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Human awareness and societal responses

Human awareness and measures for environmental protection are positive aspects of the human dimensions of environmental change. They can slow down, stop, or even reverse environmental deterioration.

Human awareness and attitudes to nature

The Chinese people have long believed that human beings are part of the environment. The Mongolian people, originating in nomadic tribes, link their life even more closely to the fate of nature. Harmony is pursued ideally, however, not by seeking intervention but by acceptance. The attitude of "what will be will be" about nature is also a part of the Chinese conception. For the Ordos Plateau, much of the population holds Buddhist beliefs, which emphasize a passive acceptance of "the present life" while projecting hope into "the next life." What nature does to people is thought to be the result of their morality. This cultural orientation deeply affects environmental perception and behaviour.

Generally, local people first became aware of environmental changes during the 1950s and 1960s owing to the enlarged sandy land, increasingly sparse pasture, and soil erosion. From their experiences, they understood the harmful effects of environmental deterioration both on everyday life and on the agricultural economy. But that does not mean they would take active action to counter it. Prior to the 1980s, owing to their low economic status and the weakness of social forces, Ordos people were not sanguine about the possibility of environmental improvements. The overcentralized social system afforded little choice, thereby encouraging passivity. It is ironic that, during the Cultural Revolution, a "man-over-nature" concept was imposed and even politicized, but it did not enhance rational human environmental action.

Since 1980, environmental awareness has arisen quickly in the scientific community, in governmental agendas, and in the popular media. Different levels of government in the Ordos have strengthened public policies and programmes on environmental protection. The local newspaper, Er Duo Si Ri Bao (The Ordos Daily), and local broadcast media have covered environmental protection events extensively. Local government has also conducted revegetation demonstrations. These actions have enhanced local environmental awareness, partly owing to administrative incentives and partly owing to the evident beneficial economic results. Confidence about environmental improvements has grown and strengthened. The integration of centralization and privatization, beginning with the household responsibility system (i.e. land ownership is still public, but user rights are distributed to each household), promotes both collective security and enthusiasm for private interests.

All the same, long-term environmental protection is still of secondary importance in the Ordos. Overgrazing of livestock and overcollection of medicinal herbs continue, for example, and these practices may well be reasonable considering economic conditions in the area. Environmental deterioration is still considered to be chiefly an economic problem and not a source of major harm to human health and well-being or a moral issue. Local government has recognized the importance of pasture protection since the 1960s. The Inner Mongolia government has promoted revegetation and measures to control moving sand. From 1952 to 1955, with land reform and cooperative transformation of agriculture, the development of animal husbandry and the protection of pasture were the foci of Ih-Ju League governmental policy. This policy banned land development and overcollection of fuelwood and promoted rotational grazing, the planting of trees, shrubs, and herbs, the designation of fuel-collection areas, and other countermeasures. In farming-grazing areas, grazing was recognized as the dominant preferred activity. Soil and water conservation were first recognized in the Ih-Ju League agricultural plan of 1953, and massive closing of pastures and protecting of steep slope were undertaken. Despite heavy emphasis by the local government, however, these policies were not paid much heed by the local populace. Influenced by national policy and the political atmosphere, and lacking a full understanding of the importance of environmental protection for the local economy, local governments permitted deviations from their own policies.

With the slow infusion of science into policy-making, national government came rather late to understanding environmental problems. Since 1978, national policy has emphasized pasture protection, prohibition of land clearances, and pastoral needs. Environmental measures, meanwhile, have become more and more powerful.

In academic circles, the earliest attention to sandification in the Ordos appeared in the 1930s. Since 1949, many research programmes have been carried out in the Ordos. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a geographical survey occurred, followed by sandification studies in the late 1970s (Beijing University Geography Department et al. 1983). The 1980s saw the establishment of an Inner Mongolia remote-sensing survey programme as well as the launching of a study of the loess plateau. Scientists recognized the problems of sandification, soil erosion, and pasture degradation during the 1950s and early 1960s. Those studies revealed the widespread over-reclamation and fuelwood collection. Since the late 1970s, scientific research has revived after 10 years of stagnation, with further investigations into the causes, processes, and impacts of environmental problems. With increasing environmental awareness and activity in China, these environmental problems are now viewed as largely human induced.

Environmental protection measures

Before 1980, human responses were mostly adaptive. Prior to the 1960s, since population was sparse, land area per capita was large. When one cropfield was depleted, farmers abandoned it and turned to others. When one pasture was degraded, shepherds moved their households and livestock to other places. They avoided degraded areas and looked for higher-quality land. In the 1970s, with population increases and growing human interference with nature, adaptation strategies were not allowed for seriously eroded and sandified areas, such as Jungar and north Uxin. Therefore, in the movement of "Learning from Dazhai," terraced and dammed basic cropfields were built in Jungar to reduce erosion and to increase yields. The enclosure of pasture and the removal of poisonous herbs helped to restore degraded vegetation in Uxin-Ju township. These activities illustrated the positive effect of a political movement during the Cultural Revolution. Generally, environmental control efforts existed only for small areas, without consideration of the total ecosystem. In Jungar, for example, dammed lands and reservoirs at the outlet of gullies were not coordinated with gully vegetative measures. As a result, the land was destroyed by flooding and the reservoirs filled with deposits. In Uxin-Ju township, only a small area of pasture was enclosed, whereas others continued to be overgrazed and sandified

Since 1980, purposeful adjustments have become more widespread, except for very small and restricted areas such as in parts of western Jungar, where capital scarcity and environmental conditions do not permit improvement efforts. Specific measures for environmental control and improvement include several different initiatives. Some cultivated land has been returned to natural or man-made pastures.

With the three expansions of cultivation, farming-grazing transitional areas and even some original grazing areas have been turned into cultivation regions. The eastern farming area has expanded onto steep slope lands. In the 1980s, an improved land-use policy reclassified 15 townships as a new grazing region. Slope land of over 20 and with thin soil layers was reallocated from cultivation to natural or manmade pastures.

In the 1950s, the Ih-Ju League government promoted pasture enclosure in valley meadows. But, owing to funding shortages for fencing and mismanagement of collective pasture utilization, it was not applied widely. Since the 1980s, with economic growth and the allocation of pasture-utilization rights, pasture enclosure has increased rapidly. In 1985, enclosed pasture accounted for fully 10.3 per cent of the total utilizable area; in 1989, the proportion increased further to 18.7 per cent.

Aerial sowing of vegetation and herbs began in the Ih-Ju League in 1979. This labour-saving and highly efficient way to improve pasture is suitable for sandy land where sand-dunes are not very high and for large interdune lowlands. Experiments show that, in the total aerially sown area, vegetation cover has increased by about 40 per cent, turning moving sand into fixed sand within five years (Yunzhong Wang et al. 1983).

Sand-dune improvement first appeared in the 1950s, and local people have rich and lengthy experience with such dunes. Vegetative measures have been chiefly conducted on windward slopes and in interdune low areas. On the lower third of slopes, Artemisia ordosica and Salix psammophila are planted to hold the sand. Wind barriers are built on the upper slope. With the growth of these plants, surface (0-30 cm) wind speed is reduced by 60 per cent, and sand transportation by 85 per cent (at a wind speed of 3.7-6.4 m/s). As the slopes are gradually flattened, planting continues toward the top of the sanddune. Within four years, the sand-dune can be completely flattened and covered with vegetation. On the low area in front of the leeward slope, several rows of Salix psammophila are planted to block the moving sand. Multilayer pasture is built on interdune low areas (Huang et al. 1982).

The principal intervention for cropfield protection has been to plant shrubs perpendicular to the wind direction. Salix psammophila and Caragana Korshinskii have been used frequently. The protective shrubs not only help to control wind erosion but also protect crops from sand attack, so that yields can be raised by as much as 20 per cent. Rotational cultivation of crop and leguminous herbs and green manuring are effective in increasing soil fertility and combating salinization and alkalinization. As a result, yields have increased by as much as 20-80 per cent.

Regional developmental policy

Environmental deterioration in the Ordos, as noted above, is more the result of economic and political policies than of natural processes. Policies that address environmental problems are certainly important, but those promoting regional social and economic development are even more significant. The relationship between environmental changes and socio-economic factors is close. On the one hand, environmental control is of decisive importance to economic growth; on the other hand, the potential of environmental control depends strongly on socio-economic development. In regional development policy, environmental and socio-economic factors are intertwined.

Since 1980, regional development policies have evolved with the implementation of the household responsibility system (involving the equal distribution of land-use rights to each household). From 1980 to 1982, user rights for cropfield and pasture were distributed, with the stipulation that they would not change in the short run. In 1984-1985, the distribution of five kinds of cleared land - range, gully, slope, valley, and sand - gave user rights to households that improved them. These policies greatly encouraged intensive cropland management, pasture enclosure, and land revegetation. All farmers and shepherds know that such initiatives are the only ways to gain a better livelihood for themselves. Even so, people actively claim the more remote and seriously degraded land. Nevertheless, environmental improvements by households have become more common, although, owing to a lack of labour and integrated planning, only small patches show real improvement.

Recognizing this problem, the Ih-Ju League and some banner governments in 1989-1990 re-amalgamated the cleared land into large-scale management units, requiring that each household and each labourer devote certain labour days to land improvement. Recently, to address overgrazing, some banners have evaluated and recorded pasture grades for each household. Increases or decreases in quality elicit financial and other rewards or punishments. Means to adjust livestock according to available forage are identified and promoted. Some other measures have included strengthening the basic fields, increasing fruit and timber trees, and improving livestock breeds. Some programmes (sponsored by either the national or local governments), such as the national government's North China Green-Belt Construction, Uxin Banner's Family Pasture Programme, Otog Banner's Livestock Hazard-Resistant Programme, and the Man-Made Pasture Building Programme in salinized and alkalinized land along the Yellow River plain, have also been instituted.

Science and technology have received new emphasis. In 1990, an Act of Agricultural Development established a network of services and leaders for banners, townships, and villages. Leaders for technology applications contract to help farmers and shepherds with cultivation techniques, family pasturing, the improvement of livestock breeds, and revegetation. Education, both traditional and vocational, is emphasized. Training in agricultural technology is especially popular.

It is apparent that the Ih-Ju League has undertaken environmental improvement as part of its overall approach to economic develop meet. Regional policies have addressed both environmental problems and human driving forces. Environmental policies and also enforcement (such as the distribution of degraded land to each household) have become more effective. From practices in the Ih-Ju League, it is clear that environmental policies are not sufficient in themselves; the close coordination of environmental improvement and economic development is a powerful way to convert environmental awareness into actual improvements. Agricultural economic policies are now better coordinated with environmental goals. Thus, an emphasis on forestry (shrubs, trees, and fruits) in the eastern loess hills and forage cultivation in the pastoral lowlands, and the restriction of cashcrop grain production to river valleys and plains have emerged. These policies have been very effective in improving the regional economy. Although they do not directly address environmental problems, they do serve as environmental countermeasures, and the resulting economic growth has provided the necessary conditions and potential capacity for environmental improvement. Other policies promoting technological application, education, and population control are also effective in addressing the basic driving forces of environmental deterioration. What remain inadequate are the means of implementation, such as overgrazing. Efforts now under way are seeking such means, and the future appears promising.

The trajectory of environmental changes

Designations of endangerment and criticality, as used in this volume, rely on an assessment of the total sustainability of the environmental socio-economic system now and in the near term. Different approaches to evaluation can, of course, provide different results. Geocentric approaches emphasize the ecosystem, with the natural environment as the basic criterion. Anthropocentric approaches emphasize human livelihood and well-being. This volume seeks an integrative approach to understanding environmental changes as well as changes in human livelihood. The trends and rates of environmental change are important, and the possibility of sustaining socioeconomic development over the longer term is essential. In the case of "criticality," environmental deterioration has become so serious as to pre-empt continued economic development and improved social well-being.

Another issue is the terminology. "Can sustain" and "cannot sustain" are key judgements; however, they are very subjective. Here we emphasize the standards and perspectives of local people. For some people, the wind storm accompanied by wind erosion in the Ordos would indicate a vicious threat to human health, and this factor alone could result in the whole system's being judged as "critical." For local people in the Ordos, however, it is not so important; rather, it is a background condition taken for granted. In other words, we adopt the relatively low living standard of local people as the basis for judging their environmental-socio-economic system and for evaluating its degree of endangerment or criticality. Both criticality and sustainability, then, refer not to static situations but to trends toward man-nature harmony (or disharmony) and social development. Judging whether the situation is static or dynamic is also difficult and requires an in-depth understanding of local circumstances.

From our analysis, we conclude that environmental deterioration became more and more serious from 1949 until the early 1980s, and, correspondingly, greatly affected the economy and human life. Since 1980, with the measures taken for environmental protection and improvement, the situation has begun to change. The environmental trajectory of the Ordos falls into four periods:

1. The pre-1949 period. Few data exist to assess the situation before 1949. The literature suggests a long stagnant period during which population was low and did not change much. The economy was stable at a low level of development, living conditions were poor, and the environment was slowly deteriorating. Generally, it was a situation that could have been maintained for a long time with a sparse population and low levels of socio-economic development.

2. Endangerment during the 1950s. In 1949, drastic changes in the socio-economic and political systems prompted a substantial increase in incentives for economic development and exploitation of nature. With increasing human interference with the environment, environmental deterioration gradually accelerated. People began to become aware of the economic impacts of environmental deterioration and to engage in well-intentioned but largely ineffective action aimed at prevention and restoration.

3. The critical period of the 1960s and 1970s. During this period, the population increased rapidly, while social development and human well-being stagnated. The economic situation worsened and morale was low. The environment was seriously exploited and degraded, which in turn impeded socio-economic development. Local people were aware of the problems but saw no effective means for environmental control. Only limited and small-scale measures were taken, producing few concrete results. Meanwhile, economic production and lifestyle suffered.

4. The post-1980 period. The period 1978-1980 was a turning point in the environmental trajectory, induced by the household responsibility system and the new land-use policies, which emphasized economic development and environmental control and implemented new national policies and programmes. The regional economy has grown and human well-being has improved greatly, thereby increasing the social capacity for environmental improvement. Government policies have stimulated effective environmental responses by addressing both environmental problems and human driving forces. Local people have adopted environmental measures as the basis for regional economic growth. Large-scale environmental actions, under governmental sponsorship, have integrated spatially linked areas and coordinated environmental protection with economic growth. As a result, environmental deterioration has slowed and perhaps even been reversed. The overall trend is toward greater environmental protection, restoration, and improvement.

The periods both before 1949 and since 1980 could have been sustained over long time-periods. They contrast in economic level, human life, social restriction and choices, and possibilities for further development. The year 1949 was not a totally catastrophic turning point, although since then the environmental-socio-economic system has marched toward economic development and greater environmental endangerment.

The third and the fourth periods may typify changes in human driving forces and responses. During the third stage, population increases, traditional ideas, and poverty were the driving forces of environmental changes, although they in some sense provided latent conditions. What drove much of the change was political forces. For instance, under the slogan "more people, more strength," population increased without control. Education was replaced by "cultural revolution" and economy by "class struggle." Social institutions became so weak that only traditional land-use styles, working almost instinctively, allowed people to survive. Poverty reflected the accumulation of past policy. In a word, it interacted with driving forces in the system.

In the last stage, it was state policy that changed the whole environmental trajectory of the Ordos from endangerment to stabilization. Policy replaced other driving forces in the society, and either changed or minimized them. For example, family-planning regulations controlled population increases; market policy afforded the Ordos the chance for economic growth; new environmental policies strengthened local environmental protection. The combination of publicization and privatization had far-reaching effects on every aspect of social life. In short, political forces have played a decisive role in the environmental changes of the Ordos over the past 15 years.

Future trends

Current regional policy, the potential for economic growth, socioeconomic developments, possible natural changes, and potential policy regulations combine to define possible future scenarios of environmental change. Future natural variability, mainly climatic, will probably not be dramatically different from the scale of past fluctuation in the near term (although potential climatic change could prove important over the longer term). Peijun Shi (1991) predicted a 12-15 per cent variation in precipitation from the present (1955-1980) over the next 50 years. Therefore, possible human actions and policy regulations are likely to be decisive in the future trajectory of environmental changes. Coalmining development may be particularly important.

Over the next 10 years, it seems dear that, although the household responsibility system is working well and has greatly increased productivity, collective management could become more and more important. Individual households cannot manage improvements in crop variety and livestock breeds, fertilizers, and agricultural technology. Government, both national and local, has realized this problem in China and is trying to increase the collective service system in order to coordinate further publicization and privatization. Economic development and environmental protection continue to be major political objectives and to represent criteria for evaluating the performance of public leaders.

Most of the coalmining and power generation industry in China is run by the state. The profits and products (coal and electricity) will go mostly to other areas of China; some of the coal will even be exported abroad. Industrial development of the Ordos will increase the material and money fluxes to other areas, and regional linkages will become more and more important. With these fluxes will come other interactions, such as road and railway construction linking the

Ordos to east China. Information exchange will be important. Given growing regional linkages, it is difficult to see the Ordos remaining a politically and economically marginal area. Although the benefits of industrial development may accrue mostly to the state, it will still provide a great opportunity for the Ordos to develop service enterprises and to increase economic growth.

With national governmental policy for the development of coalmining and other related industry (such as power generation), soil erosion and sandification caused by open-cast mining could become more serious in the future. Rapid population growth, air pollution, and wastewater contamination are other threats attendant on coal mining.

The potential effects of coalmining have attracted great attention from both national and local governments. Policy makers are well aware that such mining could determine future environmental trends in the Ordos, and they have conducted environmental impact assessments for these projects and proposed technological countermeasures. Local governments have also explored possible environmental taxes on coalmining. Since these newly developing large-scale coalmines are run by the national government, coordination between national and local governments will obviously be very important in future efforts to protect the environment.


As a dry, windy, and sandy area, the Ordos Plateau is a fragile region. Under the pressure of human activities since 1949, the area has experienced several stages of environmental change: endangerment in the 1950s, growing threats in the 1960s and 1970s, and progress toward environmental sustainability since 1980. Each stage is indicated by certain types of environmental deterioration and socioeconomic situations, which are themselves closely related. Given the high human dependence on the environment and the great vulnerability of local people, environmental changes have greatly affected the Ordos people. Land-use styles, traditional ideas, population growth, and the education levels of the local people have all played a major role, although national policy and the state have been most important, as both negative and positive responses to environmental changes. Future scenarios may well continue to strengthen the current trend toward sustainability, but that will depend very much on the course of national policy and on the implementation of measures as well.


The authors are extremely grateful to Mr. Jia Jong, a young geographer at Beijing Normal University, for his generous help in field research. Ms. Zhen Shuping also deserves our warm gratitude for her assistance.

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