Lu Liu is a video journalist based in Beijing.
DAMAO BANNER, China — Wu Rigen longs to return to his rural village in this small corner of China’s Inner Mongolia province to live full-time, back to his sheep and goats, back to the traditions his ancestors practiced for centuries.
Wu is a shepherd, an ancient vocation for many of China’s ethnic Mongolians. But the prairie that sustains his livestock, like many of the country’s grasslands, is suffering. Government restrictions, industrialization and overgrazing — along with climate change, which is causing desertification and more intense droughts — have taken a harsh toll on herders in the region. Around 10 years ago, the prairie where Wu’s hundreds of sheep and goats, 20 cows and 30 horses grazed was in bad shape; the rain had become erratic, and the grasslands withered.
The local government blamed shepherds for the deterioration of the prairie and in 2008, imposed a ban on herding, expecting the crackdown to improve the grasslands. The degradation of the grasslands is felt as far away as Beijing, hundreds of miles to the east, where sandstorms that partly result from desertification in China’s inner hinterlands occasionally blow through the city.
The government offered a subsidy to make up for the herders’ lost income, but it was nowhere near enough. Wu and many others in Inner Mongolia don’t think overgrazing is the only reason for the deterioration of the prairie. When I traveled to the area in late summer, Wu took me for a drive, pointing out mines and factories on both sides of the road and telling me how much the area has changed in recent years. “The sky is grey, and the grassland got crushed by trucks,” he said to The WorldPost. “It doesn’t look like a prairie now. … I feel heartbroken thinking about this.”
Under the pressure of the herding ban, like many other herders in the region, Wu left the prairie and found a driving job in the closest big city, also called Damao, over 60 miles away. But working in cities is a stark change from herding. Along with general culture shock, some Mongolians have difficulty speaking Mandarin and working with Han Chinese. “Herding is what we Mongolians are really best at,” Wu told me. “I have been doing it since I was little.”
These days, for the most part, the government’s enforcement of the herding ban has been lenient. Officials often look the other way as Mongolians go about their traditional ways. Wu has been spending more and more time on the prairie. He has even considered quitting his job in the city and returning to herding full time.
But rumors are circulating that the herding ban may become severe again. Wu sold scores of sheep and goats earlier this year, in case officials start cracking down and fining the herders. He worries the ban restricts herders’ livelihoods as well as Mongolian culture, discouraging future generations of Mongolians from pursuing the traditions of their forefathers.
“What about the next generation?” he wondered. “When they are asked if they are Mongolians, their answer is yes. When they are asked if they have seen the prairie or know anything about herding, their answer is no. For our Mongolian people, it’s a shame to lose all these traditions.”