Mongolian herdsmen no longer free to roam
In an effort to fight desertification,
The Globe and Mail (
On a spring day in 2002, his freedom was abruptly cancelled. A Chinese official drove his jeep to Bator's pasture, brandishing a piece of paper and announcing that the government was terminating the Mongolian way of life.
Since then, Bator has not been on a horse. Today he lives in a small brick house in a new Chinese village, crowded among hundreds of other dispossessed herders. He survives on a paltry income from three dairy cows that the government forced him to buy, supplemented by labouring jobs at a railway station.
He yearns to go back home to his grasslands and his horses. "I feel like a bird in a cage," Bator says. "We have no freedom and no land."
Bator is among thousands of Inner Mongolians who have been forcibly moved off their traditional pastures in the past few years as China fights desertification, the ecological disaster that has triggered massive dust storms across northern China, sending clouds of pollution toward Japan, Korea and even as far as British Columbia.
The Mongolian herders, like millions of other impoverished people around the planet, have become environmental refugees.
Their ranks are rapidly growing. There are already an estimated 24 million environmental migrants around the world, twice as many as the number of refugees fleeing wars or political persecution.
By 2010, the United Nations has warned, as many as 50 million people could be displaced by crises such as desertification, deforestation, droughts, famines, floods and climate change. And by mid-century, the number of environmental refugees could swell to 200 million.
Around the world, examples abound. In the low-lying river deltas of
In East Asia and
And even in North America and
For those forced to migrate, the dislocation is traumatic. The herders of Inner Mongolia, who found themselves on the front lines of the desertification crisis, were among the first to pay the price for
Since 2001, more than 800,000 people in
"Ecological immigration is a painful, disruptive and involuntary process that is not only against the will of the local Mongolians but also against nature," said a report by the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre, a U.S.-based group.
It said the relocation policy has endangered the very existence of the Mongolians as a people. Those who resisted the relocation were arrested, detained or assaulted, and their property was destroyed or confiscated, the report said.
Much of the desertification is a result of overgrazing by new farmers from the Han Chinese ethnic majority, who poured into
By the 1990s, cashmere had become a highly profitable business, allowing
But while the newly arrived farmers were responsible for much of the overgrazing, the targets of the relocation campaign included many Mongolians whose ancestors had lived here for centuries. Among them were Bator and his brother, Bayila. (Like most Mongolian herders, they use only one name.) Throughout the 1990s, Bator and Bayila could see the desert spreading into the land of their neighbours, getting closer every year. The grass was disappearing, replaced by barren plains.
Their own pastures managed to survive, but the government ordered them to leave anyway. "We didn't want to move," Bator says. "But we weren't given a choice. The government wouldn't allow any grazing of sheep or goats after 2002."
They were forced to live in the newly built town of
"It's no good," Bator says. "We're not used to living together like city people. We prefer to live in the grasslands; that's the way we've always lived."
Before their relocation, Bator and his brother owned more than 200 sheep and goats, 20 cows and five horses. The government confiscated their 60 hectares of pasture land and ordered them to get rid of their animals. In the new town, the herders were given their brick houses at a discount, but they were also required to pay $2,100 for each of the dairy cows that they were allocated. Most have been left with debts they cannot repay.
Their net income has dropped sharply. The revenue from their milk is far less than the income from their sheep and goats, and the milk produced by each cow is only half of what the government promised, they say. The two brothers have been obliged to take part-time jobs on construction sites or the railway station, carrying bricks and cement, to make ends meet. They say they can't even afford to buy new clothes.
"Life is getting harder," Bayila says. "We are barely keeping alive. In the past, when we were short of money, we could always sell a sheep or a cow. Now we only have the milk." He suspects that corrupt officials are stealing the money that was intended to compensate the herders. "We watch the television news and we hear about the huge investment in relocating the herdsmen. But after the money arrives at our local government offices, it disappears."
Even more painful than the loss of income is the loss of their traditional way of life, their cultural identity. In the past, they always welcomed a guest with fresh food from a newly killed sheep or goat. "Now we can't welcome our guests in the traditional way," Bator says. "We feel embarrassed and uncomfortable."
They can't adjust to the cookie-cutter houses and the loss of privacy in the crowded new town. "If one family does something, the gossip is immediately everywhere," Bator says. "It spreads so quickly."
A group of doctoral students at
The unhappiness of the Mongolian herdsmen has fuelled a quiet mutiny against
"We are desperate to move back to our old pastures, but it's forbidden," Bayila says. "In the past, we could ride our horses and graze our sheep, and we felt free. Now we are landless, and we've lost all our animals. It's sad."