This winter, continuous snows covered the pastures of Inner Mongolia’s East Ujumchin Banner. On the phone to Hobshalt, I could make out the sound of wind and motors. “These past few days have been hectic,” he said. “We have had blizzards and the livestock can’t get to the grass. Our cooperative is sending members out to take fodder to the herders.” He did not sound worried – work was going on, just like normal.
Hobshalt is 40 years old, handsome and stocky. For almost 20 years, he has been the head of Hargobi village. For many years, he has also been in charge of its cooperative, using his popularity among local herders to drive efforts to help the poor and protect the grasslands and earning an excellent reputation among the people of East Ujumchin.
I first visited the village in 2007, with a group from Beijing. Our car had pulled in by the roadside when I saw a man on horseback galloping towards us in a cloud of dust, his blue Mongolian robes flowing in the wind, like something out of the movies. Entering a yurt we were told to let the elders in first, and then take our seats according to age and gender. We drank a toast and then carefully sipped our tea, trying not to cause any offence.
The first thing we noticed about the village was its respect for tradition – something many herding areas have lost. I also noted that, in contrast to our experience elsewhere on the grasslands, where we filmed and photographed the herders, here they were taking photos of us. They remained calm and confident even when meeting academics and officials from Beijing, and that left a deep impression.
East Ujumchin is at the northern tip of the Xilin Gol League, one of Inner Mongolia’s 12 prefectures, and has lusher grazing and better preserved grasslands culture than many other parts of the region. But like the rest of China, both its ecology and economy are vulnerable to harsh winds and snows. Sudden droughts and blizzards have been known to bankrupt more than half of local herders.
After the snows this year, the East Ujumchin government dispatched emergency fodder and transportation equipment, but delivering the supplies over snow-blocked roads through a vast and sparsely-populated region was a huge challenge. The East Ujumchin government ended up passing the task of delivery on to local committees. But, unlike other village heads, Hobshalt then delegated that task to members of the cooperative. With the herders looking after themselves and each other, the fodder was quickly and efficiently delivered.
A drought in 2001 killed half of Hargobi’s livestock, leaving many herders with no choice but to take high-interest loans in a bid to stem their losses. Later, unable to make repayments, the herders were forced to lease their pastures to the money lenders who, for a quick return, overgrazed and damaged the land. This kind of harm originating from high-interest borrowing is common in Inner Mongolia. Herders in areas where traditions of cooperation have been lost frequently have to resort to such loans after disaster strikes.
Over the last 20 years, under the household responsibility system, land in Inner Mongolia has been contracted out to individual households, the majority of which have put up fences to protect their plots. The herders say this fragments the grasslands and destroys traditions of cooperation and nomadism. In the past, the grasslands belonged to everyone. Herders in the east would travel thousands of kilometres to find fertile pastures, while those in the west would travel to the east to avoid drought or snow. In Mongolian, this kind of long-distance nomadism is called “aoteer”, a key method for avoiding danger. Wherever the nomads travelled, they would be welcomed as far-travelled guests.
Precipitation in Mongolia is variable and unevenly distributed – drought and blizzards can strike anywhere. As a result, herders traditionally worked together and looked out for each other. Hospitality was not just good manners, it was essential for survival: a herder knew that the next time it might be him seeking help in a distant place. But once the grasslands were parcelled out to households, the herders had too much invested in “their” land, and the success or failure of that pasture came to mean the success or failure of the household. Now if herders travel with their livestock to avoid disasters, they find water wells guarded by their owners and fees for grazing collected per head of livestock.
But if they stay home, they are forced to take high-interest loans so that they can buy fodder, and countless herders are left bankrupt and bereft of their land once the disaster has passed. The subsequent over-use of grasslands by lenders is a major factor in grassland degradation.
Hobshalt realised that, to have any hope of protecting the grasslands, the herders needed to work together. On behalf of the village, he helped poor households clear their debts and reclaim their land, and reallocated resources: poor herders without livestock were provided with stable livelihoods through paid labour or by renting out their land at a reasonable rate to richer herders. He also set up a system within the village to help pay for children from poor families to go to school or to leave for further education.
Then he started to think about a cooperative. He founded an association to apply those traditional nomadic practices still valid in modern herding and to organise the herders to jointly manage the grasslands. Elderly members of nomadic tribes are stores of knowledge and, in Hargobi, they sit on a herding committee, which acts as the decision-making body. All policy decisions are discussed and decided by the committee. Hobshalt has a reputation for being a fair and selfless village head.
In July 2007, a conference on grassland development cooperatives organised by the committee was held near East Ujumchin. The Agricultural Cooperative Law, which encourages Chinese farmers to work together, had just come into effect and the idea of cooperatives had reached the grasslands. Some herders with experience of cooperation were already looking for modern ways to apply it. After the meeting, Hobshalt registered a cooperative.
One of its first actions was to establish a breeding network for Ujumchin sheep, a large, robust animal that is said to have accompanied Ghengis Khan on his journeys of conquest. Once the pride of many herders, it has been neglected due to government policy on animal stock. After the cooperative was founded, the herders came together to purchase high-quality breeding animals. Now they all raise breeding animals, which fetch twice the price of a normal Ujumchin sheep. “When the price for livestock increases, you can shrink the herd, and then there’s less pressure on the grasslands,” said Hobshalt.
In 2009, he took a group of herders to Hulun Buir, in north-eastern Inner Mongolia, to learn from the experiences of other herding cooperatives and started plans to bring livestock products to the market. While the herders are benefitting from cooperation, they are still vulnerable. Hobshalt has seen others registering brand names for products and, along with some of the herders, is advocating a similar move for their cooperative. Then they can develop markets together, establish their own sales team and tackle problems of exploitation by middle men and the monopoly of existing brands.
Statistics from Inner Mongolia’s Pasture Management Office show that, between 2006 and 2008, the number of cooperatives in the region increased from 260 to 390, with the number of households involved jumping from more than 15,500 to almost 37,700. Many of these were cooperative organisations (cooperatives or associations) founded by the herders themselves, as at Hargobi, though some have been founded by opportunists taking advantage of government policy.
Ao Renqi, a researcher at the Inner Mongolia Academy of Social Sciences, who has long studied herding cooperatives, told chinadialogue: “We’re interested in cooperatives founded by the herders themselves. The cooperative tradition and spirit is the heart of Mongolian herding communes – and also offers a route to both protecting the grasslands and developing the economy.”
Zhou Wei is associate editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office
Homepage image from Brooks shows a meeting of an Inner Mongolian herding cooperative.