Bringing Life Back to Inner Mongolia

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China Photos / Getty

A villager plants trees to try and keep the sand from shifting in the Hobq Desert in Inner Mongolia, China. Desertification in parts of northern China has accelerated in recent years.

Were Genghis Khan to arrive in Inner Mongolia today and hail one of the many buses that take tourists to the province's famed grasslands, he would probably ask for his bus fare back. And maybe not nicely. It turns out, Mongolia's favorite son was a rather militant environmentalist, whose code of law called for the death of anyone who messed with the verdant grasslands stretching across the steppes of inner Asia — the vast ecosystem that sustained his Mongol tribes and served as natural superhighways for his horseback armies.

Today, those highways are in pretty bad shape. More than 90% of China's 160 million acres (400 million hectares) of grasslands are classified as "degraded," slowly losing the diverse collection of native plants that normally flourish there and fueling the massive dust storms that blow across China every spring. Nomadic herders have raised camels, goats, cows, and sheep on these grasslands for hundreds of years, but in the middle of the 20th century, China's population boom and demand for more meat sent livestock numbers soaring. By 1990, some regions were literally grazed bare, herders whose animals were dying off descended into poverty, and grasslands that used to harbor hundreds of plant species had turned to wasteland.

Nearly 20 years on, the crisis is far from over. Eight hundred thousand acres (2 million hectares) of grassland continue to turn into desert every year, and climate change, bringing yet more drought to dry land, hasn't helped. Still, if there hasn't been sweeping progress, there has been —for better and for worse — a lot of action. Beijing has sunk millions of dollars into the effort to stop the advance of the desert and has set up a system of laws to manage the land from afar; herders are being relocated and it's now forbidden to graze on badly hit areas. The slow process of regrowth has started in limited areas, and the sand storms hitting Beijing have been less severe in the last few years. Though some scientists chalk uo the latter to fluctuations in weather, others say it's a sign that the grasslands are starting to return to health. "Maybe some places are getting better, but some places are getting worse," says Jiang Gaoming, a plant ecologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

It will take decades for the grasslands to rebound, but in the meantime, the scruffy acreage has given rise to a wave of environmental entrepreneurialism that has spun the badly hit steppes of Inner Mongolia into a hub of green research. Both Chinese and foreign scientists are stationed throughout the province, working to kick-start restoration through the right balance of land rehabilitation and social responsibility. "We're working with subsistence farmers," says Brant Kirychuk, a manager for the China-Canada Agriculture Development Program. "We can't just say, 'Man, there's too many livestock on the land. Cut them back.'"

Not all efforts have been executed with such sensitivity. As herders lose animals and income, some communities have been scheduled for "ecological emigration," moved by the government from their native areas to less distressed land and, in the bargain, put in training programs to learn new trades. In Xinjiang, another remote province due west of Inner Mongolia, some 600,000 of the region's one million herders are scheduled to be switched to farming or blue-collar jobs by 2010. In Inner Mongolia, human rights groups have criticized the relocations, saying that sticking herders into unfamiliar jobs only exacerbates the poverty everyone is trying to fight, and that in the process, Mongolian traditions are being lost — a sensitive subject in the semi-autonomous province where ethnic Mongolians were attacked during the Cultural Revolution. "Before, maybe herders raised goats; now they raise cattle. Or maybe they raised camel; now they're farming," says Yun Jin Feng, a professor at Inner Mongolia Agricultural University who has been studying local grasslands for 50 years. Scientists agree that Beijing's attention to the issue has helped the land, but working with herders to find a way to adapt to their changing environment will be crucial to any lasting solution.

Jiang thinks chickens — along with Chinese urbanites' growing hunger for expensive organic food — might be one answer. For the last two years, he has been running a pilot project in an Inner Mongolian village in which six dozen households have started populating their grasslands with chickens instead of hundreds of goats or sheep. More than 10,000 free-range chickens have fed on the grasslands' insects and plants, and then fertilized the land, restoring plant life and creating organic meat and eggs that can be sold at a premium. "Rich people in cities consume these products, and the money will come back to the people in Inner Mongolia, who can use the profit to protect their land," says Jiang. "In this way, the ecology can benefit from the economy."

Others are also finding ways to generate income and create green solutions for the grasslands and, perhaps, for the rest of China — a country that needs clean energy more than any other. A team at the Inner Mongolia Agricultural University is working in parts of the province near the Gobi Desert, planting sweet sorghum, a kind of grass that can be harvested by locals and sold for biofuel production. The plan dovetails with Beijing's ambitious goal of generating 2 million tons of bio-ethanol a year by 2010, and 15% of its energy from renewable resources by 2020. (Seventy percent of mainland China's energy comes from coal today.) In another desert village, drought-resistant shrubs called sand willows are being planted to keep encroaching sands at bay, but there are also plans to start processing them in a biomass thermal power plant, which will burn the willows to generate electricity and create another clean source of fuel.

This kind of thinking ahead — though it comes decades after overgrazing began — will be necessary to recover one of the world's largest and most endangered grasslands. Solutions have to sustainable, but more importantly, they have to be useful, says Jim O'Rourke, who is helping organize the International Grassland and Rangeland CONGRESS in Inner Mongolia next summer. "'Preserving' is a touchy word. Preserving might mean locking [the grasslands] up," O'Rourke says. This land evolved with animals and people living on it, and keeping it healthy will mean resisting the urge to turn it into a museum.