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Hard times for eco-migrants

As China seeks to protect a delicate corner of Qinghai, 50,000 herders have been moved off the grasslands. Ill-prepared for urban life, they face a bleak future, write Guan Guixia and Suonan Wangjie.

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The Sanjiangyuan – or “Three Rivers Source” – region of Qinghai, western China, contains the headwaters of three major waterways: the Yangtze, Mekong and Yellow River. In 2005, China’s central government launched a seven-year, 7.5-billion yuan (US$1.2 billion) project to protect and strengthen the ecology of the area, which is a designated national nature reserve. One of the programme’s key measures has been to move nomadic herders into new migrant villages. These “ecological migrants” now number over 50,000, accounting for one quarter of the reserve’s entire population

Over the last few years, we have made many trips to affected areas to learn how the project is being implemented. On visits to Hainan, Yushu, Guoluo and Huangnan, for example, we have seen for ourselves the ecological and social benefits the changes have brought to the region. But this is an ambitious social-engineering scheme, and its problems have also been manifold.

The provision of adequate public services is one of the biggest challenges. Infrastructure in some of the relocation sites is excellent, just like in a modern town. But in some cases, basic amenities including water, electricity, roads, schools, toilets and healthcare facilities, not to mention television, have not kept pace with the rising population. These services have a direct impact on migrants’ lives, and their absence makes it harder to attract inhabitants, as well as making future development work much harder.

In Guoluobanma county, for example, the influx of migrants has put serious pressure on the local healthcare system: the county hospital cannot cope with the increased numbers, while the Tibetan medicine hospital has no inpatient beds. The nearest alternatives are distant. The town of Dawu is 320 kilometres away, and Xining, the provincial capital, 786 kilometres away. Access to medical care has become a major issue for local people.

Housing projects built by the local government are mostly located on the outskirts of towns. We have seen places with cable television wired up – but no electricity, or vice versa. Even when television is available, the herders don’t watch it much, as many of them don’t speak Mandarin. And of course, they can’t easily communicate with the rest of the community. Existing residents tend not to welcome the newcomers, and there’s little sense of kinship or belonging.

Just getting by is hard. The herders used to live by moving their herds around the grasslands, finding fresh grass and water, but relocation has taken away their livelihood: they are not herders anymore, but nor are they farmers or urban workers, and low incomes have become a major problem. A few have gone elsewhere to find work, or now make a living collecting caterpillar fungus, used in Chinese medicine, but most rely on an annual 3,000-yuan to 6,000-yuan (US$474 to US$947) “fodder subsidy” from the government.

A family of five living in one of the towns struggles to maintain a basic standard of living on this sum. Don’t even mention milk and meat; buying dung for heating alone costs 2,000 yuan (US$316) each year, 3,000 yuan (US$474) in some places, and the government’s annual heating subsidy is only 1,000 yuan (US$158). The herders complain that everything has got more expensive over the past two years: a bag of cow dung has gone from three yuan to 10 yuan (US$0.47 to US$1.60) and a jin of butter has risen from 12 yuan to 20 yuan (US$1.90 to US$3.20). The only thing that hasn’t gone up is the subsidies.

The herders had expected to live comfortable lives in the towns; they put a lot of faith in the local government. They never expected that they would not only lose their original way of life, but also suffer what they call the “four hardships”: not being able to afford meat, milk, butter tea or heating fuel. The herders’ standard of living is generally lower now than it was before – and much lower than that of other locals. In Guoluo, a typical migrant’s income is around a fifth of that of an established resident. Poor locals, moreover, receive government welfare; not so poor migrants.

If the ecological migrants are to have stable and successful urban lives and not return to the grasslands, it is crucial that they have a way to make a living. This is the biggest challenge for local government. Hard-pressed officials say they have managed to provide some temporary work for those in urgent need and been able to increase some incomes. But this is no long-term solution. It will be hugely difficult to lift the herders out of poverty, due to two main factors.

First, the level of education and skills possessed by the herders is low. Almost all are completely illiterate and know little but herding. Even if the government funded training courses, it is too much to hope that a 800-yuan fee and 10 days of education would provide migrants with a living. There are also some herders who, finding no honest work since relocation, have turned to crime, disrupting public order. Certain migrant neighbourhoods have come to be seen as “no-go areas” by locals.

Second, regional economic conditions don’t help. Southern Qinghai is underdeveloped and has little capacity to absorb new arrivals. There are few sources of work, and many school and college graduates struggle to find work – the market just doesn’t have jobs for hastily trained herders.

The migrants aren’t the only ones feeling resentful: inadequate compensation for displaced farmers has also stirred disquiet. Between 2003 and 2007, farmland in affected counties was requisitioned to make space for herder settlement projects. But the prices paid were lower than market rates.

In Yushu prefecture, for example, prices have been high for years: land sells for 70,000 yuan to 100,000 yuan (US$11,000 to US$15,800) per mu in Jiegu township and Nangqên county and for 50,000 yuan to 70,000 yuan (US$7,900 to US$11,000) per mu around Xisan county town (a mu is 667 square metres). But the funds put up by the provincial government were much lower: 16,000 yuan to 18,000 yuan (US$2,500 to US$2,800) per mu was paid in Yushu and Nangqên counties, and only 3,000 yuan (US$474) per mu in the four other counties affected. The farmers have complained of unfair treatment.

In the village of Xiangda, in Nangqên county, virtually everyone lost their land and several thousand people across the prefecture now struggle to make ends meet. These people are not ecological migrants – they have not been relocated – but they are demanding the same treatment as those who are. They too have made sacrifices for the sake of protecting the ecology of Sanjiangyuan, and the government should not ignore their hopes and needs.

Guan Guixia and Suonan Wangjie are teachers at the Qinghai Provincial Committee Communist Party School.

Homepage image by Beth Walker

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Default thumb avatar
drogpa

保护生态难民

现行政策对牧场的有效保护能持续多久呢,现行政策同时也要为当前高原地区滋长的危机负责...

我引述杜伟义《保护难民》一书的前言部分......

我们的权益被剥夺了,起先在帝王的威名下(文化大革命),后来在国家发展的名义下(西部大开发),如今在保护的旗号下(拯救水源)......

我认为,如果用括号里的词做替代,这段在第五届世界公园大会上一个土著代表团所说的话在此非常适用...

向你们致以诚挚的问候......感谢你们发布了这篇文章......

conservation refugees

How long can the current policy hold against the real guardian of the pastures, it is also responsible for fueling the prevailing crisis on the plateau...
I quote directly from Dowie book 'conservation refugees' introductory page..

[F]irst we were dispossessed in the name of kings and emperors (Cultural revolution), later in the name of state developments(Western Development), and now in the name of conservation (saving The water tower).....

I think this quote from an Indigenous delegation to the 5th World Park Congress fits right here in this context...with some change of wordings as indicated in brackets..

regards..thanks for posting this article..

Default thumb avatar
graham

感谢以及一些感想

感谢两位作者——关桂霞和索南旺杰发人深省的报道。期待能有更多此方面的报道问世。

毋庸置疑,中国共产党正在为确保国家的用水安全进行投资。

我想了解的是,在这项长达7年的工程中,有否采取一些积极的措施,用以记录和了解该地区生态状况与人类活动的相互影响。是否有科学依据可以证实停止放牧对该高地的生态影响重大?很难相信75亿元人民币的投资仅仅是将5万移民推向贫苦困境。实在是难以想象,当这些牧民必须放弃世代相传的生活方式,改变赖以生存的经济来源时,他们作何感想。

上个世纪50年代,内蒙古草原严重退化的部分原因需归咎于毁坏游牧文化的所谓的 “现代化”。难道我们还没有从中吸取教训吗?

Thanks + brief thoughts

Thank you both Guan Guixia and Suonan Wangjie for this though provoking article! Looking forward to more on this topic.
It is no surprise that the the CCP is investing in the countries water security.
I would like to hear more about the positive steps taken during this 7 year project to document and understand this vast regions ecology in relation to all human interaction. Were there scientifically drawn conclusions that proved ceasing herdsman-ship was vital to the ecology of the plateau? Its hard to believe that 7.5 billion Yuan has merely resettled 50,000 people into poverty.Its difficult to imagine how the relocated herders must feel, having their ancestral way of life and ability to provide for their families eliminated.

The severe degradation of the fragile inner Mongolian steppe in the 1950s was in part due to 'modernization' destroying the delicate balance of nomadic cultures within these grasslands. Were any lessons learned?