voracious eating
habits, the goats denuded the grasslands.
But while the newly arrived farmers were
responsible for much of the overgrazing, the targets of the
relocation campaign included many Mongolians whose ancestors had
lived here for centuries. Among them were Bator and his brother,
Bayila. (Like most Mongolian herders, they use only one name.)
Throughout the 1990s, Bator and Bayila could see the desert
spreading into the land of their neighbours, getting closer
every year. The grass was disappearing, replaced by barren
Their own pastures managed to survive, but
the government ordered them to leave anyway. "We didn't want to
move," Bator says. "But we weren't given a choice. The
government wouldn't allow any grazing of sheep or goats after
They were forced to live in the newly built
town of Wu Xing, created from scratch eight years ago to house
the dispossessed herders. More than 130 families are jammed
together in the dusty streets of the town, living in small brick
houses built close together in Chinese style, constructed so
cheaply that they don't have running water or bathrooms.
"It's no good," Bator says. "We're not used
to living together like city people. We prefer to live in the
grasslands; that's the way we've always lived."
Before their relocation, Bator and his
brother owned more than 200 sheep and goats, 20 cows and five
horses. The government confiscated their 60 hectares of pasture
land and ordered them to get rid of their animals. In the new
town, the herders were given their brick houses at a discount,
but they were also required to pay $2,100 for each of the dairy
cows that they were allocated. Most have been left with debts
they cannot repay.
Their net income has dropped sharply. The
revenue from their milk is far less than the income from their
sheep and goats, and the milk produced by each cow is only half
of what the government promised, they say. The two brothers have
been obliged to take part-time jobs on construction sites or the
railway station, carrying bricks and cement, to make ends meet.
They say they can't even afford to buy new clothes.
"Life is getting harder," Bayila says. "We
are barely keeping alive. In the past, when we were short of
money, we could always sell a sheep or a cow. Now we only have
the milk." He suspects that corrupt officials are stealing the
money that was intended to compensate the herders. "We watch the
television news and we hear about the huge investment in
relocating the herdsmen. But after the money arrives at our
local government offices, it disappears."
Even more painful than the loss of income is
the loss of their traditional way of life, their cultural
identity. In the past, they always welcomed a guest with fresh
food from a newly killed sheep or goat. "Now we can't welcome
our guests in the traditional way," Bator says. "We feel
embarrassed and uncomfortable."
They can't adjust to the cookie-cutter houses
and the loss of privacy in the crowded new town. "If one family
does something, the gossip is immediately everywhere," Bator
says. "It spreads so quickly."
A group of doctoral students at Inner
Mongolia University who studied the relocated herders in several
new towns concluded that they were suffering heavy stress from
the traumatic change in their way of life. Most of the
ex-herders are confined to 100 square metres of land. "Their
small living space and suppressed life is a torture to them,"
the students wrote in a report.
The unhappiness of the Mongolian herdsmen has
fuelled a quiet mutiny against China's relocation policies. Just
a few kilometres from Wu Xing, thousands of goats and sheep are
grazing on the meagre remains of the grasslands. Some of the
herders have refused to leave their land. Others sent their
animals back onto the land, defying the new rules.
"We are desperate to move back to our old
pastures, but it's forbidden," Bayila says. "In the past, we
could ride our horses and graze our sheep, and we felt free. Now
we are landless, and we've lost all our animals. It's sad."