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Farmer & Nomad in Inner Mongolia:Who is to Blame for Grassland Degradation?
by Valerie Sartor
2013-10-08 08:25:57
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There are several reasons that tension exists between the Inner Mongolians and the Han Chinese. Firstly, animosity between nomad and farmer is an academic cliche, and traditionally, the Mongols are nomadic herding people, while the Han are a sedentary agricultural people. This dichotomy, however, does not mean that naturally these two groups should be enemies. Throughout human history, despite differences, both farmers and nomads around the world have lived alongside each other, respecting boundaries and trading. Problems arise between the two groups when there is a scarcity and/or conflict regarding resources, particularly land and water resources. This scarcity has triggered huge problems in Chinese Inner Mongolia, where the Inner Mongolians are vastly outnumbered by the Han, (according to the 2008 UNPO official statistics, Inner Mongolia has 24 million residents, with only four million being Mongolian) and where the land and water resources are no longer primarily being used to support  the traditional Mongolian pastoral culture and economy. Instead, farming (cropping) and mining industries are endangering the well-being of both Han and Mongol, by eroding the soil, polluting the water, and raising the cost of living through destruction of the natural environment. I now will explain these problems generating inter-ethnic tensions from a historical point of view, pointing out that the contemporary Chinese communist state has in reality inherited environmental and social problems from the last imperial dynasty in China, the Qing (1644-1911). Nevertheless, the Chinese communists have done little to curb the ongoing destruction of Inner Mongolian grasslands, with its consequent destruction of Mongolian life and culture. 

mongolian_children_for_thanos_400Grassland degradation is one of the most serious environmental problems in northern China, and especially in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (hereafter, Inner Mongolia). Currently, the Chinese government and scientists blame degradation on overgrazing and Chinese experts argue for seasonal or annual grazing bans. American scholars, however, citing the U.S. Dust Bowl phenomenon, blame grassland degradation upon ploughing up land that is not suitable for farming, and moreover, over-cropping this land.

In China, during the last decade of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), leaders first approved the ploughing and cropping of the Inner Mongolia grasslands. By opening up Inner Mongolian grasslands to Han farmers, this period marked the beginning of Han Chinese agricultural dominance over the nomadic society and practices of the Indigenous Inner Mongolians. Unfortunately, in China, an ancient,  negative bias towards nomadism by the dominant Han agrarian groups has long existed. Before the Qing expansion, Inner Mongolian grasslands were well conserved. But when the Qing Dynasty policy allowed cropping in the grasslands in the early twentieth century, the road to major grassland degradation had begun, as well as conflict between the farmers and the nomads. Simply put: The natural land and climate conditions of Inner Mongolia are not suitable for farming, and the Mongols did not like the idea of Han farmers settling and overpopulating their homeland. Before the 20th century, in China, pastoral nomads successfully survived apart from Han Chinese farmers, and kept their human and livestock populations in balance with the natural environment. Granted, some trade and goods exchange did take place between Mongol and Han but these two groups lived apart, despite the negative bias mentioned above.

Chinese grasslands, however, became disputed territories between the Han and the Mongol peoples, as competition for land and other resources grew. For centuries, Inner Mongolian groups have claimed this region as their ancient homeland and in the past the Mongols ruled over the grasslands. Until the Qing Dynasty started to collapse, grassland residents were not Han Chinese. In fact, the Han built the Great Wall (actually an array of walls) from the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC) onwards to resist  and keep separate invading Mongol and Manchu nomads living in the northern grasslands. Today, these walls are symbolic markers of the advance and retreat of Han Chinese attempts at entering and cropping the grasslands, or of defending themselves against the marauding nomads heading south. Around the Great Wall, Mongol and Manchu nomads had been driven out many times and then later returned; some Han Chinese had also seeped through onto the Mongolian steppe. Part of what we know today as Inner Mongolia is a border lands region, where nomads and farmers met, sometimes violently. Mongolians have historically controlled the grassland beyond the Great Wall, yet, for centuries, some agriculture in this region supplemented the nomadic economy and this farming also generated desertification around settlements and cropping areas. No significant soil erosion, however, took place before the 20th century.

Unlike previous Chinese dynasties, Manchu nomads founded the Qing Dynasty. The Manchu came from the area now known as Manchuria, they are now a large, linguistically assimilated ethnic minority within China. The Han Chinese majority regarded the Manchu as ‘outer barbarians’; the Han today still considered the Manchu Qing Dynasty (as they considered the Mongol Yuan Dynasty) as a barbarian conquest of China. This enmity between Han and Manchu gave the Manchu rulers good reasons to prohibit the migration of Han farmers from the Chinese interior into the northern Mongol grasslands.

Firstly, the Han often resisted the Manchu, so Qing leaders outlawed Han settlement in the Mongol grasslands for military reasons. They wanted to contain Han Chinese revolts by restricting Han migration, as the Han greatly outnumbered the Manchu in population density. Second, the Qing leaders wanted to maintain Mongol loyalty to the Manchu balance of power. They favored their fellow Mongols and allowed Mongolians the freedom to live as they wished on the grasslands, in exchange for promising loyalty and military service to the Manchu empire.

But, over time, the Qing also started to fear Mongol uprisings. Because of this, they tried to keep the grassland mongol_herders_400areas undeveloped, rather like a giant open air army camp for the Mongols. The Qing policy of banning farming and development of the grasslands was not 100% successful in Inner Mongolia, as some poor Han peasants did migrate north of the Great Wall. These Han farmers lived there seasonally, and were tolerated by the Mongol nomads, because their efforts supplemented to the nomadic economy and did not impact herders. Moreover, during the Qing Emperor Kangxi’s reign (1661–1722), some Mongols learned cropping skills in order to reduce the cost of importing grain. Another Qing Emperor, Guangxu (1875–1908), advocated that half of the land cultivated by Han Chinese in Inner Mongolia should be shifted to local Mongols. Thus, during the last years of Qing rule, Manchu leaders wobbled between supporting and stopping grassland cultivation in Inner Mongolia.

But it was a series political  and economic crises in the last decade of Qing rule that finally forced the Manchu to allow Han farmers to settle en mass in the Inner Mongolian grasslands. Qing officials became unhappy with the Mongolian military’s poor performance in quelling domestic revolts and resisting foreign invasion. Government officials also learned that some corrupt Mongol nobles had tried to raise funds by renting arable land; some Mongols solicited foreign loans against the land itself or its mineral exploitation rights. Qing leaders now distrusted their former Mongol allies.

In addition, foreign invaders, such as the Russians, entered Inner Mongolia at the end of the 18th century. Russia had been expanding its territorial boundaries along China’s northern frontier since the 1840 Opium War; the Russians also began in 1897 to build a railroad connecting Siberia and north-eastern China in 1897. Japan was attempting to expand as well, into Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, in the hopes of eventually conquering all of China. Finally, foreign western churches had come to Inner Mongolia and successfully converted thousands of followers.

In 1898, with the rise of foreign imperialism and increasing Christianity, the Boxer Uprising, supported by the Chinese government, began. In 1901, this popular people’s revolt was defeated by outsiders (European states, Japan and the U.S.A). But after the uprising was quelled, the Qing government had to pay a huge indemnity to these outsiders. To help pay off this massive debt, the Inner Mongolian grasslands were opened up for rent farming and land was sold in acres and plots. By 1911, when the Qing Dynasty fell, population pressures from inside the Great Wall had increased from a hundred million to over four hundred million. Poor Han Chinese immigrants from disaster ridden provinces; Hebei, Shanxi, Shaanxi and Shandong provinces, surged into Inner Mongolia, overrunning the Mongols. These Han farmers gradually introduced new drought-resistant crops: peanuts, potatoes, corn, and sorghum and they built irrigation systems (Wang 2006). A major invention, the steel plough, helped to destroy tough sod grass roots, but it also inadvertently generated severe soil erosion.

During the last decade of Manchu rule, many Mongol nobles yielded to the Qing mandate and condoned comprehensive cultivation in Inner Mongolia; they also sought to make profits by selling plots of land to incoming Han farmers. Eastern and western Inner Mongolian grasslands, where rivers were located, quickly increased in population. The Qing registered the cultivated land, collected land rent and tax, and issued licenses for plough up virgin grassland. But cultivation of the Inner Mongolian grasslands did not yield great profits. Only landlords who rented to poor farmers, such as foreign churches, earned money via land rents.

Ordinary Mongolian herders also lost out, as grassland cropping significantly changed the ecology and society of Inner Mongolia. Cropping became dominant over over grazing. Later, social changes under communism promoted privatization of the grasslands, encouraging  more agricultural development, which in turn increased degradation. Moreover, because farmers demanded areas with plenty of water, herders were forced into more arid areas. These Mongolian herders abandoned their traditional nomadic lifestyle because they had nowhere to go. This sedentary herding made them and their crops more vulnerable to drought and snow disasters. Farming also brought expensive taxes and levies on all the land parcels.

Unsurprisingly, from the start, ordinary Mongol nomads opposed the invasion and cultivation of their traditional homelands. Their motive was simple and financial:  they wanted rights to use the grasslands at no cost, or low cost. Some Mongol herders, however, did not oppose the agricultural expansion because the land speculation and scheming was often controlled by their kin. Greed motivated those Mongol nobles and herders who had compromised with the Qing over cultivating the grasslands.

Meanwhile, Han peasants took their chances to become homesteaders, paying

costs to whoever claimed to own or rent out the land. Powerful landlords got large tracts cheaply, and the rented or sold them as individual plots. In this way, land was used to generate profit rather than subsistence. Land misuse became common, along with subsequent large-scale grassland degradation. Within a few decades after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, Inner Mongolian grasslands, once home to a nomadic culture, quickly gave way to a Han and/or Mongol cropping culture. For the Han farmers, idle grassland was perceived as wasteful and useless. Likewise, the remaining Inner Mongolian nomads were viewed as backward and lazy.

Unlike the Han, traditionally, Mongolian nomadic groups had revered their grasslands, prohibiting its destruction via customs and laws. For example, Genghis Khan’s code of law stated that ‘where the act of digging holes causes damage to the grassland, or threat of lighting fires causes the destruction of grassland after the grass turns green, the whole family shall be put to death.’ He also prohibited washing and act drowning in water, and ordered the wounded, disabled, young and female animals to be freed after capture. Sadly, with the mandates from the Qing rulers, Mongolian nomadic culture declined, and sedentary agrarian lifestyles became common. The Mongol diet, dress and cultural practices, even burial customs, shifted toward the Han way. Mongols intermarried with Han; language shift accelerated, and Mandarin Chinese became dominant.

Also, prior to the Qing cropping incentives, natural disasters had regulated overgrazing. Tenants who sharecropped worked in other ways to survive when disasters occurred. But landowners were not so flexible. Moreover, rapid population growth increased extensive cultivation, decreasing grasslands and increasing competition between Mongol and Han groups. Soil erosion increased as well.

New transportation systems affected the Mongols as well. During the early Qing, Mongols had imported grain, but trade was not significant.When the railways reached Inner Mongolia from China and Manchuria, the market structure changed. Chinese grain entered in larger quantities, while Mongolian skins/wool and herbal medicines exited. These minerals and medicinal herbs were now dug up at a destructive ecological cost to the grasslands. Mongol and Han alike saw the land as a commodity to be exploited mindlessly.

In 1911, with the birth of the  Republic of China, came land speculators

and wild schemes to Inner Mongolia, including attempts at opium cultivation. The former Mongol nobles saw the good life as ‘having as many horses as a nomad chief and at the same time as many tenants as a great Chinese landlord.’ Large scale, impractical grassland cultivation continued throughout the twentieth century in Inner Mongolia despite political upheavals. During the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976) two hundred thousand young students were sent to Inner Mongolia to cultivate the grassland, expanding cropped lands by at least one million hectares. Statistics  report 21 per cent of all grassland was lost to agricultural production between 1953 and 1979.

In the early 1980s, China began moving from a planned to a market economy. The government wanted economic growth, so land conversion in Inner Mongolia accelerated each time crop prices rose. “From 1987 to 1996, 1,343,000 hectares of grassland was converted to cropland. In 1997, the Inner Mongolian government drew up its Ninth Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development and the associated Outline of Long-Term Targets to the Year 2010.

It set a target of 320,000 hectares of grassland to be converted into cropland during that time.

Today, in Inner Mongolia, once nomadic herders have adopted sedentary herding practices. Pastures are no longer grazed in seasonal rotations but intensively and all year round. Government policy, designed to promote sedentary production in grassland areas, has not yielded its intended economic gains; instead they have accelerated grassland degradation and soil erosion.

In sum, when the Qing opened the Inner Mongolian grasslands between

1902 and 1908, everything shifted. The Mongols became more agricultural, and had to tolerate increasing numbers of Han settlers. The grasslands ecology and society of Inner Mongolia was damaged, perhaps irrevocably. Due to Western imperialism in China in the 19th century, Qing leaders tried had to defend their interests via Han than the Mongolian nobles. When remote northern areas of Inner Mongolia switched their allegiance from China to Russia, the Qing increased Han settlers. Frontier security via the in-migration of Han Chinese farmers, was encouraged. An increasing, indifferent human population that farmed rather than grazed caused good soil to blow away.

Since 2005, I have lived in  the capital of Inner Mongolia. Hohhot, is called Green City in Mongolian - but I could never understand why they called it green. Then I read that this city, since the early 1920s, has been surrounded by desolate and bare hills and pastures. Sadly, desertification and severe sandstorms continue around Hohhot, as well as other parts of North China, despite efforts by the Chinese to “control” the environment.


Photos by Valerie Sartor

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