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  Inner Mongolia: Holding back the desert

BBC World Service and ABC Radio National

December 2004

Click here to listen the program ( 23 minutes )


In 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 Inner Mongolia.

On a 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 Australia ).

----- SMHRIC                    


Broadcast: Saturday 15 January  2005  at 8.30am

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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Natasha 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 annually.

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 increasing frequency.

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 decades.

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 changing one.

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 elementary Mandarin….

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 tackle desertification.

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 moved.

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 Mountain apricot…

Natasha Mitchell: And what do you think this landscape will look like in many years to come, as a result of your project?

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 restrictions.

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 livestock.

Natasha Mitchell: On ABC Radio National. I’m Natasha Mitchell, this week in Inner Mongolia for our continuing series, Parched Lands.

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 darkness.

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 pasturelands here.

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 investigation.

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 thousands.

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 well.

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 work?

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 economic output.

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 grassland.

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 improving.

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 environment.

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 know.

But what does prominent Chinese environmentalist Dai Qing think of her country’s considerable efforts and strategies so far to reverse desertification?

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 optimist.


Deputy Director Tzang
Inner Mongolia

Dai Qing
Environmentalist and Writer
Winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize (1993)

Professor Ding Zhongli
Institute of Geology and Geophysics
Chinese Academy of Sciences

Mr Che Jianguo
Director of Foreign Affairs Office
Institute of Geology and Geophysics
Chinese Academy of Sciences

Dr Rik Thwaites
School of Environmental and Information Sciences
Charles Sturt University

Enhebatu Togochog
Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center(SMHRIC)

Hong Jiang
Assistant Professor of Geography
University of Wisconsin-Madison

HaoBi Si Ga La Tu
Mongolian Herder

Mrs Zhu Jing Mei
Han Chinese farmer

Mr Zhang Sheng
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.

Further information:

Grapes of Wrath in Inner Mongolia: A Report from U.S. Embassy Beijing (May 2001)

Chinese Academy of Sciences International Dust Storm Program

United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)

China Losing War With Advancing Deserts; Lester Brown; Earth Policy Institute, August 2003.


Culture, Ecology, and Nature’s Changing Balance: Sandification on Mu Us Sandy Land, Inner Mongolia, China; Hong Jiang; in Global Desertification: Do Humans Cause Deserts?
Author: J.F. Reynolds and M. Stafford Smith, (Editors) 2002

Global Desertification: Do Humans Cause Deserts?
Author: J.F. Reynolds and M. Stafford Smith (Editors) 2002
(Includes PDF files of all chapters)

Global Alarm:
Dust and Sandstorms From the World’s Drylands

Author: Yang Youlin, Victor Squires, Lu Qi (Editors)
Publisher: UNCCD, New York August 2001.
(NB: This opens as a PDF document)

The Economic Costs of Ecological Deficits; From The Earth Policy Reader
Author: Lester R. Brown, Janet Larsen, & Bernie Fischlowitz-Roberts
(NB: This opens as a PDF document)

China National Report On the Implementation of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and National Action Plan to Combat Desertification, April, 2000
(NB: This opens as a PDF document)

State, ecological construction, and the local landscape in China: A case study from Uxin banner, Inner Mongolia; Hong Jiang; World Development. (In Review)





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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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