Drinking Milk Tea

 An Inner Mongolia herder, confined by the government to a small pasture for his animals, is nevertheless more fortunate than some. His well taps an ample supply of fresh water. Photography by Palani Mohan, Getty Images, for Circle of BlueDrinking Milk Tea

By W. Chad Futrell
Special to Circle of Blue

Between the congested and heavily polluted neighborhoods and industrial zones around Beijing, and the trackless and drying grasslands of Inner Mongolia lies the rocky “sandy lands,” where the Circle of Blue team made what would be the first of many stops to talk to Mongol herders, a minority in their own land. Less than one in five Inner Mongolians is a native Mongol, according to Chinese census figures.

We had just passed a lake when our leader, Chen Jiqun, an environmentalist and prominent Chinese artist, spotted a Mongol herder house along the road. We pulled onto the dirt and mud drive leading to a small patch of fenced-in green grass. A Mongol woman and her 20-year old son looked at our minivan suspiciously. They did not receive many unannounced visitors, especially a Han Chinese and three foreigners.

“Sain Baina Uu!” yelled Chen, showing a smile we would see often over the next five days. He talked with the woman, Qiqige, for a couple of minutes in fluent Mongolian before she turned and walked back into her house. The rest of us followed. It was time to drink milk tea and eat homemade cheese.

Her shy son disappeared to find his father, who joined us. Qiqige and her family live in one of the areas subject to Inner Mongolia’s policy of enclosing herds and herders, which has forced them to rely upon a small pasture. The grass gets shorter every year. Indeed, sand dunes surround their pasture, and Qiqige fears the dunes may take over even more of their allotted land. The enclosure policy not only has created a disastrous environmental effect, it has also cut divisions into Mongol herder communities.

Previously they had grazed their sheep and cows along with 70 other families. In winter, they would stay in their house and use pastures close by. In summer, they would migrate with the other families, to a different place every year so the grasslands recovered.

“Before, we would move with many families. But now it is just our family and we don’t see the other families very much.”

– Qiqige

“Before, we would move with many families,” she said. “But now it is just our family and we don’t see the other families very much.” The change in herding practices means that women are much more isolated than men. While men can still ride their horses or motorcycles to see friends, the work of women preparing and cooking food and daily chores, effectively confines them to the house. From churning the milk into butter for cheese and yogurt to making beef jerky, women are busy all day.

“In the summertime, when we moved together, we would prepare and cook food together, looking after each other’s children,” said Qiqige. “We worked and told stories. There were always interesting stories.” She smiles at the memories. Instead of a summer full of friends and stories, she heads back to her house to prepare dinner, alone. Qiqige and her husband were not optimistic about the future of herders and hoped that their son could do well enough in school to go to college.

When we asked about the water supply, Qiqige said, “We don’t have a problem with water because we have a well, and it is not even that deep yet.” Some of her friends, though, are not as fortunate, she said. They must now travel long distances to either a friend’s well or a water source that is not fenced off.

Before leaving, Chen handed them a slip of paper with his contact information, along with translated copies of several Chinese laws pertaining to the grasslands, property rights, and desertification. This meeting, like others, was a time to recruit support and provide guidance.

W. Chad Futrell is a Ph.D. candidate in development sociology at Cornell University. He recently completed two years of fieldwork on transnational environmental cooperation to prevent desertification and protect wetlands in Northeast Asia, funded by Fulbright-Hays and Korea Foundation fieldwork fellowships. Reach him at wchadfutrell@gmail.com.

Research and editing assistance for this article was provided by Jennifer L. Turner, the director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Reach her at cef@wilsoncenter.org.

Inner Mongolia photos

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