State Council Opinion Bolsters Grazing Ban, Herder Resettlement

October 18, 2011

A new government opinion bolsters longstanding grazing bans on China's grasslands, with a stated goal of improving the environment, and promotes the continued resettlement of herders. The opinion applies to grasslands areas and herding communities throughout China, including several ethnic minority groups such as Mongols, Tibetans, and Kazakhs. Observers have questioned the effectiveness of government grasslands policies in ameliorating environmental degradation and have raised concern about their impact on the rights of herders. The new opinion outlines target dates for meeting environmental and resettlement goals. It follows implementation earlier in the year of a government program to provide subsidies for herders who abide by grazing bans. The opinion also comes after demonstrations in Inner Mongolia in May by Mongols protesting government policies toward grasslands. The opinion calls for promoting the "ethnic culture" of herders, but the impact of this measure remains unclear amid the opinion's broader policy aims.

The State Council has issued an opinion on the development of pastoral areas that bolsters longstanding grazing bans and the resettlement of herders, policies that have drawn concern over the efficacy of their stated environmental aims and for their impact on herding communities, including several ethnic minority groups. The State Council Opinions on Promoting Sound and Fast Development of Pastoral Areas (Opinion), issued in June 2011 but apparently only made public in early August, stresses the importance of the grasslands-related measures for purposes including environmental protection and ecological security; changing modes of animal husbandry on grasslands and increasing herders' incomes; closing gaps in development among regions in China and meeting the goals of realizing a "well-off society" (xiaokang shehui); and "promoting ethnic unity and border stability" (Item 1). The June Opinion follows implementation of a new system in 2011 to bolster grazing bans and provide new subsidies and awards to herders who abide by government directives on grasslands use.

The June Opinion emphasizes the urgency of environmental protection measures. According to the Opinion, the environmental state of grasslands—which comprise over 40 percent of China's territory—remains severe, with "a trend of overall worsening grasslands ecology yet to be fundamentally curbed" (Items 1, 2). The Opinion sets 2015 as a target for curbing a worsening ecosystem and 2020 as the target for achieving a healthy state of the environment and a balance between grasslands and livestock (Item 6). It promotes grazing bans (e.g., Items 7, 11), calls for "gradually promoting" a three-way system of grazing bans, laying fields fallow, and rotating fields, and promotes measures such as decreasing the amount of livestock and erecting fences (Item 11) as means for meeting these goals. It promotes subsidies and awards for herders who abide by directives on grasslands use (Item 9) and calls for "promptly redressing" violations of grazing bans (Item 10).

The Opinion continues longstanding policies (see analysis) to address grasslands degradation through grazing bans and other measures. As noted in the analysis, outside observers and some domestic scholars have questioned the effectiveness of these government policies in ameliorating environmental degradation. At a 2005 Congressional-Executive Commission on China Roundtable titled China's Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law: Does it Protect Minority Rights?, scholar Christopher Atwood stated in his written testimony, "What is beyond doubt is that the almost twenty years of state-directed and scientifically managed programs to alleviate grasslands degradation have not worked and indeed may well have accelerated desertification."

The June Opinion also stresses economic goals, raising questions about the extent to which economic aims may trump long-term environmental protection. Item 17 of the Opinion promotes industry investment and using mechanisms such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to promote economic cooperation with neighboring countries. A recently reported grazing ban from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region underscores some of the potential economic motives in grazing bans. A recent report from Xinhua (via Sohu, August 2) described the problem of tourists confronting animal feces as one impetus for a grazing ban at a tourist site containing grasslands.

The Opinion continues to promote the resettlement of herders, a policy that has drawn criticism for its impact on the rights of herding communities, including ethnic minority nomadic pastoralists with cultural ties to grasslands. The Opinion calls for "hastening implementation" of resettlement projects for nomadic herders, "basically completing" responsibilities in this area by 2015 (Items 6, 21). It also promotes herders' change in modes of production and change of occupation, along with an "orderly, organized labor export of herders" (Item 19). In addition, the Opinion calls for poverty alleviation and infrastructure improvement for herding communities and steps to promote herders' "material and cultural standard of living," along with "ethnic culture" and "grasslands culture." (Items 5, 16, 23). Authorities describe the promotion of ethnic culture as part of steps to promote the "superior industries" of grasslands areas, however, and it is unclear to what extent authorities can protect herding communities' rights, including the right to culture, while enforcing resettlement and other policy aims. An earlier statement by an official in Xilingol League, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, appeared to acknowledge the threat that resettlement presents to cultural preservation, at the same time as detailing resettlement measures that appear unlikely to promote broad cultural preservation. While describing plans to resettle at least 100,000 herders away from grasslands, the official noted, "A lot of people worry that, if the herder population is moved out, will the culture of pastoral areas be retained? This is still a necessary concern. In the future, Xilingol League's pastoral areas will retain 50,000 herders, and these herders will retain the traditional characteristics of the grassland culture...." See a November 6, 2010, Xinhua report.

As noted in the earlier CECC analysis, human rights organizations have expressed concern about the impact of grasslands policies on the protection of herders' rights and have described cases of forced resettlement, inadequate compensation, minimal recourse for grievances, and poor living conditions for affected communities. Some herders have mounted protests against grasslands policies. In May, Mongols in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region protested government policy toward grasslands use and broader curbs on Mongol culture, following two reported confrontations between grasslands residents and mining operations that resulted in the murders of the grasslands residents. Authorities and official media acknowledged some of the protesters' concerns but did not address broader grievances over official curbs on Mongol culture. The June Opinion calls for prosecuting "misuse" and "destruction" of grasslands as part of measures to increase grasslands "management and supervision," but does not define these acts (Item 10). It also promotes continued resource extraction on grasslands (Item 16).

For more information on conditions for herding communities in China, see Section II—Ethnic Minorities, Section II—The Environment, Section IV—Xinjiang, and Section V—Tibet in the CECC 2011 Annual Report.