Chaogetu, who like many Mongols has only one name, still lives in the house where he was born, a mud-walled three-room shack in a small oasis of Inner Mongolia’s Tengger Desert. He cooks over a wood stove and has a one-month-old lamb tethered in his living room to protect it from foxes and eagles. Like his parents, grandparents, and generations before him, the sun-beaten herder sees his fortunes rise and fall with his livestock—5 camels, 12 cows, and about 500 sheep and goats.
The small lakes dotting this arid region of China have been drying up as the desert grows ever bigger. The sandstorms that roll across the land every spring before heading to far-off Beijing and Tianjin have become more frequent. Clouds of stinging grit choke the lungs and darken the skies for as many as three days at a time, forcing Chaogetu to stay inside and taking a toll on his livestock.
A series of bad storms hit Beijing in the years leading up to the 2008 Olympics. “People in Beijing saw the dust storms and said this is a problem that cannot stand,” says Christopher Atwood, an associate professor of Central Eurasian studies at Indiana University.
Officials in China’s capital blame overgrazing for the desertification and dust storms. Activists and academics say coal mining and large-scale agriculture, plus climate change, are more to blame. Local authorities are leveling fines on ethnic Mongols with large herds, pressuring them to give up their way of life in exchange for subsidized housing in resettlement villages built outside urban centers. Sometime in the next year, Chaogetu may end up moving to Bayanhaote, the nearest city. “It’s not fair,” he says. “The government takes your land and house and always gives you just a little bit of money. I don’t know whether I will be able to live in a city. But I may have no choice.” By yearend, the central government plans to finish a four-year-long resettlement of 1.2 million herders into the villages.
The resettlement policy and the Great Green Wall, began originally in 1978 to plant belts of trees between China’s deserts and big cities, were accelerated. The tree planting and the removal of the herders’ grazing livestock have been credited with slowing the spread of deserts and dust storms; forestry officials say the encroaching desert is contained for now.
Others are less sure. “Their approach to dealing with desertification is ‘Oh, let’s plant more trees,’ ” says Hong Jiang, who teaches geography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “But that’s problematic, because where you have deserts expanding, those places never have had trees in the first place—trees don’t grow at the edge of deserts. Lots of trees planted early on have died.”
In April, Beijing experienced its worst sandstorm in 13 years. “The country faces a tough battle against encroaching sands,” the official Xinhua News Agency said in June, reporting that annual direct losses from desertification amounted to 54 billion yuan ($8.7 billion).
With resettlement, overgrazed land has a chance to regrow, say forestry officials; the herders have to find work at restaurants, factories, or dairy farms. In one relocation village, just outside Bayanhaote, the one-story houses, each with a small courtyard, look tidy. Many residents are still unemployed, says one Mongol, who runs the only restaurant. (He declined to give his name, citing sensitivity surrounding ethnic policy.) “How can we enjoy living this way?” he asks, sitting in his empty restaurant. “We Mongols are supposed to live in the grasslands, with our animals.”
Decades of migration from elsewhere in China have left Mongols a minority in their own region. They make up only 17 percent of the population while Han Chinese are 79 percent. In 2011 a Han coal truck driver hit and killed an ethnic Mongol, sparking regionwide protests. Demonstrations have continued since then, especially over pollution from coal mining and chemical refining.
A 2014 study by Peking University professors found that Mongol herders who moved to resettlement villages used at least 50 times more water than they had in their pastoral life. The herders worked as farmers, mainly growing corn and wheat, which need much more water than their flocks did. “In this arid grassland of China, ecological resettlement policy is ecologically and economically unsustainable,” concluded authors Fan Mingming, Li Yanbo, and Li Wenjun. Says Michael Webber, a geographer at the University of Melbourne: “Raising dairy cows is much more water-intensive than sheep that are grazing.”
Open-pit coal mining has spurred the spread of the desert. “In order to dig out the coal, you need to pump out the water,” says Deng Ping, a campaigner for Greenpeace China. In the process, that water becomes polluted. Coal mining “has destroyed huge areas of grassland and destroyed the water system.”
In early September some 200 herders gathered before government buildings in Inner Mongolia’s Xilingol prefecture to demand aid to offset losses from drought. When 20 were detained, hundreds of demonstrators demanded their release. Security guards and riot police stopped that protest and others that ensued. “The government isn’t taking our land to protect it. They just want it as property to develop themselves,” says an ethnic Mongol who declined to give his name. “Their policy is all about sacrificing Mongols.”
The bottom line: Inner Mongolia is under severe stress as new farms and mining suck up water and speed desertification.