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Disappearing Grasslands – from Prairies to Deserts
2010-07-30

The family of Ban La, in Quman county, Gansu province, has been nomadic for generations. She would never have believed that they would one day have to buy mutton from other people.

"My family no longer raises sheep, as our ranch does not have enough water and other resources to feed both sheep and cattle,” she told the Global Times.

As the country’s grasslands are shrinking, deterioration and disappearance of prairies will bring disaster to not only local shepherds but also to the entire Chinese people, the inspector of the grasslands supervision center for the Ministry of Agriculture, Zhang Lijian said.

Zhang was speaking at the China Ecological Forum, which was held at the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences on July 23th.

He told the forum that China has almost 400 million hectares of grasslands, taking up 41.7% of China’s total land area.

The grasslands spread from Heilongjiang Province to Tibet, and this constitutes a natural ecological barrier to protect plains and forests from sandstorms as well as blizzards.

The grasslands are also the origin of China’s main rivers, such as the Yangtze and the Yellow River, which gave birth to numerous prosperous cities on their banks.

Considering the ecological and economic importance of the grasslands, the government has previously issued some policies for their protection.

In 2002, China issued an amended “Grasslands Law”, which emphasized the preservation and sustainable development of these areas.

But Zhang said that despite some policies and financial support from the central government, herdsmen and experts are still looking for effective solutions and the situation of the grasslands remains gloomy.”

"The local government always reports that the situation of the grasslands has partially improved, but it has deteriorated overall,” he added.

The current policy for the management of the grasslands concerns the individual household contracts system, but many ecologists have their doubts about this system.This regulation transfers the ownership of the pasture from the public to the individual, with the aim of avoiding the “exhaustion” of the grasslands.

The individual household contracts encourage the herders to increase their productivity, and it has increased rapidly in a short period.The contract system plays a positive role in developing animal husbandry and improving the herders’ standard of living.

But it broke the traditional notion of grasslands as collective property, as herders install wire fences around contracted pasture and build their own homes there, declaring a private zone.

By cutting off migration routes of large herds, the partitioning of the grasslands has forced herders to give up the nomadic way of life and turn to farming, which means that nomadic culture is now in danger of extinction.

Before the individual household contracts,the grasslands and livestock were owned by the herders collective. The income distribution of herders was calculated according to their work points and they still maintained a nomadic lifestyle.But now, the herders have turned to farming,

Their main methods had previously been grazing on pastures, meaning that the cattle foraged on one pasture after another, ensuring that the pasture was able to recover.

But the individual contract restricts the size of each household’s land for pasture, and the increase in the productivity of herders has led to an increase in herd sizes. This has all impacted the vegetation which has been depleted.

An ecologist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Yu Changing, also stressed that the pasture degeneration caused by individual household contracts has had serious consequences such as excessive grazing which also hamper re-growth.

But he also says that water scarcity is the most serious problem caused by the individual household contract.

The imbalance of the distribution of water on the grasslands means that the resource is rare, and herders have turned to herders household groups to try to solve the issue.

One example is the group at a village called Oulaxiangquheer in Maquxian, Gansu Province.

The team leader is Lao Ba, a 43-years-old herder who formed the group so that members could share water resources.

The rules of this household group require herders to reduce their herd size, as poor grazing affects the quality of livestock which directly impacts the herders’ income.

Lao Ba has decided that each household can feed 15 cows - or 4 sheep - according to the size of their land. 

The system of the herders household groups has effectively balanced the ecosystem of the grasslands, which is something that the government policies failed to achieve.

Plant ecologist Jiang Gaoming from the Chinese Academy of Sciences said that grasslands require intensive preservation and management in order to substantially improve the current situation of semi-drought or drought..

"The complete grassland preservation system needs the perfect integration of animal husbandry, irrigation, forestry, agricultural technologies, financial support and laws,” he also said.

After years of field-testing the feasibility of raising poultry instead of livestock on the grasslands, Jiang has recommended this as an alternative, saying that the income generated by poultry such as chickens is as much as that generated by raising cows, but the farmers can save much more in costs and human resources. 

But Ma Yinu, a 25-years-old Kazak from Xinjiang who also earns her living as a herder, disagreed with Jiang, saying that those raising chickens have to keep learning new technologies to feed them and that the cost of feeding them is high.

However, Jiang stressed that due to the lack of basic theoretical guidance and qualified personnel, it is impossible for all herders to raise poultry on the pastureland.

"The grasslands will turn green again as long as we take immediate and efficient measures," he added, “we sincerely hope that the last drops of water on the grasslands will not be human tears of regret.” (Global Times)

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