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The Green, Green Grass of Home
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Everyone who comes to Inner Mongolia, Chinese or Western, old or young, tourist or worker, eventually ends up with a trip to one of the magnificent grasslands. The geography of Inner Mongolia, from desert to grassland – truly reflects a land of enchantment. Every summer the Nadam Festival, with its lively Mongolian horse racing, passionate wrestling and exotic food, takes place on vast green steppes, drawing thousands of Chinese and foreigners alike. Inner Mongolia offers a unique experience to tourists: they may not only enjoy an urban holiday, visiting Buddhist monasteries or wandering around quaint ethnic neighborhoods but also one may choose to enjoy a stunning natural vacation. Here in Inner Mongolia guests can gallop along endless green pastures. Later, at night, under thousands of stars, guests will watch traditional Mongolian dancers and finally retire to sleep in a Meng Gu Bao, a comfortable, round, Mongolian style tent. For some travelers, an off the beaten track itinerary might even include a one-day trip to the great Gobi desert. But no one who visits Inner Mongolia should miss experiencing the splendor of the steppe.

Inner Mongolia constitutes a quarter of China's total grasslands. For centuries nomadic Mongolian herdsmen roamed freely on these areas, grazing goats, sheep, yak and camels. Today the grasslands are no longer open range. They are no longer as vast and endless as before. Both the human and animal population has swelled, putting pressure on the fragile ecological system. Degradation of the grasslands, caused from farmers encroaching on the steppe and from herdsmen crowding too many animals into one place, has created serious environmental issues. Unfortunately both private and communal use and management of the grassland have led to overgrazing, increasing erosion, sandstorms, and in the worst cases, desertification. In the early 1980s overgrazing became a serious problem in Inner Mongolia when the Chinese government introduced "Grassland User Rights" – the right to utilize private grazing property.
Sandstorms, erosion, and weather fluctuations are the result of upsetting the delicate balance of nature in the grasslands. Some scientists have linked degradation and specifically soil erosion with changing political economic processes. Scientists apply the term "tragedy of the commons" to the phenomenon that is taking place on the Inner Mongolian grasslands. The English phrase signifies a conflict for resources between individual interests and the common good that took place in England in the 18th century. During that time English herders began abusing the common lands as private land ownership reduced the amount of open range.

Inner Mongolia has experienced similar problems. From the 1950s to the 1970s the vast grasslands were collectivized and made into People's Communes. The government set up a three tiered management arrangement. Grassland ownership (primary resource) was under the commune (the rural township); livestock ownership (secondary resource) was under the production brigade (administrative village), and implement ownership was under the production team (natural village); they were also responsible for herding. The system did not work well because no one cared to manage or maintain the commons as well as they did under traditional kinship practices. The attitude that the pasture belongs to no one has prevailed until the early 1980s with the introduction of the household contract responsibility system which became User Rights in 1997. Despite the change of status and introduction of User Rights, pastures are still seen as "eating from the big rice pot" so there is little or no community responsibility in place for sustaining this valuable natural resource. Furthermore User Right legislative policies were transferred wholesale from farmed land to the grasslands with little or no consideration for the fact that livestock move about, while crops do not. In short, they are very different systems and require different modes of regulation.

One Australian scientific study (2002-2006) examined the effects of the User Rights legislation and initially argued that it was the larger, rich Mongolian herders who should be targeted for assistance as they had the most impact on the grasslands. They were most likely to cause environmental degradation because they had the most animals. These richer households had priority to receive assistance in the form of loans, fencing materials, improved genetic material, and so on. But in fact the grassland boundaries are still highly contested and unequally shared. Ignoring the plight of the poorest herdsmen would create greater, not lesser, resource exploitation. The Australian project eventually concluded that User Rights privatization might ensure some degree of environmental protection, but it was not the ultimate answer. Safeguarding the rights of current and future generations is everyone's responsibility; sustainable pasturelands, in theory, should be protected and enjoyed equally by all resource-users.

Herdsmen, like everyone else, want prosperity. For a herder his wealth is counted in the amount of animals he owns; they are a sort of walking bank. But with the increase in population, the reduction of open range and increased agriculture inside of Inner Mongolia, these pastoralists are feeling greater economic pressure.  Herders, whether on open range or private property, wish to make more money so they allow too many animals to graze too long on pastures. The idea that fenced, private land will be cared for more than common land and that it will have less erosion and damage has not yet been proved successful. In fact, enclosing the grasslands under User Rights has been found to hasten disparities between households. It has led not just to abuse of the grassland but also to serious social problems and community fragmentation.

Many scientific studies in northern Inner Mongolia grasslands have clearly displayed the importance of the socio-cultural and geo-political context of herding and non-herding communities living in this region. Ignoring these contexts led to frequently tense and occasionally violent community and administrative boundary disputes among family members and neighbors. Once common resources, the locals now viewed these same lands as belonging to individual households. The larger herders put up fences demarcating their individual allocations. Those with good land and enough water felt satisfied with their lot; others obviously were not so pleased but grimly accepted the new legislation as their fate. And for both the implementation of User Rights was naively expected to solve the problem of degraded public land. The government assumed that rich herders with more animals would take better care of the grassland and its resources than the poor, smaller herders. This did not turn out to be the case.

In fact, the logic of pastoral household economics seeks to increase numbers and sell fewer when prices were not high enough to meet domestic demands. Rich herders hoarded their stock animals; they reluctantly sold them when prices were low. Poor herders had less choice; they sold and became poorer. This is the opposite of what the Chinese economists wanted.

Sadly, the User Right system is now so widely instituted it would be hard to establish common property regimes under the sole control of local communities. Many government workers are starting to consider that the responsibility of management and control of the commons should now be vested in local collectives, instead of relying just on government policy and laws, such as User Rights. Scientists are re-evaluating local knowledge that has enabled communities for generations to respond to subtle environmental cues of the grassland environment. Many reports state that Mongolian herdsmen need longer-term and community-agreed commitment and responsibility toward natural resource management rather than official dictates from Beijing.

Consequently, the Chinese government has set up scientific studies and projects in cooperation with many Western nations, particularly Canada and Australia, to insure the survival of this important ecosystem. These studies argue that the political change: from communal open grasslands to restricted, fenced private grasslands, as well as cultural constructions on environment, identity and ethno-ecological knowledge, are all factors in the degradation of Inner Mongolian grasslands. The power of microeconomic policy, and the complexity of the political relationships engendered from enclosing the land through User Rights must be studied. Mongolian cultural and kinship practices, and grazing pressures must be understood and balanced in order to have prosperous, successful herdsmen who will cherish and maintain the grasslands.

All About Inner Mongolia Grasslands Livestocks

(China.org.cn by Valerie Sartor, September 12, 2007)
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