Chinese Government Bolsters Grazing Ban; Xinjiang Government Promotes Herder Resettlement

March 22, 2011

The Chinese government has taken steps to bolster curbs on grasslands use, in a stated effort to improve grasslands ecology. The new measures build on longstanding policies that have limited grasslands use and required some herders to resettle from grasslands and abandon traditional livelihoods. Outside observers and some domestic scholars have questioned the effectiveness of these government policies in ameliorating environmental degradation. Human rights organizations have described forced resettlement, inadequate compensation, minimal recourse for grievances, and poor living conditions for affected groups, including a number of ethnic minority communities such as Mongols, Tibetans, and Kazakhs. Under a new system effective in 2011, authorities will continue to impose grazing bans and provide new subsidies and awards to herders who abide by government requirements toward grazing and livestock rearing. The system applies to eight provincial-level areas in western and southwestern China. In Xinjiang, media reports have described plans to implement the new system, as well as plans to resettle over 100,000 herder households within the next five years.

New System Bolsters Grazing Bans

The central government will implement a new system to bolster bans on grazing, as part of a stated effort to protect grasslands ecology, according to recent media and government reports. Premier Wen Jiabao led a State Council meeting in October 2010 that established the new mechanism, according to an October 12, 2010, Xinhua report. The government will implement the system in eight western and southwestern provinces and autonomous regions (Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan provinces and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Tibet Autonomous Region, and Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region), according to the report and a subsequent December 31, 2010, circular that outlines the parameters of the system. Under the new mechanism, authorities will continue to ban grazing on damaged grasslands, promote a "balance" between livestock rearing and grasslands, set standards for the amount of permitted livestock on areas where grazing is not prohibited, and pay subsidies for compliance with various requirements, according to the report and circular (Points 2(2), 2(4)). The system also will continue to encourage households to enter into contracts for grasslands use (caoyuan chengbao), according to the circular (Point 2(1)). In addition, the new initiative will increase education and training as part of efforts to shift herders to new occupations, according to the Xinhua report. It also will include a "system for awards and punishments," such as awards for maintaining "balances" between livestock and grasslands, the documents reported, but they did not provide details on what kind of penalties will be implemented. The Xinhua report tied the mechanism not only to protecting the environment but also "ethnic unity" and "border area stability."

Following the October 2010 meeting, the Ministry of Agriculture also issued a general circular that called for strengthening the "importance" and "urgency" of grasslands work (Point 1). The November 26 circular referred to improvements to the environment in some localities, but also noted "contradictions" and "problems," along with a continuing general worsening of grasslands ecology (Point 1(1)). The circular called for implementing work based on the principles of "protecting grasslands ecology, transforming development methods, promoting a balance between grasslands and livestock, and pushing ahead with shifting the occupations [of herders]" (Point 1(2)). The circular also called for rectifying or punishing violations of grazing bans and livestock rearing policies, as well as acts that violate the rights of herders (Point 4(2)).

The recent directives build on existing policies to restrict grasslands use and resettle herders, which have drawn concern from observers over the efficacy of the programs and impact on herding communities, including ethnic minority nomadic pastoralists. The State Council Information Office's September 27, 2009, White Paper on "China's Ethnic Policy and Common Prosperity and Development of All Ethnic Groups" described longstanding policies "encouraging pasture protection and the settlement of nomadic people." China's 1985 Grasslands Law (revised 2002) stipulates measures to protect grasslands and subsidies for people affected by prohibitions on grazing, but does not outline steps to protect herders' livelihoods. As reported in the Congressional-Executive Commission on China 2010 Annual Report, as authorities have strengthened policies requiring herders to resettle from pastureland and abandon traditional livelihoods, outside observers and some domestic scholars have questioned the effectiveness of these government policies in ameliorating environmental degradation. In addition, human rights organizations have described forced resettlement, inadequate compensation, minimal recourse for grievances, and poor living conditions for affected communities. See, e.g., the June 10, 2007, Human Rights Watch Report "'No One Has the Liberty to Refuse': Tibetan Herders Forcibly Relocated in Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and the Tibet Autonomous Region" and the February 2007 Human Rights in China report "China: Minority Exclusion, Marginalization and Rising Tensions." In a December 23, 2010, Preliminary Observations and Conclusions following a mission to China, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food described nomadic herders in western China, particularly in the Tibet Autonomous Region and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, as a "vulnerable group" due to the Chinese government's grasslands policies and called for ensuring that herders not "be put in a situation where they have no other options than to sell their herd and resettle" (page 4). The December 2010 circular on the new subsidy system calls for "earnestly listening to the opinions and proposals of farmers and herders" but does not describe a formal mechanism for groups affected to voice their concerns (Point 3(3)). Authorities also will "strengthen propaganda" on the system, including by visiting households and explaining the system, according to the circular (Point 3(5)).

Government Promotes Herder Resettlement in Xinjiang

While some recent reports have highlighted conditions in Tibetan areas of China and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, authorities have imposed grazing bans and required herder resettlement elsewhere in China. Recent reports from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) describe plans to implement the recent subsidy system and also highlight ongoing grazing bans and herder resettlement, in some cases describing nomadic pastoralism as antiquated and in need of change. Authorities in the XUAR reported plans to carry out the nationwide subsidy system by providing 2 billion yuan (US$300 million) in subsidies yearly to 1.3 million herders in the region, according to an October 18, 2010, Tianshan Net report. The XUAR government reported resettling 669,000 farmers and herders since June, with plans to resettle 106,000 nomadic herder households within the next five years, according to a November 8, 2010, Xinjiang Television report (via Xinhua). The report did not describe the total number of people in the 106,000 households. In Altay district, within Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture in the XUAR, 3,320 herder households "cast off an antiquated existence 'moving place to place in search of water and grass'" and moved into new homes in 2010, according to a January 27, 2011, report from China Xinjiang. With help from Han villagers, the herders quickly "transformed their ways of production and progressively grasped advanced planting and breeding technology," according to the report. In Nilka county, Ili, more than 6000 herder households already have been resettled, moving from a nomadic lifestyle of "'moving place to place in search of water and grass'" to a "comfortable and content happy existence...with an increasing number of herders using their industriousness and wisdom to again rewrite herders' history and future," according to an October 28, 2010, Xinjiang News Net report. Localities also have reported on ongoing steps to train herders and farmers for new vocations. See, e.g., a February 16, 2011, report from the Xinjiang Science and Technology News and January 20, 2011, report on the Ministry of Agriculture Web site. Although a number of articles report that herders have responded positively to the government's grasslands policies, one report highlighted tensions in an area where authorities imposed a grazing ban. A September 3, 2010, Tianshan Net report described an incident in which herders beat two groundskeepers at a protected grazing zone in the Bortala Mongol Autonomous Prefecture after a groundskeeper detained horses that entered a protected area. According to the report, the protected zone is adjacent to herders' spring and autumn pastures, and multiple disputes have occurred in the area.

For more information on conditions for herders in China, see Section II―Ethnic Minorities and Section V―Tibet in the CECC 2010 Annual Report.