“China: The environmental and cultural harm to Inner Mongolia’s grasslands”

Guardian writer Jonathan Watts recently took a trip to Inner Mongolia; he blogs about some of what he saw here.

Chinese riot police were reportedly dragging off protesting herders while I was blithely listening to karaoke on the Inner Mongolian grasslands this week.

I was unaware of the trouble, though I was on a family holiday in the same northern region. This is not entirely surprising given the vastness of an area that covers more than a million square kilometres and the ruthlessness of a censorship regime that blocks websites and locks up individuals for emailing images of protests. But even from the perspective of a holidaymaker, I could see why the changes in the region – particularly to the environment – might spark unrest.

I chose Manzhouli – close to China’s border with Mongolia (the country) and Russia – for a summer break because its grasslands are supposed to be tranquil, cool, sparsely populated and extremely beautiful. I should have realised, though, it would not turn out as expected.

Instead of a secluded Mongolian camp, we ended up in a complex of concrete yurts with a karaoke machine, firework display and bonfire disco that blasted out techno music across the starlit steppe. I was at first dismayed, then resigned. On the bright side, it was funny in a not-at-all-like-the-brochure sort of way. Not so amusing was the reduction of Mongolia culture to a series of song-and-dance shows and the evident deterioration of the environment.

At this time of year, locals said the grass was usually lush green and knee high. But amid a severe drought, the blades were yellowing and barely reached my ankles. Some areas had already turned to desert and several nearby lakes had dried up so completely that their beds were cracked and white with salt deposits. One herder told me he would soon have to buy fodder – unthinkable in past summers. His concerns appeared unlikely to make ripples; Timber yards and open cast pits suggested the local economy is now dependent on mining and the processing of logs imported from Siberia.

It is a similar story across much of Inner Mongolia. In recent years, the region has become China’s leading producer of coal and rare earths as well as the doorway to Russia (and the biggest timber trade in the world). This has attracted an influx of Han businessmen. Meanwhile, the traditional nomadic lifestyle has come under multiple assault from open-cast mining, over-grazing, enclosed farming, migration and global warming.

It would be nice if Communist Party leaders could make a trip to Inner Mongolia themselves- maybe then they would see that the problems there aren’t actually being caused by “foreign enemies,” but rather by much more domestic factors.

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Filed under China, environment, ethnic conflict, Inner Mongolia

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