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Nomadic Herders Vanishing in China - 2001-08-01


In China, nomadic herders are quickly vanishing as the government moves ahead with settlement programs it hopes will speed the development of the poor western regions. One such place is the province of Qinghai, bordering Tibet, where Mongolian and Tibetan nomads have herded for centuries.

In China, nomadic herders are quickly vanishing as the government moves ahead with settlement programs it hopes will speed the development of the poor western regions. One such place is the province of Qinghai, bordering Tibet, where Mongolian and Tibetan nomads have herded for centuries.

Inside his felt tent on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, 19-year-old herdsman Mengke presses the "play" button on a rickety tape recorder, and a plaintive Mongolian melody fills the air.

I was born in a herder's home, the folksong goes. The boundless grasslands are my cradle, and raised me to be a man. I am a Mongolian, who loves the land.

Mengke himself recorded this song in May, paying a studio in Inner Mongolia $1,500 of his life savings to produce tapes that he hopes to distribute both there and in his native province, Qinghai, which extends east of Tibet.

Mengke says there's nothing he'd rather be than a herder. All his life, he and his family have moved five or six times a year. They are nomads with a herd of more than 800 sheep, 20 horses, a dozen camels and other animals.

Within the next year, the only life he has known will come to an end. As part of China's western development policy, the Qinghai provincial government has given his family almost $4,000 to build a brick house. In exchange, Mengke, his parents and two siblings have agreed to settle down on a fixed plot of land.

The government says there are almost 800,000 Mongol and Tibetan herders in China's far western Qinghai province. And it plans to finish settling all of them within the next 10 years.

The vice-governor of Qinghai province, Baima, says one of the most important goals of the western development campaign is to raise the income of herders and farmers. He says that last year, the average income of herders in Qinghai was just $180 a year, compared with an average urban income of $625. These low incomes make Qinghai one of the poorest provinces in China.

The vice-governor says that settling nomads in the area will help increase everyone's quality of life. He describes Qinghai as virgin land, waiting to be explored.

But critics say China's policies on nomads do not necessarily make economic or environmental sense. Kate Saunders of the London-based Tibet Information Network says the government is imposing the cultural biases of the majority Han Chinese on minority Mongol and Tibetan herders, without evidence it will enrich anyone. "What you're doing is that you're taking away the flexibility from the nomads' lifestyles, which means that animal populations can fluctuate wildly according to the changing needs of pastoral nomads," she says. "So what we found is that resettling the nomads thus risks further grassland degradation and it risks overgrazing of grassland pastures."

Ms. Saunders says government subsidies will not cover the additional costs nomads face in settling, including things like paying for shelters for their animals.

Take Gengzangjia, is a Tibetan herder and father of three, who has settled on the grassy plateau near Qinghai Lake. He says that when the government started its western development drive, he was given $1,100 to build a winter shed for his animals. But he still had to pay $725 himself, more than twice his average income of $300 a year.

Gengzangjia says that in the last few years, a severe drought has caused the quality of his grass and crops to deteriorate. But he is unable to move his animals outside his allotted land for better pastures.

The government insists it is acting in the interests of local herders. The deputy head of Qinghai's Foreign Affairs Office, Wang Yi, says that winter blizzards often decimate the animals of nomadic herders. After the nomads settle, he says, they have more protection from natural disasters, and better access to social services.

But the young Mongolian nomad, Mengke, has no desire for protection from the elements. He's still waiting for the Inner Mongolian record company to send him 2,000 tapes of his songs about the wild nomadic tradition. Mengke plans to sell them for $1 each. By the time his tapes arrive, Mengke and his family will likely be settled in a brick house, with a fenced plot of land, trying to cultivate vegetables in the barren Qinghai desert.

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