Wu Xing, Inner Mongolia, China — For as long as anyone can remember, Bator and his ancestors were horse-riding herdsmen, free to roam the vast grasslands of Inner Mongolia with their animals.
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 India and Bangladesh, global warming has forced thousands of villagers to flee from islands that are threatened by severe storms and rising sea levels.
In Africa, desertification is triggering an exodus by farmers abandoning barren fields. Regions such as Darfur are suffering from water shortages that contribute to their refugee crises.
In the Pacific Ocean, whole islands are on the verge of disappearing. Rogue waves have sometimes swept across the entire length of populated islands.
In East Asia and Southeast Asia, droughts and floods are expected to grow worse as climate change accelerates, with millions more losing their homes. Many people are still in refugee camps after the giant tsunami of 2004.
And even in North America and Europe, thousands have died or lost their homes because of bushfires, heat waves, hurricanes and floods, believed to be linked to climate change.
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 China’s belated efforts to tackle the problem.
Since 2001, more than 800,000 people in Inner Mongolia have been relocated from their pastures in an attempt to reduce overgrazing and sandstorms. Grazing has been prohibited in more than one-third of Inner Mongolia’s territory.
“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.
China insists that the heavy-handed tactics are necessary. More than 27 per cent of its territory is now covered by deserts, compared with 18 per cent in 1994. China’s grasslands have shrunk by 15,000 square kilometres every year since the early 1980s. Sandstorms from the expanding deserts are blowing into China’s northern cities, choking millions of people and causing respiratory diseases and eye infections. Beijing alone is hit with a million tonnes of desert dust annually. The dust binds with airborne pollutants from factories and coal plants, creating a toxic haze that drifts to Korea, Japan and North America.
Much of the desertification is a result of overgrazing by new farmers from the Han Chinese ethnic majority, who poured into Inner Mongolia to raise goats when the cashmere industry became lucrative in the 1980s. Today the number of Han Chinese in Inner Mongolia is five times greater than the number of Mongolians who traditionally lived on the grasslands.
By the 1990s, cashmere had become a highly profitable business, allowing China to export millions of cheap cashmere sweaters to Western consumers. And by 2004, there were 25 million goats in Inner Mongolia, more than 10 times the number in 1950. With their sharp hooves and voracious eating habits, the goats denuded the grasslands.
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 Wu Xing, created from scratch eight years ago to house the dispossessed herders. More than 130 families are jammed together in the dusty streets of the town, living in small brick houses built close together in Chinese style, constructed so cheaply that they don’t have running water or bathrooms.
“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 Inner Mongolia University who studied the relocated herders in several new towns concluded that they were suffering heavy stress from the traumatic change in their way of life. Most of the ex-herders are confined to 100 square metres of land. “Their small living space and suppressed life is a torture to them,” the students wrote in a report.
The unhappiness of the Mongolian herdsmen has fuelled a quiet mutiny against China’s relocation policies. Just a few kilometres from Wu Xing, thousands of goats and sheep are grazing on the meagre remains of the grasslands. Some of the herders have refused to leave their land. Others sent their animals back onto the land, defying the new rules.
“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.”