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The Dilemma of the Modern Nomad
by Valerie Sartor
2013-09-18 11:21:15
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In China, pastoral and nomadic lifestyles serve as form of subsistence for various ethnic groups, including the Inner Mongolians. In the early communist era, from 1958 to 1984, known as the People’s Commune period, pasture lands were collectively owned and nomads were organized into so-called Production Brigades under a commune leader. Family units took turns tending herds in exchange for daily necessities. The now somewhat communist, somewhat settled Inner Mongolian nomads drove, as they always did, their herds from the winter camps to spring pastures for lambing. After lambing season was over, the Mongols moved on to summer pastures. These herders culled, then sold their animals in the fall. For ranchers and nomads, this cycle is timeless and ancient. 

Today, as in the past, Mongolian livestock consists of sheep, goats, horses, cattle and camels. Sheep, goats and cattle are raised for profit and for food (e.g. dairy products, a staple for Inner Mongolians). Horses provide personal transport and serve as friends; in some areas, camels are still used mainly to haul yurts and other belongings. Like other Inner Asian nomadic peoples, Inner Mongolians consume horse and camel milk, regarding it as a great delicacy. Horse meat is rarely eaten, except for rituals and survival. 

Inner Mongolian herders have long used traditional nomadic wisdom with their skills to acquire resources for survival and to ‘make a home where water and grass are found’ (Cf. Sima Qian c. 91 BC). Their knowledge was and still is based recognizing the symbiotic relationship between humans, animals, and the grasslands. Consequently, until recently, such nomads have lived in harmony with nature, as they simultaneously consumed and conserved resources. In recent decades, however, things have now changed for the worse. 

valery01_400In Chinese Mongolia, serious grassland degradation was rare until the late 1970s. Now it is a huge environmental issue that the State struggles with on a daily basis. To combat increasing environmental woes; desertification, sandstorms, soil erosion, the Chinese government has launched many types of ecological grassland reforms since the early 1980s.These initiatives were and are part of wider rural reforms throughout China, as the country continues to develop and expand to meet the global economy. In the early 1908s, the People’s Communes were dismantled. In their place came a two-tiered administrative system of townships and administrative villages. The old communist communal nomads now became modern ‘family-based-Inner Mongolian herders’. 

As a result of the reforms, Inner Mongolian households received 'grassland user rights' and the state sold livestock to households as ‘private assets.' In effect, these herding families had user rights (but not ownership) over ‘private’ pastures and to livestock. This was very different from the ancient Mongol ways of governing the people, the animals, and the land. Chinese historians explain that Mongol ‘feudal lords’ once served as managers over ancient peoples and their pastures. This traditional practice differed from ‘private ownership,’ as feudal lords (Mongol tribal chiefs) only exercised rights of administration, not possession. 

Inner Mongolian nomads understood that the land reforms gave them only the ‘grassland user rights’ and not ‘grassland ownership.’ But when when pasture user rights were renewed in around 1994 under the Household-Contracted Responsibility System, Inner Mongolians signed governmental pasture use contracts for another thirty to fifty years. This effectively blurred the  definition of ‘pasture use rights’ and ‘pasture ownership.’ It also created huge social problems: Mongol herders wanted to get rich by raising more livestock, so they overgrazed and overcompensated their herds. Their ancient Mongolian practices, ecologically balanced controls for grazing and sharing pasture lands, have been gradually abandoned. 

Moreover, the Chinese state has neglected to effectively monitor their own reforms. This neglect has led to unsustainable local development strategies. In a more positive light, government institutions may be one of the key elements that could determine whether the development of an area is sustainable or not. To date, however, the state has messed up the homeland, the culture, the economics, and the lifestyle of Inner Mongolian herders. 

What is to be done? It might be wise to look toward the early communist past. Pasture management and migratory herding institutions are key to understanding why nomadism was successfully practiced during the People’s Commune period. Past history also stimulates questions concerning social and environmental problems that Mongolian grasslands now face. For example, how are environmental issues connected state grassland management? Is it really a wise decision to try to settle nomadic people? Finally, how has the state failed in forcing settled herders to adopt farming practices? These are questions for another article, but it should be noted that drastic changes in the way the Chinese government currently manages nomadic groups, as well their own subsequent changes in lifestyle, reflect a massive negative shift for Inner Mongolian peoples. 

Long, long ago, nomadic groups previously practiced food hunting and gathering; they evolved into living nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyles. Certainly, the ancient hunter-gatherer way of life has long passed into history some hundred years ago. But today, being a nomad has gone out of style, and nomadic norms are going extinct. Whether it is possible to survive as a 'modern nomad,' either defined by the Chinese state, or generated from a creative self-rebirth via indigenous Mongolian ideas, is still unclear. 

“Grasslands are shrinking, the grass is growing shorter and lives are getting harder. Our traditional life may not last as long as my life,” said one elderly Buriat from the steppes of Hulunbeir, Inner Mongolia. Instead, crop farming has replaced herding in many areas of Inner Mongolia. "The steppes are also full of mining companies, desperate to dig up fossil fuels and rare earth. Inner Mongolian people's lifestyles have changed," said one young Mongol man to me on the streets of Hohhot, Inner Mongolia.

Inner Mongolian demographic patterns have also changed. Inner Mongolians no longer live in ways that are ‘water and grass centered.’ They have become ‘village centered,’ and more individualistic. A community in the modern sense has emerged, along with a great disparity of wealth, and increasing poverty. For some Mongols, blood ties still help alleviate extreme poverty; such ties are still important among the semi-nomadic households.

Power structures have changed in Inner Mongolian pasture lands. In the past, tribal chiefs acquired, distributed, and conserved natural resources in for their groups. Since the late 1970s, this power has been transferred into the hands of the Chinese state or its representatives (the village, township and county governments). Chinese organization is more centralized, and has great power to interfere with the natural eco-system of the grasslands. Ecologically, this power shift has also generated a massive boom in natural resource exploitation; the development is taking place on deeper and more diverse level than ever before. Inner Mongolian grasslands now have less time to recover from the ways people are using it. There is more strain on the grasslands ecology and more changes in biodiversity. In short, serious degradation has occurred throughout the Inner Mongolian grasslands.

The once highly nomadic Mongols are confronting many challenges in adapting to sedentary life. Traditionally, these nomads adapted themselves to the natural laws of ecology and to their environment; they understood recycling and regeneration of natural resources. Mongol lifestyles represented a simple but effective way of ‘sustainable development,’as they kept reasonable livestock numbers and themselves were demographically in balance with the land. Via seasonal grazing, local natural and economic conditions, all remained in balance.

But when the Chinese state began to allow, nay promote, that natural laws to be disrupted in the form of overpopulation of people or livestock, when land reclamation and cropping, or mining (for oil, coal, and natural gas) started going out of control, and even when curious Chinese and foreign tourists arrive in too large numbers - Inner Mongolian nomadism loses its ‘sustainability. Grassland degeneration and desertification on the steppes of Inner Asia are linked to rapid population growth and inappropriate resource development, specially agriculture and in Inner Mongolia, mining. Simple sustainability has become un-sustainability.

The above two cases also suggest that there has been a swing between nomadism and sedentarism among the nomadic herders. Many former Mongolian nomads have adopted a sedentary life in Inner Mongolia, in the hopes of prospering. Mongol culture has changed as a result. Complex factors- capital, technology, environment and government policy - have impacted the steppe peoples as well.  In effect, today’s Inner Mongolians are being ‘re-socialized,' as more herders have adopted crop farming or given their land rights up to mining consortiums. For these reasons, I often hear Outer Mongolians labeling  their Inner Mongolian brothers as “grass eaters" — a derogatory word for Chinese. Although the slur actually refers to food, with Mongols loving meat and dairy, and Chinese preferring vegetables, those Inner Mongolians who have abandoned their traditional but balanced herding lifestyle are indeed 'eating up all the grass.' 

For the once nomadic Inner Mongolians, successful settlement in Chinese Mongolia means finding and learning the best ways to adapt to modern life. The Chinese state wants Mongolian nomads to learn to farm intensively, in order to adapt to the market economy. Stop moving and start digging! Yet two questions arise: 

First, is it a good idea to try to turn herders into farmers? 

Second: will the grasslands, the steppes of Inner Mongolia, accommodate intensive farming? 

To date, the steppes of Inner Mongolia are experiencing an ecological crisis of vast proportions. Meanwhile, the Inner Mongolian people are not happy campers, either. 

Photo by Valerie Sartor

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