A Vast Chinese Grassland, a Way of Life Turns to Dust

Desertification plagues the once fertile grasslands of northeastern China’s Mongolia region.

Inner Mongolia desertification

Photo by Palani Mohan, Getty Images
Chen Jiqun, (right), an artist whose work is in the permanent collection of the National Gallery, is a leading grasslands conservationist and expert on desertification in Inner Mongolia. On a recent visit, he caught up with Batar, a veteran herder and old friend. Click image to enlarge photo gallery.

By W. Chad Futrell
Special to Circle of Blue

More than 600 miles north of Beijing, where the shallow Nailin Rivulet meanders in lazy curves beneath a high ridge near the border with Mongolia, the whole of the largest contiguous grasslands on Earth opens to the horizon. There is nothing like this incandescent green sea of grass, covering much of the central and eastern regions of Inner Mongolia, anywhere on the planet. Its breathtaking beauty has inspired a nascent eco-tourism industry exemplified by the nearby Nomad Family, a clutch of six yurts along an empty highway overseen by four men, three women, and a small boy.

The idea is to give the trickle of tourists who make it out this far from China’s capital an idea of traditional nomadic culture on the Asian steppes, a life marked by the insistence of wind, herding, and the search for water. It’s the latter that also attracts visitors to the Nomad Family encampment. The family has incorporated into their business plan tours of dried lakes, great expanses of dusty ground, and impromptu sprints to sudden dust storms that gather speed, darken the sky, and sting the air.

It was easy that day to imagine the towering blasts of sand and dust, growing in strength and frequency, that are now closing off huge expanses of east Asia every spring.

On the day in September that Chen Jiqun visited, a storm of mixing dust and swirling sand erupted miles beyond the Nailin Rivulet. It swept eastward, growing in intensity. Chen, a prominent Chinese artist and grasslands conservationist who helped found Nomad Family last year, joined several of the men and raced off with a group of visiting journalists. Even though the storm was small compared to many others in Inner Mongolia, its fury was nevertheless surprising. Dust obscured a bright yellow sun. Sand stung exposed skin. The wind pried at loose clothing.

It was easy that day to imagine the towering blasts of sand and dust, growing in strength and frequency, that are now closing off huge expanses of east Asia every spring. Typical is what happened on the morning of April 1, 2007, when the people of Liaoning and Shandong provinces in northeastern China, an area roughly the size of New Mexico and home to 130 million residents, awoke to the sound of grating winds and scratchy veils of dust that hung in their homes. Outside, yellow clouds of sand darkened the streets.

Springtime in China’s northern provinces, like late summer and fall along the American Atlantic and Gulf coasts, is storm season. Terrible storms of sand and dust have been a fact of life in arid China for thousands of years. Depending on who you ask, roughly a quarter of China’s vast territory is desert, much of that in northern China. Yet just as hurricanes in the age of global climate change have grown more frequent and intense in the American south, the number and severity of sand and dust storms in northern China also is rising.

The worst was a three-day sand storm in May 1993 that engulfed four northern Chinese provinces, covering an area the size of the American Midwest. When it ended 85 people were dead, 246 were injured, 120,000 head of livestock perished, 4,400 homes were destroyed, and 5.7 million acres of crops were ruined, according to the Chinese Academy of Forestry Sciences.

During the first decade of the 21st century, the conditions that scientists say produce the storms—dryer climate, heavier winds, severe water shortages, over-grazing, population growth, and a clash between nomadic herders and the government over range and farmland management—worsened. Many of the same conditions that produced the American Dust Bowl in the 1930s, an environmental calamity and human tragedy that journalist Timothy Egan called the “worst hard time” in United States history, are being replicated in China with even graver consequences for the land, and for people in and outside China who are directly affected by the sand storms.

The dimensions of the disaster, like the gravitational pull of a heavy magnet, attracted Chinese scientists, prompted a nascent national environmental movement to take note, and spurred calls for action from other nations–Japan, South Korea, the United States–that choke on China’s dust. And for good reason.

In 2001, dust from a violent storm closed airports in Korea. A year later, on April 12, 2002, South Korea was engulfed by another dust storm from China that left people in Seoul literally gasping for breath. Koreans have come to dread the arrival of what they now call “the fifth season”—the dust storms of late winter and early spring. In March and April 2006 Beijing, the Chinese capital, was enveloped eight times by choking storms.

Costs of Desertification

Most importantly, the dust and sand storms, along with the growing expanses of extremely dry and eroding grasslands and desert from which they are born, threaten the livelihoods of 400 million Chinese. Sand storms driven by 80 mile-per-hour winds that can last days are putting severe stress on China, causing roughly $1 billion in damage annually, according to the Chinese government. An Asian Sahara of sand is moving closer every year to Beijing, blackening the sky, and producing environmental refugees and social unrest in Inner Mongolia and throughout China.

“Desertification is not a natural function,” said John D. Liu, an American-born journalist, researcher, and director of the Environmental Education Media Project for China, a 10-year-old environmental organization based in Beijing. “Scientifically what’s happening is that the grasslands are losing natural infiltration and retention of water, which is altering respiration and evaporation rates. That affects relative humidity, and potentially precipitation in other regions.”

“Socially and politically what you are talking about are policy decisions made in earlier eras — from the 1950s to the 1990s — and now those mistakes are really biting them,” added Mr. Liu, who’s lived and worked in China since 1979, when he helped open the CBS television news bureau in Beijing. “They have to deal with the decisions made in those years. And in Inner Mongolia those decisions have produced some horrific consequences. Large areas of the region have been massively devegetated.”

Inner Mongolian nomads, herding livestock on the grassland range

Photo by Palani Mohan, Getty Images
Though the central government discouraged self-identity by almost every means imaginable, thousands of Inner Mongolians followed the nomadic ways of their heirs, freely herding livestock from one range to the next. Click image to enlarge photo gallery.

Grasslands Olympics

As Beijing prepares for the 29th Olympic Games in August 2008, the dust storms and deteriorating condition of Inner Mongolia’s grasslands have also become a priority of Chinese environmental scientists and agronomists.

During the first of week of July China will host the International Grassland and Rangeland Congress in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Monogolia, a high plains city of 2.3 million people. Hong Fuzeng, head of the preparatory committee of the 2008 Congress, and a grasslands scientist, said the conference will focus the attention of 3,000 rangeland experts from around the world on the environmental, demographic, and industrial trends that are turning Inner Mongolia’s grasslands to desert.

The blowing sand, in short, is more evidence of the consequences of the irrational duel China fights daily as it promotes rapid industrial development while exposing land, water, communities, and people to levels of pollution, waste, and resource diminishment never before seen on the planet.

China is the most polluted country on Earth. It’s air and water consistently ranks among the dirtiest anywhere. The World Health Organization estimates that pollution causes an estimated 750,000 premature deaths annually in China, the majority among the elderly and children.

There are economic costs as well. Earlier this year, the World Bank conservatively estimated that the cost of China’s environmental degradation is 3.5 percent to 8 percent of the gross domestic product annually. The cost of desertification caused by water scarcity alone, said the bank, is roughly $31 billion a year. While many finance theorists predict that China may become the preeminent industrialized nation this century, environmental economists say China is outrunning the capacity of its natural resources to sustain such rapid development, and could instead experience a frightening ecological collapse.

Grasslands Activist Emerges

Blowing sand has attracted advocates of all stripes in China. One of them is Chen Jiqun (pronounced chun gee chun), an artist who specializes in landscapes and portraits, and whose work is in the prestigious permanent collection of the National Gallery. Chen was 20 years old in 1967 when he decided to go to East Ujumchin Banner, a section of eastern Inner Mongolia 600 hundred miles north of China’s capital, in search of adventure after the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing was closed along with other universities.

Like many other educated youths during the Cultural Revolution, he also was required to do manual labor. Inner Mongolia during that period was a place of astonishing beauty and harshness. Though the air rarely was still and the ground was dry, great expanses of tall grass swept to the horizons, unfurling like a great waving sea beneath surpassingly huge skies. Summers were short and hot. Winters were ferocious, marked by blizzards and knife-edge cold.

Though the central government discouraged self-identity by almost every means imaginable, thousands of Inner Mongolians, a people distinguished by sturdiness and stamina, followed the nomadic ways of their heirs, freely herding livestock from one range to the next. Chen Jiqun stayed for 13 years, working different jobs on the land as he painted. He spent a few of those years as a semi-nomadic sheepherder.

Even when he departed Inner Mongolia in 1980, Chen, now 60 years old and living in Beijing, did not really leave. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s he visited frequently to see friends and paint. The grasslands of Chen Jiqun’s student years live in his paintings. Vast landscapes filled with horses galloping between herds of sheep, goats, and cows grazing on foot-high grass on the banks of rippled rivers.

Those paintings, drawn from personal history and memory, could now just as easily fall into the category of artistic fantasy. The grasslands of Inner Mongolia and other northern Chinese provinces are dying, turning into mini-deserts that grow and connect, forming oceans of sand. In some regions of the province, 70 percent of the grasslands have turned to desert. Inner Mongolia, according to conservative estimates is losing 1,500 to 2,000 square miles annually to the desert, or an area every five years about the size of New Hampshire.

Nomad family, Mongol herder culture, grasslands, desertification

Photo by Palani Mohan, Getty Images
Visitors to Nomad Family, a new eco-tourism site near the border with Mongolia, get a chance to see Mongol herder culture, the grasslands, and be a witness to desertification. Click image to enlarge photo gallery.

The speed of the conversion of grass to dust is astonishingly fast. Inner Mongolia, China’s third largest province, stretching 1,500 miles east to west and more than 600 miles north to south in some places, is larger than Texas and California combined. As recently as the 1960s, according to estimates by the Chinese environmental agency, almost three-quarters of Inner Mongolia was grass. The province’s thin soil, 15 inches of rainfall annually, and nomadic herders supported one of the planet’s most robust wild ranges, a grass ecosystem nearly twice as large as France.

No longer. According to estimates by the United Nations, since 1980 desert has claimed 2 million acres of cropland, nearly 6 million acres of rangeland, and 16 million acres of forests in northern China. Almost a quarter of China already is desert; 1.3 million square miles, equal to two Alaskas. The steady desertification of northern China has put the world’s fastest growing economy, a nation of 1.3 billion people, at the frontline of the global freshwater crisis.

Indeed, the images of Inner Mongolia that Chen painted, galloping horses and moving herds, are largely gone, the result of ineffective and disputed policies to try to contain the spreading desert— what the government calls the “household responsibility system,” and “enclosure policy.” In essence, the Chinese government forced the nomadic herders and their grass-consuming animals to stop wandering.

Still, the desert and the sand storms are growing. Chen’s goal is to help the nomadic herders he knows find solutions to the spreading sand. He believes herders have some answers, drawing on centuries of accumulated knowledge of the land and local conditions, and not on technical theories, many of them failed, mandated over the last four decades by Beijing. Shaking his head, “Who knows the grasslands better than the herders?” Chen asks.

There is little disagreement in China that changes in patterns of precipitation in an already parched region, leading to severe shortages of freshwater, plays an integral role in the spread of desertification. But agreeing on the underlying socioeconomic drivers and solving the problems have fostered divisions in the Chinese scientific community, and between the government and its people. The efforts to stabilize sand dunes, which have varied in their success, include aerial seeding, and planting a 74 million-acre “Great Green Wall” of trees, 2,800 miles long stretching from the northeast, through Inner Mongolia to Xinjiang in the far west. That is an arc of strategically located new forests that would reach from Boston to San Francisco.

“The scientists fence off the grasslands to run their experiments, but that’s not natural, and so it doesn’t work in the real world.”

–Chen Jiqun

Chinese officials also have responded with various, sometimes conflicting, policies. In 1994, China joined the newly formed UN Convention to Combat Desertification. Two years later it began to publish a series of management plans that, among other things, called for China to plant 95 million acres of grass, shrubs and trees to reduce desert conditions on 190 million acres of land by 2050.

Few are confident it will stabilize the land and Chen is especially skeptical. “The scientists fence off the grasslands to run their experiments, but that’s not natural, and so it doesn’t work in the real world.”

Though conceding that Chinese scientists have made some progress, he bitterly recalled past policies, “They planted poplar trees everywhere! The grasslands didn’t have any trees so how could they think that poplar trees were appropriate? Furthermore, practices that worked in one area were often taken as model practices to be implemented everywhere, regardless of whether the amount of rainfall or soil or climate were different!”

Other policies, some of them sources of intense disagreement, are meant to influence human behavior. None is more contentious than the “ecological migration” program, initiated in Inner Mongolia in 2001 that requires removing 640,000 Mongol, Kazakh, and Tibetan herders from the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet into towns and cities.

The forced movements, said the government, were intended to reduce pressure on the grasslands from overgrazing. But Mongols viewed the policy as discriminatory, a program designed to make water, minerals, and land more accessible to Han Chinese businesses and immigrants.

The relocation program has prompted frequent and sometimes violent protests. In April 2007, according to a Chinese television report, Mongolian villagers in the southern part of the province clashed with Chinese farmers who the government moved onto their lands. A Mongolian villager was beaten to death, and several others were arrested and jailed.

Sandstorms born in Inner Mongolia spread the economic consequences beyond Chinas borders to Korea and Japan

Photo by Palani Mohan, Getty Images
Sandstorms born in Inner Mongolia spread the economic consequences beyond China’s borders to Korea and Japan, where high-tech semiconductor and electronics factories are especially vulnerable to the fine sand. Click image to enlarge photo gallery.

In May 2001, according to the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, a civil rights group based in New York, herders in the eastern part of the province clashed with police as the government forcibly moved them off their grazing land.

Still, almost every current assessment, even those by the Chinese government, indicates the technical and policy programs have not stopped the deserts. Each time Chen Jiqun returns to Inner Mongolia, he sees more ground where grass once grew. The stretches of sand expand, the water holes and rivers run dry.

In 1998, Chen felt he needed to respond. “I kept reading about what was happening on the grasslands, but it was never from the viewpoint of the Mongol herders. Actually, they were always cast as the cause of desertification rather than as the victims,” he said.

An Activist Born

Chen turned to his artistic spirit, finding a reservoir not only of empathy, intelligence, and anger, but also expert visual and communications skills. He had, in other words, the makings of an activist. Chen already was fluent in Chinese and Mongolian. He wrote well and painted superbly. His first step in responding to Inner Mongolia’s human suffering and environmental deterioration was to start a bilingual Mongolian and Chinese website, Echoing Steppe, to help represent the views of the Mongol herders.

Echoing Steppe began as a free-form site, posting paintings and short text reports filled with anecdotes from herders, many by Chen, about what was happening. The site attracted the attention of Friends of Nature, an education and advocacy organization formed in Beijing in 1994, and China’s first legal nongovernmental organization (NGO) specializing in environmental issues.

Liang Congjie, a professor at the Academy of Chinese Culture and the co-founder and president of Friends of Nature, took a personal interest in Chen’s work, describing in words and pictures Inner Mongolia’s deteriorating condition. Chen’s reportage and images were fast turning him into one of the foremost experts on Inner Mongolia desertification.

By 2002 Chen found himself leading tours of Chinese students, activists, and interested citizens to the grasslands. He also studied laws that focused on property rights, grasslands, and desertification. Using the proceeds from the tours as well as his own money, Chen began translating and publishing those laws on Echoing Steppes.

“How can China become a nation of laws when its people can not even read the laws?” Chen said. He eventually added English translations to his website in order to raise international awareness about the situation in Inner Mongolia. He distributed copies of the laws to herders during his frequent trips to Inner Mongolia.

He also wrote with telling clarity. “In the mid-1990s, the ecological environment of Duolun drastically deteriorated,” he reported in one particularly graphic passage. “Seventy percent of its land turned into desert, forming large areas of moving dunes and becoming one of the sources of sandstorms that threatened Beijing and Tianjin. To imagine how much topsoil is brought from Duolun to Tianjin and Beijing each year by sandstorms, visualize 1.7 million trucks, each with a capacity of ten tons, traveling to the two cities, loading and unloading sand throughout the year.”

In 2003, Chen began working with the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement, South Korea’s largest environmental group, holding workshops and conferences on desertification and preserving the grasslands.

One contact led to the next and the next, producing an array of creative ways to get more people involved. Chen and KFEM, for instance, organized eco-tours to the grasslands for Korean students, journalists, government officials, activists, and citizens. That led to the founding earlier this year of Nomad Family, a Mongol culture and eco-tourist site located in Xilingol Prefecture, East Ujumchin County.

The idea of Nomad Family is to produce a hands-on, elemental experience. Visitors get a chance to see Mongol herder culture, the grasslands, and be a witness to desertification. They come away with a better understanding of the ecological, historical, and political processes that are turning the grasslands into seas of sand.

“Desertification is complex, and we have to hear all sides,” said Chen. “But people have not heard the side of the Mongol herders. I want people to understand the history of the Mongolian grasslands from the herders’ viewpoint, because if we don’t understand the history of the grasslands, the grasslands don’t have a future.”

Sandstorms in Inner Mongolia spread the economic consequences beyond China's borders to Korea and Japan

Photo by Palani Mohan, Getty Images
Arxiaot Lake, a mile from the Nomad Family site, was over 10-feet deep in the late 1990s. Migratory birds used the lake as a breeding site. Herders watered their livestock along its banks. Farmers irrigated their crops. Today it is a lake of sand. Click image to enlarge photo gallery.

Colonizing and Cultivating the Grasslands

To a large extent, the spreading sands of Inner Mongolia are due to actions of people just like Chen Jiqun, a Han Chinese. Inner Mongolia witnessed waves of in-migration by Han Chinese dating back to the end of the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century. While many chose to migrate in order to escape overcrowding along China’s coasts, the imperial government sent others, including soldiers, to secure the border region. The Han Chinese brought with them requisite knowledge and technical expertise in agriculture and began farming, transforming the grasslands of southern Inner Mongolia into cultivated fields.

The culture and economy of the Han Chinese diverged sharply from the traditional pastoral economy of the indigenous Mongols. As the number of Han Chinese grew, they forced the indigenous Mongol herders into smaller, less fertile areas. Many Mongol herders responded by moving northward, with some settling in modern day Mongolia.

Over time, a mixture of Han Chinese farmers and stationary Mongol ranchers occupied the warmer, wetter southern part of Inner Mongolia while nomadic Mongol herders controlled the colder, drier northern areas. This boundary gradually edged northward as Han Chinese continued to migrate into Inner Mongolia throughout the turmoil of early 20th century China. By 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was founded, there were five Han Chinese for every one Mongol in the area.

This historical trend of Han Chinese farmers displacing nomadic Mongol herders accelerated in the 1950s and 1960s with the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, respectively. Large numbers of Han Chinese were sent to the region and told by Mao to “take grain as the key link.” They greatly expanded the reach of irrigation beyond the area’s carrying capacity by building levees and ditches, growing wheat and corn on the converted grasslands.

The strategy was somewhat successful during warm, wet years, but proved disastrous with the arrival of cold, dry years. There were massive crop failures throughout Inner Mongolia in the 1960s, leaving the thin topsoil uncovered and unprotected from the harsh winds of the grasslands. Wind erosion did the rest.

Within the space of a few years, the land changed from grasslands to cultivated farmland to desert. Areas that received enough irrigation were able to hold out for a few more years, but once aquifers began dropping in the 1970s desertification accelerated despite new farm policies that promoted replacing grain with less intensive crops.

“What we have come to learn is that human activity without ecological understanding leads to ecosystem collapse.”

–John Liu

“What we have come to learn,” said John Liu, who also is a doctoral candidate in soil science at University of Reading in England, “is that human activity without ecological understanding leads to ecosystem collapse. Scientifically speaking you’ve got numerous complex synergistic systems. Human beings intervene and disrupt these systems without understanding what they are doing. It starts a progression and that progression can be tracked as the development trajectory. In Inner Mongolia the development trajectory caused a loss of ecosystem function. Biodiversity and natural stability are indicators of ecological health and the development trajectory has led, in parts of Inner Mongolia and across China to ecosystem collapse.”

The widening disaster is taking a toll on China economically and diplomatically. Desertification alone has been estimated to cost China $7 billion a year in lost agricultural production. The sandstorms also spread the economic consequences beyond China’s borders to Korea and Japan, where high-tech semiconductor and electronics factories are especially vulnerable to the fine sand. Indeed, Korean experts estimated economic losses from dust in 2002 at $4.6 billion.

Of even more concern to Korean and Japanese, as well as Chinese officials are the health effects of sandstorms, especially on the elderly and young. Not only are scientists concerned about increased incidence of eye, nose, and throat irritation and asthma, but also the long-term health effects of breathing the fine quartz dust. They are particularly worried about the development of pneumoconiosis, a non-industrial version of silicosis, putting citizens at greater risk of tuberculosis, heart disease, and lung cancer.

The lung cancer risk is exacerbated by the cocktail of pollutants that attach to the dust particles as they travel through the heavily industrialized areas of eastern China. According to Korean scientists, the sulfur, lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals carried by the sandstorms are raising mortality rates from respiratory and cardiovascular causes. Taiwanese scientists report a significant rise in strokes during and immediately after sandstorms. The U.S. Armed Forces in Korea are concerned enough to have implemented a continuously updated yellow sand warning system, and cancel heavy training when sandstorms blanket the country. Countries in the region are thus putting diplomatic pressure on China to curtail the sandstorms, with tripartite meetings between Chinese, Korean, and Japanese environmental ministries addressing the issue almost every year since 1999.

American Dust Bowl comparison to Inner Mongolia desertification and sand storms.

Photo by Palani Mohan, Getty Images
Many of the same conditions that produced the American Dust Bowl in the 1930s, called the “worst hard time” in United States history, are being replicated in Inner Mongolia with even graver consequences for the land, and for people in and outside China who are directly affected by the sand storms. Click image to enlarge photo gallery.

Mongol Herders Have A Point

It is for these reasons and more that after decades of being ignored and pushed about, the views of Mongol herders are beginning to be heard in Inner Mongolia. A cultural revival is taking shape on the grasslands as Mongols lay claim to their history and herding traditions, and advocate for age-old herd and grass management practices that have long been neglected. Their view: the dry steppes of Inner Mongolia support a nomadic livestock agriculture. Keeping people and their animals in one place is a formula for disaster and dust.

A great deal of the Mongol revival is due to Chen Jiqun. Person by person, place by place, Chen is introducing Mongol theories of grassland management to the world, and courting new influence for promising solutions to desertification. One of the main ways that Chen introduces Han Chinese and foreigners alike to traditional Mongol herder culture is through supporting the establishment of eco-tours in the region, a sort of Mongolian experiment in social and economic entrepreneurism.

Chen insists that the eco-tourist sites he works for are run by and for the nomad herders themselves. He helped establish Nomad Family in April 2007, working with a herder named Tugesibayal to set up the site. Chen arranged for two more herders to help staff Nomad Family, which is five yurts along the side of the road surrounded by sand and grass, and a sixth standing behind. .

The eco-tourism site provides a clear window on traditional Mongolian culture and rangeland practices. Along with Tugesibayal’s daughter and two other female workers, Nomad Family enables visitors to live in yurts, eat traditional Mongol dishes made on-site, and experience a modern Mongol lite version of nomadic life.

Chen is also working with other herders in the area so that tourists can visit grasslands that still look as they always have, as well as areas that have become deserts in the past few years.

Nomad Family: Reclaiming Mongol Identity and Ecotourism

On his most recent visit to Nomad Family, Chen reacquainted himself with a veteran herder named Batar, who lives at Nomad Family and knows Chen well.

They talked about the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution of the 20th century, which marked the first two attempts to “settle” nomadic herders, first as part of the collectivization movement that swept all Chinese citizens into communes as large as 110,000 families. “My parents and grandparents had lived by the traditional ways, spending the summer in one place and then, when the grass got low, moving very far away to where the grass was healthy,” Batar said in an interview. “They were proud of our history and traditions. But then, during the Cultural Revolution, we could not talk about our history.” By settling down in urban areas Mongols “have forgotten [their] culture and the importance of the grasslands.”

A young herder, Temtsel, who came from a neighboring county to help the Nomad Family get started, joined the conversation. His specialty is to educate Han Chinese and foreigners about traditional pastoral life on the grasslands. “Protecting the grasslands is important, because without the grasslands we can’t live,” he said.

Chinese scientists, they said, have experimented with various methods of fixing dunes, planting hybrid shrub and grass varieties, and aerial seeding of the grasslands. Scientists now admit what Temtsel and other Mongols knew all along. The scientific experiment was a costly failure, a product of trying to find a technological solution to a much more complex environmental and socioeconomic process.
There are economic costs as well. Earlier this year, the World Bank conservatively estimated that the cost of China’s environmental degradation is 3.5 percent to 8 percent of the gross domestic product annually. The cost of desertification caused by water scarcity alone, said the bank, is roughly $31 billion a year.

Mongol cultural revival of herding tradition and history of grass management practices.

Photo by Palani Mohan, Getty Images
A cultural revival is taking shape on the grasslands. Mongols are laying claim to their history and herding traditions, and advocating for age-old herd and grass management practices that have long been neglected. Click image to enlarge photo gallery.

Western Development or Extractive Exploitation?

More recently, the Chinese government has blamed overpopulation, over cultivation of fragile soils, overgrazing, and global climate change for accelerating desertification in Inner Mongolia.

The government hasn’t found its own program of industrialization guilty, though it is, say herders. In 1998 the central government began the Western Development program, which among other things has promoted mining in Inner Mongolia. The young herder, Temtsel, has studied the mines and estimated that just one mine uses 10,500 tons (2.6 million gallons) of water a day, enough to rapidly deplete the groundwater and aquifers below, or grow thousands of acres of sand-stabilizing grass. The mines also discharge a comparable amount of toxic, mineral and acid-laden wastewater onto the grasslands, systematically poisoning land, streams, and aquifers.

The fate of Arxiaot Lake, a mile from the Nomad Family site, is a graphic example of the Western Development program’s affect on the grasslands of East Ujumchin County. Arxiaot Lake was over 10-feet deep in the late 1990s. Migratory birds used the lake as a breeding site. Herders watered their livestock along its banks. Farmers irrigated their crops.

Today Arxiaot is a lake of sand.

Several hundred miles west of the Nomad Family site, the Wulagai Wetland, officially listed as a wetland of international importance according to the United Nations, dried up completely in 2003. Mining companies and some government officials assert that climate change—hotter, drier weather that prevents precipitation and accelerates evaporation—is why hundreds of Inner Mongolian lakes and wetlands have gone dry since 2000.

Whose Land and Water?

Another feature of the Western Development campaign was containment. Like sentries in the desert, herders stand in opposition to this sobering mixture of government policy that is producing conflicting results.

Bailinbaolige, a small village just north of Xilinhot, is an example of what can happen when the herders are forced to stay in one area, said Chen Jiqun. The area was known for its rich water resources and lush grasslands, with its name literally meaning “abundant water.” Local herders were so proud of their grasslands that in 1998, a year after the enclosure policy went into effect; they commissioned a mural of grasslands and traditional Mongol cultural scenes to be painted in the local cultural center. The finished mural depicts a colorful display of Inner Mongolia’s breathtaking scenery.

It is also a depiction of a time that so quickly passed. Starting in 1998, rains came much later in the season for three consecutive years. The herders relied more and more on local wells, further drawing down the aquifer. By 2000, the grasslands were already severely degraded, with many herders forced to sell their herds and move away. By 2001, the local school, which had had over 100 students when the mural was commissioned, was forced to close because there were only seven students left. The land surrounding the village is now covered with sparse, low grass that barely holds the topsoil in place. Bailinbaolige, says Chen, is fast on its way to becoming a ghost town in the desert.

Grasslands are a technological solution to a complex environmental and economic process.

Photo by Palani Mohan, Getty Images
Chinese scientists experimented with various methods of planting hybrid shrubs and grasses, and aerial seeding. They now acknowledge what Mongol herders knew all along. The grasslands repair program was a costly failure, a product of trying to find a technological solution to a much more complex environmental and socioeconomic process. Click image to enlarge photo gallery.

An Even Dryer Future?

Will it ever get better? Chen isn’t sure. John Liu insists that recovery of some of the grasslands is possible. He has documented how Chinese scientists and agronomists have helped to rehabilitate large expanses of the Loess Plateau, another region of China that he calls the “most eroded place on Earth.” Essentially, Chinese authorities put land off limits to development, enabling the ground to support new plant life that produces organic matter that adds to soil nutrition. The authorities also are finding alternative work for subsidence farmers.

“Don’t underestimate the Chinese,” said Mr. Liu. “They are hard working, They are very clever. The fact is, if they put their mind to it they can do amazing things.”

In the meantime, Chen Jiqun’s activism and Web site, his tours and contacts have helped foster new knowledge of the law. Chen’s work also has helped build cooperation across national borders. Students and environmental activists from South Korea regularly visit the region. Over 100 Korean students and adults visited the Nomad Family during the summer of 2007, working alongside the herders to plant grass and make straw windbreaks for desertified areas. Afterwards, Korean television news crews produced stories that explained why springtime is increasingly being associated with yellow sand rather than cherry blossoms.

This kind of transnational interaction gives Chen hope. “We have to let people outside of China know what is happening on the grasslands,” he said. “We have to help the Mongol herders know what is happening internationally.”

Chen and his old friend Batar look out over the grasslands, cut by fences, ruined. They recall a horseback adventure from their youth and their serious expressions turn to laughter. While the present is full of sparse grass and yellow sand, they both imagine a future where the grasslands are free of mines and fences. They hope that they will live to see the grasslands of Chen’s paintings come to life again. They are aware they probably won’t.

With that, the two old friends separated, Batar to tend the sheep, Chen to return to Beijing. A sandstorm kicked up behind the Nomad Family site as Chen closed the car door. The wind blew across the high steppe, and the land fell to silence. There was no mystery to the storm, no disorientation. The grass was disappearing around Nomad Family and the dust was all that was next.

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. Keith Schneider, Circle of Blue senior editor, edited and contributed to this article.

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

1 reply
  1. Inez Deborah Emilia Altar says:

    People have to care for one another and for nature and to think constructively and with some degree of realism in order to preserve themselves and the environment, idiocy and dullness does not give any reason for existence, even more if nothing is produced.
    The Jews were an object of envy for the above reasons

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply