Service and ABC Radio National
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Beijing, springtime sees great clouds of dust descend on the
city. It becomes difficult to breathe, to see and to move about
- and experts think it is a serious health hazard.
But the dust storms are the result of an even bigger problem:
the loss of the grasslands and livelihoods of the herdspeople of
journey from Beijing to Inner Mongolia, Natasha Mitchell looks
at projects which aim to protect the pastoralists and the
pasturelands and to reduce the dust over Beijing.
This program is the third
episode of Parched Lands series, a radio co-production between
the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the BBC World
Service Science Units. The series aired over four weeks in
December on the BBC World Service on the program One Planet, and
will be broadcast in Australia on ABC Radio National on the
program Earthbeat in January ( and internationally on ABC Radio
Broadcast: Saturday 15 January 2005 at
For the residents of Beijing, thick dust
storms that envelop their city have become an all too frequent
event. In the north of the country, overgrazing and
overploughing are driving an expanding dustbowl, as topsoil and
livelihoods literally blow away. China’s neighbours, Korea and
Japan, have complained about these oppressive billows of dust.
Natasha Mitchell reports on efforts to curb one of the most
devastating ecological crises in the region and examines the
controversial policy of ecological migration, that’s shifting
1000s of families off degraded lands.
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Mitchell: Do you have any songs about the grasslands?
Professor Ding Zhongli with Inner Mongolian musical
performers: Grasslands, OK. “My home is in beautiful
grasslands”, OK? It’s very famous in China.
Traditional Mongolian Song performed live
Dai QingWhen I was young, you know we sing songs, we read
literature, which praised the beautiful grasslands. In my mind,
the people in the grasslands, they lead a very happy life with
freedom, noone had the sense that maybe one day the grasslands
will disappear, that something will happen, something very, very
terrible would happen in grassland.
Dr Rik Thwaites: There’s an old traditional poem in
Xilingol about the Xilingol grasslands and that the sheep turn
their heads and you can see them, you can see their heads just
above the tops of the grass, and they turn their heads and look
at you. These days, you can see the sheep’s feet in most
of the grasslands. It’s very heavily grazed.
Natasha Mitchell: The grasslands of Inner Mongolia, the
lands of Genghis Khan, once famous for their beauty, are now
notorious for their barrenness, the result of decades of
over-cultivation and over-grazing. The Chinese government is
determined to tackle what is a desperate problem, even if it
means moving thousands of people off the land.
Inner Mongolia isn’t the only concern. Almost 30% of China is
reported to be desertified or degraded, and the loss to the
national economy is estimated to be $US6 and a 1/2-billion
But what’s really alerted the world to the problem in China are
the huge, choking sandstorms, which strong spring winds blow
into Beijing and even into neighbouring Korea and Japan with
The storms come from Inner Mongolia in the north. And at their
worst they’ve claimed lives and livelihoods.
Well-known environmentalist and writer, Dai Qing.
Dai Qing: Yes, suddenly the sky is very dark. Even at
home with all your windows closed, and then all your desk, your
bed, your piano, everything is full of dust. Sandstorm is mainly
yellow. I always cycle; and it’s very difficult to ride bicycle.
The activity in the big city stops.
Natasha Mitchell: These dust storms which halt the city,
are the result of massive changes in land use in China in recent
Geologist Edward Derbyshire is Honorary Professor at the Gansu
Academy of Sciences.
Edward Derbyshire: The sorts of land use changes that are
important include simply changes in the manner of farming or the
intensity of grazing, for example, in an only partly-vegetated
land surface. Human development of buildings, structures,
roadways, increase in the amount of traffic along unsurfaced
roads, this is a very important change that’s developing with
large trucking systems. So there’s a wide range of activity
here, from building right through to changes in where and how
farming is conducted.
Natasha Mitchell: And we certainly see all those factors
on the road.
This is Inner Mongolia near the town of Taipusuchi, a day’s
drive north of Beijing. It’s a journey past the Great Wall of
China, past lands intensely harvested for corn and other crops,
and through small regional towns full of brand new apartment
blocks and construction sites. China’s vista is a rapidly
We’re travelling with our guides and hosts, Mr Che Jianguo,
Director of the Foreign Affairs Office at the Institute of
Geology and Geophysics, who’s generously teaching me some
Natasha Mitchell: Mr Che – is ‘yes’ Shi?
Mr Che: Yes…
Natasha Mitchell: And eminent geologist, Professor Ding
Zhongli, Director of the Institute of Geology and Geophysics at
the Chinese Academy of Sciences. We’re here to look at some of
the projects that the Chinese government is introducing to
In Inner Mongolia one figure has it that desertification is
occurring at a staggering 660,000 hectares per year, where it’s
exacerbated by erratic rainfall and drought.
The Chinese government calls its effort to rehabilitate the
lands here the Ecological Construction Project. But some see
this as both an effort not only to revive, but to re-engineer
the landscape, and the communities that exploit it.
One approach is to move farmers and herders off degraded lands,
and into resettlement villages. And we see some of these new
villages, bare but tidy blocks of small red brick houses, each
with a yard for keeping cattle and fodder.
Pulling into one village we’re met on the roadside by a handful
of local officials who accompany us for the rest of our trip,
including Deputy Director Tzang, of Taipusuchi.
Deputy Director Tzang: This is a resettlement district.
There are 100 families in this village. The main economic source
is to breed dairy cattle.
Natasha Mitchell: So they’re breeding cattle. It’s a
brand-new village; why were people moved here?
Deputy Director Tzang: Those farmers used to live in an
area with a poor ecological environment.
Natasha Mitchell: Farmers have been moved from many
hundreds of mu of land, one mu being a Chinese unit equal to 670
square metres, to considerably smaller plots.
Deputy Director Tzang: In the past, one family could
occupy hundreds of mu of land, or more than 1,000 mu of land.
Natasha Mitchell: So they have considerably less land to
work on now.
Deputy Director Tzang: Nowadays one person can have 2 mu
of irrigated land. If a family has four people, they will have 8
mu of irrigated land.
Natasha Mitchell: Deputy Director Tzang, claims it’s not
too difficult to convince the farmers to move, because they now
have easier access to electricity, water and medical services.
The people we meet in this village are Han Chinese, who’ve been
steadily moving into the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region,
particularly since 1949, under President Mao Zedong’s rule. The
population here has more than tripled in the past 50 years.
Mrs Zhu Jing Mei greeting guests and accompanying officials
We’re taken to the house of Mrs Zhu Jing Mei and her husband.
Their new house has two small rooms and a kitchen, and I ask
when they moved here.
Mrs Zhu Jing Mei: I moved here on October 1st last year.
We used to live at Baotou, it’s about 25 kilometres away.
Natasha Mitchell: Why did you need to move?
Mrs Zhu Jing Mei: We used to live near Baotou, we had to
move because we couldn’t find grass.
Natasha Mitchell: Is it the case that as well as the
cattle facilities, is it the case that the land here is better
than the old land?
Mrs Zhu Jing Mei: I chose to move here. The condition of
the old land was very bad.
Natasha Mitchell: Did you know the people in this village
before you moved here? Did they move from the same place?
Mrs Zhu Jing Mei: No, I didn’t know them before.
Natasha Mitchell: But she says they’re all friends now.
The family keep a strictly limited number of cattle in their
yard, (we see four), and are growing a high-yielding fodder in
preparation for winter.
Deputy Director Tzang claims they’ve increased their yield by
20%. But will Mrs Zhu and her family be able to go back to their
old home once the land is deemed recovered?
Deputy Director Tzang: They will stay permanently here,
some of their old land has been stopped from ploughing, and will
return to nature.
Natasha Mitchell: How many families do you plan to move
in total in this county, and how many have you moved already?
Deputy Director Tzang: Probably 3,000 families with
10,000 people. We have now moved 1700 families.
Natasha Mitchell: So another 1300 to move.
Deputy Director Tzang: Yes. There are another 1300 to
move. We plan to move 447 families next year. We will complete
it in three years’ time.
Natasha Mitchell: This sort of ecological migration, with
thousands of people being moved, is sensitive and controversial,
but not without precedent in China. Mao’s Great Leap Forward of
the late 50s for example, saw huge numbers of people relocated
under central government policy…The Chinese are used to being
Getting out of car, sounds of wind
It’s now late afternoon and we’re on the brow of a hill; the
wind is freezing. We’re just outside a village named ‘Happiness
Village’ to view yet another local government strategy. We’re
being shown land, traditionally used to grow wheat, that’s now
being left to lie fallow. Deputy Director Tzang.
Deputy Director Tzang: We mainly aim for protecting
against the wind, and holding soil. It was used as the farming
land but the quality was not good at all.
Natasha Mitchell: Can I ask what happens when a big wind
comes through here…?
Deputy Director Tzang: Take a look over there. The
vegetation on the surface was completely destroyed. It turned
into bare lands, when the big wind came through, the dust would
rise from there.
Natasha Mitchell: You’ve stopped agriculture. What are
you planting here to hold the soil down?
Deputy Director Tzang: When we returned the farming lands
to the forest, we mainly planted trees. The main species is
Natasha Mitchell: And what do you think this landscape
will look like in many years to come, as a result of your
Deputy Director Tzang: When the autumn comes, it will
look so beautiful, because apricots will turn to red.
Natasha Mitchell: And this red beauty, the officials tell
us, will be exploited to develop new industries in the area. A
fruit juice factory is planned, along with autumn Apricot
Festivals for tourists.
This local farmer and his family who we interrupt separating
harvested wheat, appear to be used to living with State
Farmer in Happiness Village: We have been living here for
three generations. We plant wheat, we plant them here. We only
have 5 mu of land, and at most, we can only have 40 to 60
Natasha Mitchell: On ABC Radio National. I’m Natasha
Mitchell, this week in Inner Mongolia for our continuing series,
As well as the restriction of livestock, local officials report
that the planting of trees and grasses here has doubled the
amount of vegetation. Although to a visitor’s eye, it still
looks bare and patchy.
Deputy Director Tzang estimates it will take two years for the
land to recover, and for the dust storms to be under control,
but for now they’re still a problem here.
Deputy Director Tzang: When the dust storm comes, we
couldn’t even see the sky, it was full of yellow. When the wind
came through, it covered the sky, heaven and earth. All is in
Natasha Mitchell: When there’s so much dust in the air
there’s no escape, and when it enters deep into the lungs,
Professor Edward Derbyshire says this is a big concern. He’s
studied the health impacts of China’s dust storms.
Edward Derbyshire: Most of the dust that is in dust
storms in fact is made up of quartz, which is the commonest form
of what we call free silica. And quartz is a carcinogen. But the
stages in responding to quartz dust in the lungs is initially a
condition called ‘fibrosis’. This is when the fine dust is
inhaled deeply into the lungs, it lodges in the little pouches
within the lungs, called aveoli and these essentially build up a
kind of crust. A product of this is maybe after 20, or even 30
years, you find it difficult to go up stairs. You find it
difficult to hoe your field.
Natasha Mitchell on the highway: It’s a beautiful crisp
morning and we’re just driving out of Taipusuchi here in Inner
Mongolia. Lovely sunny skies overhead and just on a hill in
front of us in massive Chinese characters is a slogan which says
“Preserve Ecology and Environment”. So clearly, the issue is on
the minds of the people here. And there’s plenty of saplings
that have been planted around on the edge of all the
Hong Jiang: Government and local people, basically have
equated ecological construction with the increasing planting of
trees and shrubs and the grass.
Natasha Mitchell: The policy of ecological construction
has its very roots in tree planting programs from as far back as
the 1950s. One national policy, for example, stipulates that
‘all citizens from 11 to 60 years old should plant 3 to 5 trees
each year’ in the interests of combating desertification.
Hong Jiang, Assistant Professor of Geography at the University
of Madison in Wisconsin is author of The Ordos Plateau of
China: An Endangered Environment.
Hong Jiang: So the measure of ecological construction is
really to see how many more trees have been planted, shrubs have
been planted, and how productive the landscape has become.
Natasha Mitchell: There have been massive community
planting campaigns. Travelling through China you can see the
saplings in the landscape everywhere. How widespread have the
planting programs been?
Hong Jiang: The planting programs really started, a big
one would be since 1978, the North China Shelter Belt Program
that also covered Inner Mongolia. I mean, Inner Mongolia is
within this program area. And since then there have been various
programs, government-promoted programs. The recent ones would be
originated from the Western Region development policy. There’s a
program of returning cropland into forests.
So the effort is really widespread, but the question of how
effective those plantings are is a different one. Because as a
dryland, the environment doesn’t really support such a massive
planting, especially of tree species that would use a lot of the
water, especially groundwater. So I have seen a lot of planting
but I also have seen a lot of failures.
Natasha Mitchell: And some of the trees along this road
certainly don’t look too healthy. Some argue that the Chinese
government are wasting their money on such mass planting, and
that the evidence for its effectiveness is still uncertain. But
a bigger concern for Professor Hong Jiang is that such large
scale tree planting risks sucking precious groundwater from
these arid lands, an issue that she argues warrants deeper
Natasha Mitchell standing next to an exposed section of the
Hunshandake Desert: Five-hundred kilometres north of Beijing
now, in Inner Mongolia, and we’ve just come to our first bit of
real desert. It’s the Hunshandake Desert, and this desert is
said to contribute in a big way to the dust storms that plague
Beijing and the north of China every year. And what we can see
in front of us is underneath us in fact is a sort of cutaway
hole and you can see the ancient sands of this desert that were
laid down millions of years ago.
But in another layer above that, is a layer of darker soil, and
it’s crucial that this soil stays intact. If it’s eroded by
wind, water, livestock or agriculture, then it exposes the sand
underneath and that would cause a real problem, that would be
another source of dust blowing into Beijing.
But here, moveable sand dunes are also a concern, as Professor
Ding shows me.
Professor Ding: If the grass disappears … moveable sand
dune will form.
Natasha Mitchell: Some people say that the moveable sand
dunes that originate from places like this are creeping slowly
towards Beijing, that Beijing is at risk of being swallowed by
desert. What do you think?
Professor Ding: You see? What do you think, what did you
see along the road? There are sand dunes, we have travelled from
Beijing to here. This is the first sand dune that you’ve seen.
But that’s the answer.
Natasha Mitchell: You don’t think it’s a problem.
Professor Ding: Of course, no.
Natasha Mitchell: Deserts have been forming for many
millennia here, it’s a natural geological process, points out
Professor Ding. But whilst the moveable sand dunes may not be
about to swamp Beijing as media headlines have it, they are at
risk of blocking the new highways in the region.
The Chinese have developed a simple but ingenious method to hold
back the sand, which blows in forceful gusts when we pull over
to take a look.
Natasha Mitchell looking at roadside with Professor Ding:
Oh my goodness, so they’ve put sticks, hundreds and hundreds and
Professor Ding: They just cut sticks about 60 or 70 centimetres
long and then just plant the sticks in lines.
Natasha Mitchell: And there is some grass planting as
Natasha Mitchell: Yes, within the lines they just plant
grasses, just to stabilise the sand dune.
Natasha Mitchell: So what we have before us is a
brand-new road that stretches out in front of us and either side
is sloping dune country, and to prevent the sand from eroding
and blocking the way of this road, they’ve taken cut sticks,
millions and millions of them, and literally put them in the
sand in rows, intermingled with grass. Do you think this will
Natasha Mitchell: Yes, a very good, very good method.
Sounds of sheep herding and baaing
Natasha Mitchell walking up slopes of grasslands: Moving
up on the hill in front of me are a herd of sheep and goats,
just outside of the town, Xilin Hot. There’s some hills ahead of
me and these are the grasslands in Inner Mongolia that Mongolian
herders have used for many years. They’ve traditionally been
nomadic, moving their livestock, their goats and their sheep,
from one place to another to feast on the grass here, but more
recently things have changed for the Mongolian herders.
HaoBi Si Ga La Tu (Mongolian Herder): In the old days the
Mongolians were the nomadic tribe. We herded our livestock in
the natural way, but at that time we had bigger uses of
grassland. The herdsmen could freely change locations every
year. We didn’t have fixed places to live in. Now we can only
herd on small piece of grassland. It naturally controls the
number of livestock.
Natasha Mitchell: Mongolian herder, (Hov Sgaalt) HaoBi Si
Ga La Tu.
The official policy here in the Xilingol district of Inner
Mongolia is called the ‘Ecological Movement of People’. In
total, 10,000 people will be moved onto smaller, contained plots
over the next few years. It’s a drastic attempt to repair the
once-beautiful grasslands that herders have lived on, in a
semi-nomadic way, for generations.
Rik Thwaites: Oh look, the herders are well aware of the
problem. They live the problem every day. The difficulty is that
the factors that influence their behaviour of herders are very
difficult for them to control.
Natasha Mitchell: Australian Dr Rik Thwaites of Charles
Sturt University. He’s studied the changing scenario for the
herders here on the grasslands.
The blame for land degradation is often laid at the Mongolian
herders’ door, with claims of reckless over-grazing due to
dramatic increases in the number of animals. One figure reports
an increase from 2-million to 18-million livestock here in the
last 20 years.
But Rik Thwaites argues it’s not a simple story, the herders
often find themselves caught between two sets of government
policies: to protect and land and to increase their
Rik Thwaites: You’ve got many levels of government in
China, and at high levels of government they develop growth
policies and strategies. From the outside they appear to be
based on just sort of number-crunching; they decide let’s see if
we can grow by 5% this year. When those policies are passed down
through the different levels of government, they become very
difficult to implement, and at times it’s simply a matter of
squeezing more and more out of very limited resources.
And on the grasslands, when they talk about increasing
production by a certain percentage, over a year, as an official
government policy, when that’s passed down to the fifth and
sixth levels of government, which is where the grassland is
managed, action - the strategy that’s adopted to achieve that
outcome – is simply to increase the number of livestock on the
Natasha Mitchell: Herder Hov Sgaalt (HaoBi Si Ga La Tu )
agrees that the herders are well aware of the difficult balance
between economic gain and environmental conservation.
HaoBi Si Ga La Tu: It’s very hard to protect the
grassland, to keep a balance. Meanwhile, they need to improve
their life economically.
Natasha Mitchell: Because you now run fewer livestock on
the land, does that mean you are making less money?
HaoBi Si Ga La Tu: My sheep are better than before.
Seeing from this, my life is continuously and steadily
Natasha Mitchell: What do you prefer, the roaming life or
the stationary life here, fixed?
HaoBi Si Ga La Tu: It is more reasonable and good to
follow the Mongolian nomadic tradition left by our ancestors.
But seeing from reality, the current lifestyle is more suitable.
Natasha Mitchell: Do you lament the loss of that
tradition? Do you feel sad about the loss of that tradition?
HaoBi Si Ga La Tu: The animals are sad about it too. It’s
not only us, but also the animals. But the current situation
demands us to follow the current method.
Natasha Mitchell: This herder seems very pragmatic, but
we discover that his family is in fact a showcase ‘model’ family
in the village. Model families in China tend to receive help
from the government to encourage others to follow their
policies. And activist, Enhebatu Togchog, of the Southern
Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre, born in Inner
Mongolia, now living in New York, argues that the forced
ecological migration of his people is a human rights issue.
Enhebatu Togchog: I think this a very serious problem for
the Mongols, because the consequences of this kind of movement
is very serious. I think it’s almost a culture shock for the
entire population of the Mongolian herders, because this kind of
sudden and involuntary change will bring a series of social and
economic crises to the Mongolian community. Because every aspect
of the Mongolian life and culture was based on nomadic or animal
husbandry lifestyle that was maintained by the Mongols for
hundreds of years.
Natasha Mitchell: Geographer Hong Jiang doesn’t see the
Mongolian herders as especially disempowered today, but she does
agree that, like many of the Han Chinese they now live
alongside, Mongolians are caught in a transitional period.
They aren’t allowed to return to their traditional ways, but
they’re equally seduced by economic progress. Here she quotes
one of the Mongolians she’s interviewed for her research.
Hong Jiang: He said something to the effect that ‘We feel
cheated by the Chinese. But now if I had to go back to grazing
of the past, I wouldn’t want to do that any more because of the
low economic status’, and in the end he said, ‘Well I’m now an
experienced farmer already’.
So I think the Mongols are really caught in between the external
and internal factors that push for change and it’s really a
transitional period of time for the Mongols.
Natasha Mitchell: And environmentalist Dai Qing argues
that the rise of consumerism, with China’s fervent adoption of a
market economy, is affecting rural people all over the country,
as in Inner Mongolia.
Dai Qing: Right now the herd people are not like their
ancestors. You know, they want to get rich, they want a swimming
pool, a big house, three cars in one family! This kind of life!
You know, the people in the grassland, in the traditional way,
they’re happy. So this is why I hate advertisement. I hate the
TV advertisement. Yes. So I think right now, people in the
developed country, some people with the ‘high education’,
so-called, they give a wrong sense to the poor people, and try
to change the lifestyle of them, and it will destroy the
Natasha Mitchell: Only time will tell if the policies of
ecological construction and ecological migration can halt the
serious land degradation in Inner Mongolia, but some people say
that the dust storms in Beijing, over the last two years at
least, haven’t been as bad. Whether this is an outcome of
improved climate or of government policy, it’s difficult to
But what does prominent Chinese environmentalist Dai Qing think
of her country’s considerable efforts and strategies so far to
Dai Qing: I hope, only I can say I hope, it will work,
but I dare not say it will work. But there’s no way for us to go
back to our traditional life, because of the development of
scientists and industry, and because of the population. So I
don’t know, I don’t know. Basically I’m not an optimist, but I
live in this era, so every minute I try to do something good, to
try to do something to prevent disaster, but totally I’m not an
Environmentalist and Writer
Winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize (1993)
Professor Ding Zhongli
Institute of Geology and Geophysics
Chinese Academy of Sciences
Director of Foreign Affairs Office
Institute of Geology and Geophysics
Chinese Academy of Sciences
School of Environmental and Information Sciences
Charles Sturt University
Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center(SMHRIC)
Assistant Professor of Geography
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Si Ga La Tu
Zhu Jing Mei
Han Chinese farmer
Han Chinese farmer
Xing Fu Xiang (Happiness Village)
Special thanks to Charles Li Bin – producer and researcher in
ABC Office in Beijing - for coordination and translations.
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