In tune with nature’s seasonal shadings, nomads once roamed across the grasslands of Inner Mongolia on China’s northern frontier. For generations, bands of herders moved across the landscape — matching the dietary needs of livestock to the cycles of plants, striking an ecological and cultural balance.
But that ancient pattern is teetering, warns Oregon State graduate anthropology student Tom Conte, who lived with a group of herders while he studied their changing way of life. Pressure from encroaching modernization is threatening traditional patterns of migration and collaboration, he concludes. The grasslands that stretch forever under an endless sky are also stressed. The longtime symbiosis between grazing and growing, which mutually benefited lifeways, livestock and landscapes, is badly frayed.
Less Grass, More Sand
Bumping along a dirt track, it takes 45 minutes to reach houses outside the tiny village of Dashimo, where Conte stayed while interviewing herders for his master’s thesis. The sparsely populated landscape gives the impression of boundless space, a foreign sensation to a guy of Italian ancestry raised in the Bronx. “There’ve been times in history when an Italian has met with Mongolians — Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, for example,” he jokes. “This is more Joe Pesci than Marco Polo.”
The ground that surrounds Dashimo reveals a troubling ecological process that’s stripping vegetation from arid lands in Inner Mongolia and elsewhere around the world: desertification. Dashimo’s once-lush sea of grass is giving way to sand. A symptom of land privatization — a land-use policy implemented by the Chinese government in the 1970s — desert encroachment is undermining the livelihoods and traditions of herders, according to Conte.
“It’s important to study these things because they’re disappearing,” he says.“Studies show the desert expands more than 10,000 square kilometers a year in China.”
The issues surrounding grassland degradation are complex in this remote region, home mainly to ethnic Mongolians and a minority of Han Chinese (As a whole, Han Chinese comprise about 80 percent of Inner Mongolia’s population of almost 25 million). The herders are being pushed aside to make way for industrialization, mining and privatization, Conte explains.
“Originally the land was managed collectively, until the Chinese government decided to privatize,” he says. “Privatization worked really well in terms of agriculture. But pastoralism is different. Privately managed land has led to widespread degradation of the grassland. Animals eat everything, and the desert expands.”
It’s a tense issue in China. In 2011, a herder was killed by a coal truck as he was trying to stop a mining convoy that was driving across prairie land. His death sparked the biggest wave of demonstrations Inner Mongolia had seen in decades. The region is China’s largest coal producer. It’s also the largest supplier of rare-earth metals in the world — materials that end up in products consumed in the West, like smart phones, solar panels and wind turbines.
Many herders began settling about 20 years ago as the government forced them onto single plots of land that fail to meet all their animals’ needs. Families that once cooperated are now living separately. While some rent additional land where they can move their animals, the land policy, overall, spurs dangerous overgrazing, Conte says. “If you stay in one place, you exhaust the resources.”
But overgrazing is just one outcome of settlement. Another is the loss of traditional kin-based ties that bound herders and enabled cooperation in moving livestock to prime forage, a problem Conte is addressing in his research. “Herders believe that ecological degradation has increased and cooperation has decreased,” he sums up.
Lessons from America
The danger to the herders’ culture, as well as to the land, mirrors our own history, argues Bryan Tilt, Conte’s thesis adviser and an associate professor of anthropology. “The situation of minority populations in China is not unlike the American Indian story,” Tilt says. “Only in folks of this region, the changes are much more recent. There is an element of culture loss that’s happening.”
“We know a lot of people think the nomadic lifestyle is romantic because herders are tied to the land,” Conte says. “But it’s not just romantic. There are concrete data showing that the ways the people manage land is sustainable. And better. Different animals — goats, sheep, camels, horses, yaks — have different water and plant species preferences given the season. A lot of traditional ecological knowledge went into the decision of where to move and when.”
All of the herders Conte interviewed — those who have settled as well as those who still migrate — are feeling the strain in an altered landscape. “You can’t work with people and not have a sense of empathy or wanting to effect change for the better.”