Chinese Farmers See New Desert Erode Their Way of Life
The New York Times, July 30, 2000
LAGAN, China -- Tse Rangji fitfully tries shoveling away the waves of sand that menace her home, half engulfing it like some artifact of a lost civilization. Then she gives up in frustration.
"The pasture here used to be so green and rich," said Ms. Tse, 46, waving toward a tattered landscape of anemic grasses, weeds and dirt among which dunes have erupted like a pox. "But now the grass is disappearing and the sand is coming." She and her husband and seven children have already moved into a tent for fear that their house will buckle under.
The rising sands are part of a new desert forming here on the eastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, a legendary stretch once known for grasses reaching as high as a horse's belly and home for centuries to ethnic Tibetan herders.
The spread of wastelands on these 9,000-foot-high steppes, and across the pastures and farmed hillsides of a broad swath of northern China, is threatening to rend patterns of life that depend intimately on the land and to strand millions of herders and farmers who have no other place to go in a country with virtually no decent, unused land.
"The people around Lagan have proposed moving elsewhere," said Lu Yuanru, chief of forestry for the surrounding prefecture. "But we don't know where to put them."
The desert is the combined result, scientists say, of severe overgrazing that has destroyed the thin topsoil, and a decade of hotter, drier weather, including three straight years of extreme drought.
No one knows for sure whether these climate changes are temporary or part of a human-induced global warming that many scientists in China and abroad believe has already begun. But Ms. Tse and her neighbors are watching their livelihoods erode, with some of the land damaged beyond all repair.
This summer's drought has thrust a long-building land-use crisis into the public eye, and the government has stepped up countermeasures like curbs on the size of herds and restrictions on farming of steep slopes. But the destruction of semi-arid lands is still accelerating, said Song Yuqin, an environmental scientist at Beijing University.
Dr. Song described a "freckled pattern of expanding barren areas" in pastures and farmlands stretching from Qinghai Province through Inner Mongolia and areas to the north of Beijing, which this spring experienced some of its worst dust storms in decades.
More than 900 square miles of land degrade into useless desert each year, he said, while much larger areas are losing their productivity.
"Once the process gets started, it tends to expand exponentially," said Dr. Song. "And the people are pushed into a poverty trap from which it's hard to escape."
Dr. Song argues that misuse of the land, spurred by the rising population of people and livestock, is the overriding cause of damage in most areas and that there is no proof of a general drying of the climate. But officials and scientists in Qinghai Province say they have documented rising temperatures there since the 1970's, along with lower rainfall and stronger winds.
In battered grasslands to the west of Lagan, in central Qinghai near the headwaters of the Yellow River, numerous small rivers and lakes have dried up, pastures have been laid waste by infestations of rats and sandstorms are billowing.
A majority of the Tibetan herders in Maduo and Dari Counties, among others, have been forced to become "guerrilla grazers," in the words of a Chinese newspaper report, taking their animals to invade the pastures of distant counties already heavily used by others.
Ms. Tse's family has not quite reached that stage. In better times, she said, the skins and meat from their herd of 250 sheep and goats earned the family more than $1,000 a year. If they never had electricity, seldom tasted fruits or vegetables and always relied on dried dung for cooking fuel, at least they earned enough to buy the small tractor they still drive to collect drinking water from a faraway spring.
But in the last few years, with the range increasingly depleted, they have had to roam farther afield with their animals to find edible grass, and now they have to buy extra hay to sustain the animals through the winter. Their income has dropped sharply, Ms. Tse said.
To the east of Lagan, near Qinghai's border with the province of Gansu, is a large mountainous zone that shows another face of environmental stress.
In Minhe and neighboring counties, the steep slopes are entirely carved up into fields, wherever enormous gullies have not already made farming impossible.
This year, with only one decent rainfall since the spring planting, large emergency shipments of grain have been necessary to prevent famine in the mountain villages, which are mainly populated by Hui Muslims.
But food aid has been necessary for years in these hills, say officials who have concluded that these slopes simply cannot support the resident population.
"More or less every year we have to bring in relief grain," said Yang Yingzhong, head of a hillside township. "Many families are in dire straits," he said, noting that per capita income on local hillsides was previously no more than $100 a year.
Here, too, declining rainfall appears to have helped bring on the crisis. Annual precipitation in Minhe County averaged 18 inches in the period from 1956 to 1979, but averaged just 13 inches in the period from 1980 to 1999, according to the county water bureau.
In these hills and also in the higher-altitude pastures to the west, the problem is not simply the annual rainfall, but its changing pattern, agricultural officials say.
In recent years, longer dry spells have been punctuated by brief, concentrated bursts of rain that can wash away soil and run off without soaking into the ground. In the valleys, where irrigation is possible, crops are fine. But up the hillsides, disaster is brewing.
"For two years in a row now our crops have failed," said Bei Yueling, a 35-year-old Hui Muslim farmer and father of three in the hilltop village of Dakutu. In the terraces Mr. Bei planted with wheat, a few spindly stalks protrude, bearing undersized grains. His potato fields are mostly barren.
With relief aid, he said, his family eats bread and potatoes, though during the winter they may also slaughter one of the handful of sheep they let wander through the hills.
The crops rely on the whims of rainfall, but Mr. Bei's family and the many others crowding these slopes must rely on their own energy to get water for drinking and washing.
Until the single hard rain this summer, which miraculously regenerated a mountain spring, Mr. Bei took his mule on a four-hour trip every morning to fill two containers of water in a distant valley. Now he travels one hour a day to fetch water.
Mr. Bei's 65-year-old mother-in-law, Ma Lu Gaoya, said: "I've been living here for 40 years and I still can't get used to it. The shortage of water makes life so difficult."
With aid from the local government, the villagers are installing underground cisterns, to collect runoff that can be used at least to water small plots, and to wash clothes. This is part of a government strategy to help people survive while they are forced to restore the steepest slopes to grasses or forest.
According to the plan, families who give up farmland will be given small subsidies of money and grain for five years. The hope is that, eventually, production of fruits and medical herbs and controlled herding can restore some income. But there is little prospect, officials here admit, for other livelihoods to support the growing hillside population.
Eventually, officials say, a share of the people must be moved elsewhere, though this will require large sums of money and a place for them to go.
Illustrating the obstacles, a plan to relocate 58,000 people from hillsides not far from Dakutu provoked a global controversy when pro-Tibetan activists abroad argued that the plan would further dilute Tibetan culture and was conceived in haste.
The furor caused the World Bank to withdraw from a plan to provide money for the project, which involves building an irrigation system in an arid, sparsely populated area of central Qinghai that is traditionally Tibetan. China says it will proceed with the resettlement anyway, using its own resources.
Overcrowding with no easy solution is also a challenge on Qinghai's pasturelands, mainly inhabited by Tibetans.
Since the early 1980's, when the communes created under Mao Zedong were disbanded and families were given title to their own livestock, the herds have grown precipitously, causing a classic "tragedy of the commons" on the range.
In Gonghe County, for example, which includes Lagan, experts say the grasslands can safely carry 3.7 million sheep. But by the end of 1998 the land was trampled and nibbled by 5.5 million sheep.
Seeking to salvage the depleted pastures, the authorities are fencing off the range and giving each family its own parcel, in hopes that this will give herders a direct incentive to nurture the grass and control the size of herds.
Even if the plan works for now, a provincial grazing official said, the new range allotments cannot be subdivided again as the numerous children of today's herders come of age. So what will the next generation do?
The only hope, the official said, is to develop alternatives in livestock processing or in service industries. But such industries do not exist right now, he said, and in this remote region, the economic possibilities remain unclear.