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Report - April 1998

PRC Desertification: Inner Mongolian Range Wars and the Ningxia Population Boom

A report from U.S. Embassy Beijing April 1998

Summary: Two hundred thousand impoverished farmers, mostly Hui minority people from the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, devastate the grasslands of Inner Mongolia each summer. They go there to harvest facai grass, a grass valued because “facai” is a homonym for the Chinese words “get rich”. Land per farmer in Ningxia fell by one-third during the 1980s when Ningxia had the highest population growth in China. A Chinese environmental official told U.S. Embassy Beijing EST officer that Mongol minority herders are no match for gangs of 20 or more Hui nationality farmers, sometimes armed, who often poison wells to drive the herders away. PRC desertification experts say facai harvesting is the chief cause of desertification in Inner Mongolia. A 1997 PRC expert report on facai grass harvesting summarized here recommends a ban on facai harvesting and commerce combined with poverty alleviation programs for the 200,000 poor farmers involved. Human activities, rather than long range climate change, appear to be the main causes of desertification in Inner Mongolia. Just as in other parts of China, the map of severe poverty largely coincides with that of rapidly growing minority populations, desertification and environmental devastation. Social and economic questions related to desertification such as water and agricultural product pricing, the land tenure system, and opportunities for individual participation and initiative are aspects of Chinese desertification problems which will be examined in future reports.

PRC Environmental Official on Inner Mongolia Range Wars

A Chinese environmental official told U.S. Embassy Beijing Environment, Science and Technology officer in February 1998 that thousands of impoverished farmers, mostly Hui nationality people from the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Shaanxi Province, spend between several days to six months in the western part of Inner Mongolia harvesting facai grass. Harvesting facai grass with large rakes, each person harvesting about one-third of a hectare per day destroys the grasslands. Scattered Mongol herder families are no match for the facai grass harvesting gangs, usually of the Hui minority, who move in groups of twenty people.

Desertification: the Mass Uprooting of “Get Rich Grass”

Facai grass is valuable, said the official, only because the name “facai” is a homonym for “get rich”. Facai grass has no special nutritional value and is not used in either Western or traditional Chinese medicine. Ethnic Chinese of South Asia, as well as the relatively well-off Chinese of the south China coast, like to present facai to guests with their meals because of the auspicious name of the grass, said the official. Much of the facai grass stripped from the Inner Mongolian grasslands is exported through the big facai markets of Tongxin County [Standard Telegraphic Code: 0681 1800] (37 N. Lat, 106 E. Long) in the Ningxia-Hui Autonomous Region.

Underfunded Law Enforcement Unable to Patrol Grasslands

The environmental official said that efforts by the police and environmental authorities to stop gangs from stripping the pasturelands have been frustrated by the vast expanse of the area that must be policed and low police budgets. The gasoline budget for an entire month can be easily expended in just a few days of chasing these gangs leaving nothing for the other duties of the police. Several reports have been sent to the State Council on the problem, including one in the middle of 1997. The economic motivation of the poor farmers and unemployed people to go to Inner Mongolia to harvest the grass is very powerful. The conflict between those the facai harvesters and the herders is very hard to stop by police action, said the official. The only viable solution the official sees is to stop the trade by closing down the facai markets in the Ningxia Hui Nationality Autonomous Region. A decision to do so has not yet been made said the official.

In Some Counties, One-Third of Grassland Destroyed

China Environment News [Zhongguo Huanjing Bao] in a February 22, 1997 front page article, reported that gangs of farm people roving the grasslands in search of these grasses have destroyed six million hectares of grassland. In several counties of Inner Mongolia, the grass raiders have damaged one-third of the grasslands. Harvesting the grass with their rakes, they destroy 90 percent of the affected grasslands as well as many endangered plants. A mid-1997 survey summarized below confirmed this report. The survey states that according to incomplete figures, 1511 grasslands management and Inner Mongolian A.R. officials have been assaulted in confrontations with facai harvesters. One-third of all Inner Mongolian A.R. grasslands officials have been assaulted and 23 left crippled for life.

Over 1100 Police Casualties in Range Wars Since 1993

Sporadic range wars break out between the facai harvesters and the herding people who try to stop them in order to preserve their land and livelihood. According to the early 1997 China Environment News report, facai grass harvesters since 1993 have destroyed over 1000 wells used by herders and destroyed herd enclosures. Photographs of homemade chain weapons and guns facai grass harvesters use in battles with Mongol herders and police accompanied the front page story. Over 1150 Inner Mongolia grasslands management authorities and local officials have been assaulted in recent years trying to stop these gangs. Many have been injured seriously. In Inner Mongolia alone, according to the China Environment News article, 500 or one-third of all grasslands management officials have been assaulted. Twenty-three of these police officers have been crippled for life.

Responses: Nature Preserves, More Police, Herder Militia

The China Environment News article concludes with suggestions that a 10 million hectare nature preserve be established in the western region of Inner Mongolia to protect and sustainably exploit the valuable plants there; that police be strengthened to ensure the enforcement of the “Grasslands Law” and of the “Inner Mongolia Grasslands Management Regulations”, and that herders be organized into defense units so that they will be better able to protect themselves.

PRC Experts Study Social, Economic Side of Facai Problem

A 1997 Chinese expert study of the facai harvesting problem in Inner Mongolia by PRC experts not only confirms the February 1997 press account but also provides insight in the economic, social and environmental aspects of facai harvesting and grasslands devastation. Some facai grass harvesting is done by farmers who live near the grasslands area. These farmers spend three to fifteen days on each harvesting trip. Other farmers make long trips in groups of vehicles to harvest the grass to remote areas on Inner Mongolia such as Ximeng and Wumeng. The average facai grass harvester spends half the year harvesting facai grass in multiple trips. The grass harvesters live in very poor conditions. Some freeze to death or are injured. In Haiyuan [STC: 3189 0626] County, Ningxia A.R. [36.34 N, 105.38 E] during 1995 alone there were four deaths and eleven serious injuries amongst the harvesters.

According to the study, the principal market for facai grass is at Tongxing, Ningxia in northwestern China where over 10,000 people go to market facai grass nine days every month to merchants from Guangdong Province and the south China coastal cities. About 1000 kg. of facai grass are sold each market day for 250,000 RMB. Most of the facai on this market comes from Inner Mongolia, although some of the facai grass comes from Ningxia, Gansu, Qinghai, Xinjiang, and Xinjiang. During 1996 the Tongxin market handled 117 tons and completed transactions for 70.2 tons of facai. Facai grass pass through other markets in places such as Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province and the Yidelu [STC: 0001 1795 6424] market in Guangzhou to reach overseas markets in Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Asia.

The Inner Mongolian EPB official said that since policing the vast grassland is difficult, restricting sales of facai at market centers might be the easiest and most effective way of addressing grasslands devastation brought on by facai grass harvesters. Practical difficulties to another alternative, creating facai grass farms, has not yet proven practical, said the official.

Two Hundred Thousand Facai Harvester Rakes Tear Up Grass

Over the last ten years about 200,000 people have come from outside Inner Mongolia to harvest the grass. Harvesters who make multiple trips are counted more than once. Harvesting of the facai grass, mostly in the central and western regions of Inner Mongolia, is one of the main causes of the rapid deterioration of the Inner Mongolia grasslands. The most severely affected regions are twelve banners (counties) in the western past of the Inner Mongolian A.R. such as Alapuzuoqi, Hanggin Qi (39.50 N, 108.41 E), Dorbod Qi (41.31 N, 111.41 E) and Xisuqi. About 9 million of the 13 million hectares where facai grass grows has been severely damaged by facai grass harvesting. This amounts to about 18 percent of all Inner Mongolia grassland. Many rare plants as well as wildlife conservation areas are destroyed by the harvesters.

Anger at Facai Harvesters Grows Among Mongols

The 1997 survey estimated that annual facai grassland damage in Inner Mongolia totaled 3 billion renminbi (USD 361 million) when loss of production of livestock and grassland products, fuel, damage to automobiles, wells and medical bills people injured in range clashes. Recovery of severely damaged grasslands takes three to five years. According to the 1997 survey, “facai harvesters have sometimes desecrated Mongol graves, robbed burial goods, and stolen herder ceremonial objects. Some harvester extremists have even openly called for a bloody battle with Mongols. This has very seriously offended the Mongol herders. In short, facai harvesting seriously threatens public peace and unity. If there is no long term solution to this problem, increasing anger among the Mongol herders could result in a crisis.”

Widespread Harvester Attacks on Herder Livelihood, Police

According to the survey, attacks by facai harvesters on the livelihood of Inner Mongolian herders has resulted since 1993 more than 40,000 incidents of damage to grasslands facilities such as wells (1216 in Ameng region and 80 in Yimeng region damaged or destroyed) and 106 cases of destruction of livestock enclosures. Over 100 large scale grasslands confrontations have included 10 kidnappings, 3 deaths and 40 serious injuries.

Railroad Assaults, Spillover Into Mongolia

According to the report, facai harvesters, who often travel to Inner Mongolia by rail, have also assaulted railroad officials 82 times since 1993. An incident in the Inner Mongolian capital of Hohhot in which 400 facai harvesters refused to buy train tickets led to the “August 15th” confrontation with police in which six policemen were injured. Facai harvesters from outside Inner Mongolia, have also according to Chinese statistics, crossed the international border into Mongolia 149 times, creating incidents in Chinese - Mongolian relations.

Local Governments Helpless, Hui - Mongol Strife

Local governments have tried to address the problem without success. Ningxia local government set up a permit system to stop farmers from going north for the facai harvest. Inner Mongolia areas most severely affected have tried to stop facai harvesting and multiplied their pleas to the center to stop the “facai armies” from attacking.

Why Now? Facai Price Has Quintupled Over Last Decade

According to the report, the price of facai grass has risen sharply over the past thirty years. Facai grass price rose from 2 RMB per market jin (shijin, a Chinese unit equal to 500 grams or 1.1 pound) in the 1960s, 10 RMB in the 1970s, and 40 RMB in the 1980s to 240 RMB today. The two-thirds of a hectare one facai harvester can strip in a day yields 40 RMB worth of facai grass. Assuming a five month season and allowing for travel time, a facai harvester can earn 1000 to 2000 RMB each season for 80 days of work. Facai harvester households typically depend upon facai harvesting to provide half or more of the 1000 - 1500 per capita annual income of the household.

According to the report, damage to grasslands, pastureland structures, and hospital bills from the range wars is valued as much as one hundred times the income generated by the facai harvest of about 57 - 70 million RMB (RMB 70 million equals about USD 8 million) annually. According to the Yimeng [STC: 0122 4145], Inner Mongolia Grasslands Management Bureau, harvesting two-thirds of a hectare of facai for an income of 4 - 50 RMB destroys the productivity of the land for about ten years. The income generated by facai is still far from enough to lift the people of Ningxia out of poverty. Facai harvesting is an important source of income for about 200,000 people in Ningxia Hui Nationality Autonomous Region who have an average income in the 540 - 600 RMB per year range, just above the Chinese absolute poverty line of 540 RMB per year (USD 65 per year). In Ningxia there are 640,000 people below the absolute poverty line. Impoverished farmers from Ningxia and other economic refugees cannot be allowed to destroy the Inner Mongolian ecosystem, concluded the authors of the report.

Facai Farming Expensive, Prices Can’t Be Controlled

According to the report, a series of drought years since the early 1990s has pushed impoverished many farmers in the Ningxia Hui Minority Autonomous region just south of Inner Mongolia into facai harvesting as an alternative to severe poverty. Agricultural demonstration studies supported by the central and Ningxia government have shown that facai can be farmed using appropriate techniques but the large initial investment needed for a facai farm is difficult to raise. Even if facai farms were to be established, they could only supply about one-fifth of market demand. The farms would also be highly vulnerable to disasters of weather and of man-made disasters from the incursions of facai harvesters. Restrictions on the market will divert the trade to the many private marketing channels outside the big markets. Market controls cannot make harvesters harvest facai in a sustainable manner; things could even get worse.

Recommendations: Ban Facai Trade, Alleviate Poverty

The 1997 report concludes that the best solution is a ban on facai harvesting, processing and commerce combined with poverty alleviation programs for the facai harvesters. [Note: The report mentions that in Tongxing County, Ningxia incomes from facai harvesting are equal to three times the county budget, so developing programs to supplement the incomes of former facai harvesters could be difficult. End note] The Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region is one of the poorest regions of China but many poverty alleviation programs are seriously underfunded. More funding needs to be dedicated to these programs and Ningxia should organize the export of some of its surplus labor. Since most of these people are of the Hui nationality, this is also a nationalities issue, noted the authors of the report. Ningxia external trade officials have discovered some of these counterfeit facai products on the market. According to the report, imitation facai products should be encouraged.

Human Activity Cause 95 Percent of Desertification in Inner Mongolia Farmland - Pastureland Transitional Belt

Local differences in history and environmental circumstance make estimating the relative importance of the various causes of desertification difficult. Lin Lixian, a prominent scholar of Chinese desertification at Beijing Forestry University [Beijing Linye Daxue] has concentrated on studying the belt where pastureland succeeds farmland in Inner Mongolia. In these desertifying areas of northern China, about 5 percent can be attributed to natural causes (wind erosion), but human activity is responsible for the remaining 95 percent. These human activities which cause desertification are the massive uprooting of pastureland to get medicinal grasses and herbs (33 percent), overgrazing (30 percent), opening up unsuitable land to cultivation (23 percent), inappropriate use of water resources (9 percent) and loss of land to mines, factories, roads and cities (1 percent). A prominent Chinese environmental researcher told ESTOFF, however, that records of the last several decades show that some lakes in unpopulated areas of Inner Mongolia getting smaller or even drying up as a result of long drought rather than of human activities.

Desertification and Climate Change: Local Cycles and CO2 Driven Global Change

The relatively high latitude of China’s arid and semi-arid regions make them particularly susceptible to changes in world climate. Analysis of the meteorological data of the past three decades shows a clear year-on-year trend towards a drier climate. Chinese arid and semi-arid regions are expanding as the ratio between rainfall and evaporation changes. According to Prof. Li Kerang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, from the 1940s through the 1960s temperatures in China decreased by 0.63 degrees Celsius. During the 1980s, temperatures decreased another 0.24 degrees Celsius. China is now in a century-long cold spell; the 19th century was warmer and wetter. Over the last 40 years rainfall has fallen by 5 percent nationwide.

There appear to be two types of climate change at work: one a local Chinese cycle which seems to be in a drier period over the last few decades and the other a global cycle driven by an increasing CO2 concentration which may well make China’s climate warmer and moister than it would otherwise be. China currently has a net loss of 1600 sq. kilometers of land to desert each year, so climate trends could have an important effect on the pace of desertification in some areas. See 97 Beijing 38100 for an overview of Chinese scholarly views on pluses and minsuses of climate change on China.

Comment: Rising Minority Population and Desertification: The Case of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region

The facai problem in Inner Mongolia is largely driven by higher facai prices and worsening poverty among farmers in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous region to its south. Rapid population growth among the Hui minority (which benefits from relaxed family planning regulations) appears to have cut per capita farmland by one-third during the 1980s. This may be an important factor pushing farmers of the rapidly growing Hui minority to Inner Mongolia to supplement their incomes by facai grass harvesting. Demographic information on Ningxia and Inner Mongolia in the background notes below help put the facai problem in perspective.

China Desertification Series

This is the first in a series of reports from Embassy Beijing on desertification in China. PRC strategies to counter desertification have included planting great barrier belts of forest, planned environmental migration of people from overpopulated to less populated areas, and strengthening family planning to slow the rapid growth of the minority populations who often live in desertifying regions. Other strategies include raising water prices to reflect actual costs to discourage waste of a scarce resource, offering longer (60 - 80 year) land contracts to encourage restoration of marginal land, and where land is not suitable for farming, changing land use from farming back to grassland. Desertification, in its broader and now standard sense, is the irreversible loss of soil fertility. While most Chinese desertification is its northern and western sandy deserts, erosion on the hillsides and great river watersheds of southern China is also a serious problem.

Desertification is Social: Ask the Right Questions

Desertification in China is best understood by keeping in mind the words of Director-General Mahbood Elahi of Pakistan’s Ministry of Environment, Local Government and Rural Development at the Asian Deserts Ministerial held in Beijing in May 1997. Elahi said that desertification is primarily a social phenomenon. The most productive questions to be asked in studies of desertification, Elahi said, are not geophysical ones but rather social and economic questions such as 1) what is the system of land tenure (e.g. collective or individual property rights); 2) how are agricultural prices set; 3) what are the needs of forestry and agriculture; 4) are local people truly participating in conservation work or are they just impressed as a source of cheap or free labor; 5) how can the market be used to increase investment and mobilize resources to combat desertification; 6) what is the carrying capacity of the land; 7) how are conflicts between groups contesting for limited, arid region resources resolved; 8) how can water pricing be related to the market pricing mechanism; 9) what is the capacity for local initiative and what is the capital needed to support it?

Philosopher Mengzi on Desertification 2400 Years Ago

Writing 2400 years ago the Chinese philosopher Mencius (Mengzi) remarked on social causes of desertification. In Chapter 20 of his book “Mengzi”, Mencius discussed how overgrazing and overcutting had permanently destroyed the soil productivity of Bull Mountain. Keeping the words of Elahi and Mencius in mind will be helpful as we explore the problem of desertification in China.

Desertification Related Material on the Embassy Beijing Web Page

Find “PRC Water: Waste a Lot, Have Not: The Problem is Policy Not Technology” and “Global Warming Pluses and Minuses: Chinese Perspectives” on the Embassy Beijing EST Section web page at See also “PRC Farmers as Stakeholders in Conservation”, a report on a nature preserve that illustrates Director-General Elahi’s point that grassroots participation is essential to successful conservation.

Background Note I: Ningxia-Hui Autonomous Region

The Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, located in north central China (37 N, 106 E) just south of the Inner Mongolian A.R., had a 1990 population of 4.65 million, one-third of whom are of the Hui minority and two-thirds Han. During the 1980s Ningxia had the highest population growth rate in China especially among the predominant Hui Muslim minority which benefits from relaxed family planning rules for China’s minorities. Ten percent of the fertile women had four or more children in 1990; female literacy and education appeared to be the most important determinant of fertility in Ningxia. Between 1981 and 1989 Hui total fertility fell from 6.1 to 3.4 and Han fertility from 2.3 to 2.4. Per capita income ranking fell to 19th place out of 30 provinces and regions. Per capita income in 1980 was 1558 renminbi or 85 percent of the national average. Mountainous southern Ningxia where many of the Hui live is the poorest part of the region. Severe erosion in mountainous southern Ningxia carries away 100 million tons of fertile soil each year.

Ningxia is one of the most water-short and arable land poor regions of China. Ningxia per capita annual water resources of 1086 cubic meters in 1990 were just one half the Chinese national average. A 1992 UN study that the human population carrying capacity for a semi-arid region like Ningxia is 7 - 22 people per square kilometer but Ningxia’s population at 93.6 people per square kilometer. The UN study found that the population density, depending upon the district, varied between four and thirteen times its sustainable carrying capacity.

Minority Population Growth and Per Capita Farmland Drop

About one-third of the population overall and one-half of the Hui minority over age 15 was illiterate or semi-literate in 1990. According to the 1994 study referenced below, the institution of the contract responsibility system in rural Ningxia increased farmer desire to have more children and more boys. This along with the rapid increase in migration of unemployed rural people back and forth to urban cities and poor organization and under-funding of family planning made population control in Ningxia much more difficult. Ningxia family planning spending in 1992 averaged 2.4 RMB (USD 0.30) per capita but one-fifth that figure in poorer counties. Rapid population growth reduced per farm worker arable land by one third from 12.2 mu [0.81 hectare] in 1982 to 8.5 mu [0.57 hectare] in 1990.

Reference: The Population of China Towards the 21st Century: Ningxia Volume [Tashiji de Zhongguo Renkou] published by China Statistics Publishing House 1994 [Zhongguo Tongji Chubanshe]

Background Note II: Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region

The Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region with a 1990 population of 21.45 million grew at an average annual rate of 1.35 percent during the 1980s. This was considerably less than the 2.51 percent annual average of the previous two decades. The population tripled from 6.08 million in 1949 due to in-migration as well as natural increase. This, despite a 14 percent increase in arable land, reduced per capita arable land from 10 mu (0.66 hectare -- three times the national average at that time) in 1949 to 3.4 mu (0.23 mu) in 1990.

Water available per unit land at 9150 cubic meters per mu is one-half the national average of 17,175 cubic meters per mu. Inner Mongolia’s grasslands are in the western region and comprise 32 percent of the region. Desertification is most acute on the western end of the Ordos Plateau (39.00 N, 108.30 E) and most of Alxa Meng (38.50 N, 105.41 E) where high temperatures, little rain and high evaporation create the driest region in Inner Mongolia. Inner Mongolia has one-quarter (88 million hectares) of China’s grasslands.

Inner Mongolia: Demographics

Inner Mongolia’s population is concentrated in the east (10.9 million) and center (7.28 million) rather than in the west (3.24 million). Twenty percent (4.16 million) of the population in 1990 were minority people including 3.37 ethnic Mongols [Note: Minority population figures grew considerably during the 1980s some minorities growing by 50 percent and one small minority (ethnic Russians) grew by a factor of 80, probably because of privileges such as relaxation of family planning rules. End note]. One third (7.75 million) of the population is urban; the rest are farmers or herders. Ninety-five percent of the ethnic Han majority (16.59 million) are in the east and economically developed region south of Yinshan (41.27 N, 107.35 E) along the railroad line. Most ethnic Mongols live in the eastern part of the region and in Xinlin Gol Meng [43.57 N, 116.03 E). The population breakdowns by economic region in 1990 was urban 6.54 million, agricultural 6.89 million, mixed agriculture/herding 5.72 million, herding 1.73 million and forest 0.54 million.

There have been several periods of mass in-migration and out-migration from Inner Mongolia since the founding of the PRC in 1949. Organized migrations from 1950 - 1957 brought in 1.5 million people. From 1958 - 1977 1.92 million in-migrated in organized as well as personal voluntary migrations. From 1985 to 1990, however, more people moved out (304,000) than moved in (254,000).

In 1990 the illiteracy rate was 14 percent for men and 33 percent for women -- and according to the Inner Mongolia demographic analysis cited below, illiterate women had on average three times as likely as literate women to have more than one child. Illiteracy was slightly lower among minorities (17 percent vs. 22 percent) than among the majority ethnic Han population in 1990 (p. 282). Although family planning regulations for minorities in Inner Mongolia were not promulgated in 1988, the minority birth rate dropped steadily from the 1970s onwards. According to a study, minority people seem to have seen advantages in family planning among their Han neighbors which began in the 1970s. (p.266)


The Population of China Moves into the 21st Century [Ta Shiji de Zhongguo Renkou -- Nei Menggu] Beijing, 1994, China Statistics Publishing House [Zhongguo Tongji Chubanshe]

Atlas of the PRC [Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Ditu Ji] Beijing, 1996, Zhongguo Ditu Chubanshe. Also pinyin index paperback companion volume Zhongguo Diminglu. Atlas includes many maps of the distribution of many kinds of crops and natural resources.