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Proximate human causes

Human factors, both negative and positive, combine to cause environmental changes in the Ordos. In this section, we focus on the negative effects, leaving the positive effects for the section on human responses. We begin with the proximate activities that serve as direct causes of environmental deterioration. Behind these are the driving forces underlying the demographic, cultural, economic, and political factors. We take them up later.

Land reclamation

Modern farming practice dates back to the middle Ming and especially Qing Dynasty. Dramatic conversion of pastureland into cropland began in the early twentieth century. Songqiao Zhao and colleagues (1958) has identified the major reclamation periods and areas of the Ih-Ju League (fig. 9.5). With the establishment of the Reclamation Affairs Company, the first stage of active large-scale pasture opening occurred from 1901 to 1911. This continued at a slower rate from 1915 to 1928. Beginning in 1932, the second peak of reclamation occurred under the rule of Guomingdang. According to Analysis of the Mongolian Economy of Cha-Sui Region (Sui-Yuan 1934a) and Report on the Counties of Sui-Yuan Region (Sui-Yuan 1934b), some 307,533 ha were newly claimed as farming land, with a total 1,880,000 ha devoted to cultivation. By then, the land-reclamation ratio of the Jungar Banner had reached 37 per cent. The third reclamation period extended from 1957 to 1973, during which three expansions occurred as a result of policy changes. The first two took place mainly in areas with precipitation exceeding 250 mm, especially the area between the Hobq Desert and the Mu Us sandy land.

Fig. 9.5 Major periods of land reclamation in the Ordos Plateau (Sources: adapted from Ih-Ju League, 1988; and Songqiao Zhao et al., 1958)

The expansion during 1970-1972, though not so large scale, was the most harmful because it pushed cultivation westward into land with less than 250 mm precipitation. Because of a lack of labour in these areas, migrations of cultivators were organized in which people marched tens or even hundreds of kilometres to convert high-quality pastureland into cropfields. For instance, 5 townships and more than 30 villages in the eastern Otog formed such a "cultivation delegation" to open the pasture of Gongqirige, Chengchuan, and Erdaochuan. Farmers in eastern Otog Front Banner migrated to begin cultivation at Shanghaimiao. Serious erosion and sandification quickly followed, turning the cultivated area into bare land and threatening people's houses with moving sand. Though the situation changed after 1974, the effects have lasted to the present and the pastures have still not recovered.

In the expansion of cultivation, the inputs were few and environmental protection was neglected. When soil fertility became depleted, the cropfields were often abandoned. Migrating cultivation both before and after 1949 led to widespread abandonment of cropfields. Indeed, abandonment in dry years and reclamation in rain-abundant years were common. It is estimated that over-reclamation and cultivation were responsible for almost half of the sandification since 1949 (Ih-Ju League 1990).


Overgrazing arose from the nomadic grazing tradition under the intensification of expanding human needs and a growing economy. Shepherds, concerned about livestock numbers rather than net production, grazed many livestock (sheep, goats, cattle, horses, and camels) without thinning in cold seasons when forage was scarce and fattening when pasture flourished. This practice wasted much energy and increased pressure on pasturelands. The over-harvesting degraded the soil texture and destroyed the protective crust of the land, exacerbating sandification and vegetation degradation.

Overgrazing, apparent since the late 1950s, has become more and more serious. Table 9.3 shows the trend of over-reclamation and overgrazing of Ejin Horo from the 1950s to the 1970s, as both pasture degradation and overgrazing grew rapidly. From the 1970s to the 1980s, pasture degradation slowed owing to human intervention for conservation, but overgrazing continues to be a serious problem throughout the Ih-Ju League. The Animal Husbandry Department of Jungar Banner estimates that the overgrazing rate was 15-25 per cent in the 1970s. Bo Li and colleagues (1990) estimate that, in 1985, overgrazing in the eastern steppe area was a very serious problem. From 1985 to 1990, overgrazing in the eastern area abated, whereas in the western high plateau, and especially in Otog, the number of livestock increased and caused overgrazing.

Climatic fluctuation affects environmental changes in several ways. During drought years shepherds continue to graze most of their livestock, increasing the pressure on pastures. This causes environmental degradation both directly through overexploitation and indirectly through economic decline. For an area like the Ordos, in which environmental management is underdeveloped and human adjustment is weak, drought years were (and are) critical.

Overcollection of fuelwood and medicinal herbs

Prior to the 1980s, farmers and shepherds, a majority of the local population, depended mainly on natural vegetation for fuelwood. In the late 1970s it is estimated that 70 per cent of all households used shrubs for firewood. On average, 1,000 kmē are sandified owing to fuelwood collection every year (Huang and Song 1981).

Since 1980, with improvements in the economy and in transportation, more and more households have begun to use coal. But there are still households, less than 25 per cent by one 1990 estimate, that continue to collect shrubs from natural pasturelands. The Department of Agriculture (personal interview, 1991) believes that shrub collection in the northern part of the Hobq Desert, where more and more people are harvesting in the central part and destroying the sparsely covered land, is even more serious.

Table 9.3 Over-reclamation and overgrazing of Ejin Horo, 1950s-1980s

Indicator Early 1950s Early 1960s Early 1970s Early 1980s
Over-reclamation ratio (%) 250 350 200 157
Energy utilization ratio by crop (%) 1.3 0.92 0.69 1.1
Utilizable pasture (ha) 46.0 36.6 39.6 34.1
Pasture biomass (kg/ha) 2,625 2,325 1,650 1,500
Livestock carrying capacity (10 sheep unit) 57.0 40.5 23.3 26.1
Actual livestock (10 sheep unit) 56 65.5 65 80
Overgrazing ratio (%) - 1.8 61.7 179 207

Source: Cao (1988).

Gathering of medicinal herbs is another serious problem. The Ih-Ju League has rich resources of medicinal herbs totalling 378 species. Of the 112 species purchased nationally, Glycyrrhiza uralensis and Ephedra sinica are the most important. The problem has escalated since the 1970s as a growing national market has encouraged excessive digging. Since 1982, money has been invested to protect and restore G. uralensis vegetation. Although its area has increased (to 415,999 ha in 1985), the situation remains critical. G. uralensis is mainly distributed in the western Mu Us sandy land. The annual harvest of 2-4 million kg of G. uralensis has caused an estimated 240-480 kmē of direct destruction and 120-240 million kmē of land sources exposed to wind. E. sinica has experienced a similar destruction. Since it regenerates slowly, the overgathering both in quantity (10 million kg/year) and in manner (cutting of the above-ground stem) has depleted the resource rapidly, and, at the same time, degraded pastureland seriously.


Uncontrolled hunting has sharply reduced the number of predators, such as the fox and the vulture, thus exacerbating the damage caused by harmful insects and rodents. Every year, a fox can kill 1,500-3,000 rats, and a vulture can eat 600-800 rats. Unpublished statistics show that the External Trade Department of the Ih-Ju League purchased 97,600 fox skins between 1965 and 1978 and 4,335 eagles and vultures in 1973 (field interview, 1991).

Road construction

Road construction affects a small area, but the impacts are serious, since 0.06-0.1 km alongside the road is severely disturbed. Coalmining, the scale of which is fairly small, has been a minor source of landscape transformation in the past, but it will certainly become more important in the future.

Underlying human driving forces


During historical time, the population in the Ih-Ju League has changed tremendously. The Western Han Dynasty saw the first peak, with a density as high as about 10 people/kmē, representing only some 250,000 fewer people than the present day. With the decline of farming, the population has decreased. The Tang Dynasty was a second peak. From the Song to Ming Dynasties, by comparison, the area was sparsely populated. Before 1912 (from the middle Qing), the population fluctuated around 200,000. By 1949, the Ordos had 411,747 people, engaged mostly in agriculture.

Since 1949, with improving socio-economic conditions, the population has grown rapidly (table 9.4). From 1949 to 1959, the overall population growth rate was 4.3 per cent and that of the agricultural population 4.0 per cent. It was also a time when migration from other areas played a major role (constituting 22 per cent of the total population increase), owing largely to the development of industry. Until the 1970s, although the population growth rate gradually slowed, it remained very high (2.2 per cent for the total population and 1.89 per cent for the agricultural population) in the 1980s. With the adoption of a family-planning policy (one child for the Hans, two children for Mongolians in the countryside, and one child for city couples), the population growth rate has fallen sharply.

Population is the primary driving force of environmental change in the Ordos. From 1949 to the present, population density has increased from 4.7 to 13.5 persons per kmē (in 1989), and human labour and economic activities have increasingly affected the natural environment. Food needs, fuelwood requirements, and economic growth have all increased roughly proportionally with population growth. To alter or ameliorate these forces of change, more socioeconomic improvements, political intervention, education, and technological advances are needed.

Table 9.4 Population growth in Ih-Ju League

Year Total population Agricultural population
Number ('000) Growth ratea (%) Number ('000) Growth ratea (%)
1950 427.7   402.9  
1955 524.6 4.2 500.3 4.4
1960 661.1 4.7 612.0 4.1
1965 740.3 2.3 679.7 2.1
1970 841.6 2.3 778.5 2.8
1975 966.0 2.8 863.8 2.1
1980 1,043.6 1.6 919.8 1.3
1985 1,133.8 1.7 978.2 1.2
1989 1,184.1 1.1 979.4 0.3

Source: Adapted from Ih-Lu League (1988).
a. Average of previous five years.

The League is composed of mainly Han and Mongolian people. The eastern four banners and the city have been farming and farming-pastoral transitional areas throughout historical time, when the Han people, with a long tradition in cultivation, moved in and occupied the area. The population is dense, with the Han people predominating (over 90 per cent). The western four banners, by contrast, have an economy based upon grazing, and the population is sparse. Many Mongolian people, originally nomadic minorities, have lived there and maintained a traditional style of land use. This differentiation of population shapes the structure of environmental changes. The relatively high population density causes serious environmental deterioration, such as in Jungar Banner. Nationalities also affect the pattern of land exploitation, especially in the past when Han and Mongolian people were more distinct than today. In this sense, the Han people not only introduced new agricultural techniques, modern thoughts, and greater linkage with outside areas, but also triggered environmental deterioration through land reclamation.

It should be mentioned that, compared with other environmentally problematic semi-arid areas, in China and around the world, population density in the Ordos is still rather low. For example, in China, semi-arid sandy land has an average of more than 40 people per kmē. In North Africa, 80-150 people per kmē inhabit areas with less than 300 mm precipitation and in some desert areas of India more than 50 people/kmē are found in areas with less than 600 mm rain. The Mediterranean dry belt is also densely populated (with more than 45 people/kmē). For an area like Ih-Ju League, the relatively low 13.5 people/kmē, though a higher density than in the past, presents some opportunities for environmental stabilization and restoration.


The Ordos, as regards its education, ideology, culture, and economy, was a closed and inaccessible area prior to the 1980s. Traditional ideas predominated. Over time, the ideas of farmers and shepherds emerged not from the developing modern sciences and technology but from traditional culture. Formal education did not begin until 1934 when the first primary school was built in the area. Before 1949, it was chiefly the Lama religion that shaped human behaviour. According to the Report on the Western Four Banners of Ih-Ju League (Sui-Yuan 1939), the Lama temple was regarded as the highest school at that time, and Lama was considered the most honourable occupation. Some 60-70 per cent of the young men were Lama, leaving only a small percentage of labourers, mostly women, to manage the grazing. Lama doctrine was resistant to the import of outside culture and reinforced the traditional culture. Since 1949, although the educational system has developed rapidly through the actions of the national government, schooling is still not regarded as important by many. Visiting the area in 1991, the authors found that only a small number of farmers and shepherds had ever been to the League capital, Dongsheng. Agricultural research and management institutions, meanwhile, have also developed very slowly in the Ordos.

The illiteracy rate is one indicator of the underdeveloped state of the educational system (table 9.5). The illiterate and quasi-illiterate compose 43.7 per cent of the female population and 23.3 per cent of the male population. Statistics for 1984 show clearly the spatial distribution of education levels; it is clear that farmers and shepherds attain lower education levels than workers and that females are more poorly educated than males (Ih-Ju League 1990). These low levels of education, particularly for farmers and shepherds, affect behaviour and perspectives on the environment and social change. Many Ordos residents, it is clear, adhere to traditional lifestyles and resist modern ideas and new technology.

Table 9.5 Education levels in the Ih-Ju League (%)

Year Place Univ. or college Senior high Junior high Primary school Quasi illiterate or illiteratea
1964 Ih-Ju 0.117 0.524 2.404 19.19 43.63
1982 Ih-Ju 0.240 4.68 14.27 26.61 35.40
China 0.60 6.62 17.76 35.36 23.50
Inner Mongolia 0.57 7.46 19.30 32.77 22.40
1984 Ih-Ju 0.24 4.67 14.27 26.60 32.86
Cities and towns 1.30 11.64 19.73 18.47 8.26
Countryside 0.04 3.20 12.71 26.92 35.81
Dongsheng 1.15 11.11 21.72 25.74 22.52
Jungar 0.12 3.93 12.76 25.49 36.85
Dalad 0.15 4.36 15.27 26.74 32.36
Ejin Horo 0.12 3.39 12.48 24.08 37.94
Otog Front 0.04 2.41 9.73 25.95 35.11
Otog 0.21 4.14 14.30 29.78 30.87
Uxin 0.19 4.24 12.13 26.43 33.08
Hanggin 0.14 4.07 13.44 29.42 31.47

Source: Adapted from Ih-Ju League (1988).
a People aged over 12 years.

None the less, since 1980, the economic opening of the Ordos and its growing linkage with national markets have introduced new ideas and modern technology, which are gradually changing traditional customs. Yet education still lags behind much of China. Primary schools have spread over the Ordos, but few middle schools exist in the countryside. Students must migrate to the city or towns to study. The quality of teachers is also poor. Only 77 per cent of Ordos primary school attenders go on to junior high school, and only 36 per cent of those junior high students eventually enter senior high school.

The market economy and environmental vulnerability

Poverty induces a high vulnerability to environmental changes. From a historical point of view, a high dependence on the environment does not necessarily mean vulnerability for local people. Poverty limits choices for the human utilization of the environment. The lack of suitable management approaches and the human desire for economic growth conspire to produce overexploitation of land, resulting in environmental deterioration, which in turn limits the economy. A cycle or spiral of environmental and economic deterioration takes hold.

A typical example illustrates this. The overcollection of shrubs as fuelwood did not occur as a result of a lack of energy resources. The area is rich in coal deposits, and coal production has occurred since the 1950s. Moreover, wind power is another abundant energy resource. Rather, such overexploitation reflects a shortage of money and transportation. Poverty has also been part of the reason for the overuse of some areas.

Another example is the acceleration of severe overgrazing. Since the 1980s, and especially since 1985, the wool textile industry has developed rapidly, stimulating sheep and goat grazing. In 1986-1988, the price of cashmere and wool rose tremendously, making overgrazing very profitable in the short term. Since 1989, exports of wool products have fallen, causing a sharp drop in cashmere and wool prices. Although many shepherds have reduced their livestock numbers, others have continued to increase their livestock.

For land that is already deteriorated, improvements require money. The Hangpuchuang watershed in Jungar Banner is an example of an improvement induced by heavy investment from the national government. Here investments have ranged from 2,500 to 20,000 yuan per kmē, but only small areas have received such investments. Local governments can deliver only limited funds for environmental improvements. It is clear that the lack of funds, along with other social factors, limits large-scale environmental improvements.

Meanwhile, industrial development, and especially coalmining, while alleviating poverty to some extent, is causing further environmental problems. Since the late 1980s, the national government has invested large amounts of money in industry, especially for the development of mineral resources in middle China. These investments have included coalmining in Dongsheng and the Jungar coalfields. The first stage of the coalmining project began between 1987 and 1992, with open-pit mining as the dominant technology. The most serious environmental effect of coalmining is the potential soil erosion and sandification caused by land-surface disturbance through the construction of houses, mining sites, and roads. The long-term landscape disruption from open mining after the completion of the project is a special concern. The Heidaigou open-cast mine of the Jungar coalfield is an example. The area is covered by sandy loess, with old sand beneath. Li Baoyu (unpublished data) has estimated that the disturbed land surface will produce 11,200-32,500 t/kmē of erosion, 2-4.5 times that of existing erosion rates. The average loss ratio is 5.22 m for every tonne of coal production (with the mine having a total of 137.3 billion tonnes suitable for open mining). The mine could well generate a total of 1,716.8 billion mģ of deprived soil mass (Huadong Wang et al. 1991). This is a gigantic potential source of soil erosion and sandification. The Dongsheng and Shenfu (in Shaanxi) coalfields have 24 mining pits and four open coalmines in early stages of development and are likely severely to disturb some 40.3 kmē of land (Yang et al. 1991). If effective protection measures are not taken, the area will degrade quickly and sand drainage into the Yellow River will increase.

The state and national policy

Among the underlying forces of environmental change, state policy and politics are among the most powerful and effective primary drivers. In historical time, every opening of the Ordos area was induced by a growth in central power and a policy of land expansion in China. Since 1949, the socialist system and public land ownership have turned that area toward the new course of economic development. Liberated from their depressed and exploited positions, people have become more able to benefit from their own labour. Although the period has witnessed great economic improvements, it has also experienced accelerated environmental deterioration. The rapid growth of population and intensifying pressure on the environment have accompanied economic growth. The "Great Leap Forward" and the "Cultural Revolution" caused real environmental disasters in the area from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. The direct effect was land expansion under a national "grain-dominating" agricultural policy. Indirect effects, even more damaging, arose from the application of science and an overemphasis on class struggle. Driven by these state political interventions, the Ordos, like most other regions in China, lost control over population growth, economic development, and the exploitation of natural resources. Overcentralized economic policies denied choice and flexibility to local governments and peoples.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the pasture-protection policy of local government was not powerful enough to counter the national policy of grain purchase. As a result, the expansion of cultivation could not be stopped. And in the 1970s, although the Gongqirige people believed that their land was more suitable for grazing than for cultivation, they were unable to change the government's classification of the township as a farming one. The national government collectively purchased at low prices designated targets of agricultural products. The market economy, of course, was banned. Economic decline followed, while alternative adjustments in resources exploitation were prohibited. Moreover, the lack of local autonomy and increasing environmental deterioration destroyed the morale of farmers, shepherds, and their leaders. Weak social organization and environmental protection efforts made it easy for environmental deterioration to proceed unimpeded, even though some local people recognized the need for environmental countermeasures.

Since the 1980s, economic reforms have corrected many of these damaging state policies and established a market economy. The Ordos economy has developed rapidly, and an emphasis on environmental control and improvement has contributed to some general mitigation of environmental problems. State policy has been both a source of environmental improvement and a cause of continued damage to the environment. A typical example is the destruction caused by the collection of medicinal herbs. Though regulations on the utilization and protection of pastureland were set forth in 1979, they were undermined by the herbs collection policy. For the significant economic benefits of processing Glycyrrhiza uralensis and Ephedra sinica, the medical departments of the League and adjacent regions have established administrative targets for banners, townships, and villages without regard for the pressure on the regeneration needs of the pasturelands. Some places even use the fulfillment of these production goals to evaluate the performance of local leaders. Researchers on the Pasture Survey Team of the Animal Husbandry Department of Ih-Ju League estimate that the targets have exceeded resources and pasture capacity every year in recent times. In some years, the targeting has even exceeded the total above-ground biomass of Ephedra sinica. Administrative imperatives and cash-crop prospects (these herbs fetch high prices) have been more powerful than the pasture-utilization conservation regulations.

For the Ordos, with a depressed economy and a context of embryonic national environmental legislation, human awareness of environmental problems does not lead directly to environmental protection policies, especially since economic development is still very important in orienting human behaviour.

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