Surviving conservation: Herders and farmers in China’s northwest

Ecological conservation in China’s northwest brings to light questions about space and power in China. As part of the 57th Annual Edward H. Hume Memorial Lecture that took place on April 13, the Council on East Asian Studies at the MacMillan Center hosted You-Tien Hsing, Pamela P. Fong and Family Distinguished Chair in China Studies, University of California, Berkeley, who spoke on “Surviving Conservation: Herders and Farmers in China’s Northwest.” In her lecture, Hsing explored effects of a series of “anti-desertification” campaigns launched by the Chinese government since the early 2000s.

Hsing began by noting that in the mid-2000s, the Chinese government’s modernity project, which traditionally focused on industrialization and urbanization, diversified to also include ecological restoration and heritage conservation. The projects expanded from metropolitan areas to peripheral regions known for environmental degradation in northwestern regions like Gansu and Inner Mongolia. She noted, “the ecological recovery agenda has a very clear geographical component.”

As a result, the northwest that had long been lagging behind during the first phase of the market reform had “an unprecedented historical opportunity” when it became a symbol of ecological degradation and the government’s newfound commitment to China’s ecological preservation. According to Hsing, the new focus on peripheral regions was often seen as a “much awaited opportunity” for these regions to “catch up” with the rest of China, albeit not through industrialization but through environmental restoration. 

Hsing then explored the effects of policies in the “fashionably fragile” northwest by presenting two case studies: one in a pastoral area in Inner Mongolia, and the other in a agricultural area in Gansu province. Both areas are extremely arid and both regions share “the national fame” of ecological disasters.

Hsing stressed the scale of the anti-desertification programs initiated by the government. Apart from planting trees and bushes, artificial grids have also been built specifically to stop sand from moving in. These grids are “extensive, expansive, and expensive.”

“The solution according to official discourse,” Hsing said, “is to reduce pastoralism in order to restore the pasture.” Grazing bans and other limitation have largely hurt herders, with many relocated herders’ receiving a lower average annual income.

However, Hsing opposes the popular image of victimization of passive herders and farmers who have been relocated due to ecological restoration. When she first landed in government-built relocation villages to conduct her research, she was surprised to find that the villages were empty. “No one was there!” she exclaimed.

A research project she originally thought would focus on how relocated herders were “put into concrete boxes” by top-down policies now turned into an investigation of how relocated herders and farmers are adapting to these ecological conservation policies. Some younger men and women have turned to ethnic tourism to earn their living. Others, who are unwilling and/or unable to leave the pasture, have formed grazing co-ops by piling resources and land with others. Still others have created meat processing and marketing co-ops to sell “organic Mongolian meat” to middle-class consumers in Beijing. 

Through her research, Hsing realized that ecological relocation is not the end, but the beginning of the story of how herders and farmers try to cope with “surviving the government’s conservation projects.” Families in Inner Mongolia, for example, would stay in the heated relocation apartments during the long winter, but would live in the Gobi during the spring to search for Suosuo roots that contain valued roucongrong (Cistanche), a traditional medicine for male potency. This is profitable business, with a long roucongrong root retailing at 500 US dollars. In the fall, when hundreds of thousands of tourists flock in to see the magnificent poplar trees don their golden leaves, the family would participate in the ecotourism industry. She noted, “mobility continues to be conditioned by seasonal cycles, but the seasonality is no longer confined exclusively to the pastoral calendar.” 

Hsing then stated, “In the age of ecological restoration, the new mode of mobility is configured by herder family’s wide-ranged livelihood strategies against the backdrop of China’s emerging environmental discourse and diverse rural economy.” Rather than viewing the situation as herders maintaining their mobility despite sedentarization, the situation is more that “the options of survival in the era of ecological conservation require more rather than less mobility.”

Hsing concluded by discussing the distributional effects of categorizing Mongolians as only herders despite farming being an important part of making a living for about half of ethnic Mongols in Inner Mongolia.  She noted that often Mongolian farmers are not recognized as Mongolians because they do not fit into the image of a Mongolian.  More practically, there are very different types of policy treatment based on the dichotomy of Mongolians as herders and the Han, the ethnic majority in China, as agriculturalists.  As a result of this simplified dichotomy, “Mongolian farmers often fall into the crack,” stuck between “a state promoting modernization of pastoral Mongolians and liberal intellectuals promoting the restoration of Mongolian pastoral culture.”


Written by Julia Ding, Yale College Class of 2019.

Friday, April 21, 2017