Sustainable Development of Grassland Ecosystems: Two Case Studies from China
Grasslands, which cover 41% of the land surface and which provide livelihoods for nearly 800 million people, as well as forage for livestock, wildlife habitats, carbon and water storage etc., are being subject to increasing degradation largely through forces such as overgrazing, excessive use of fire, agricultural disturbance, fragmentation and urbanization. With increasing population pressure the outlook on a global scale is not promising and the sustainability of many systems is being questioned. In China, where grasslands cover more than 40% of the total land area, the same forces of degradation are evident. This paper looks at two case studies: a transhumant system in Altai Prefecture, Xinjiang and a desert oasis system in Minqin County, Gansu Province. What are the lessons learned and general conclusions that can be drawn? Are the systems of management and development that have been adopted sustainable in the longer term or is the development leading to instability and seriously degrading the grassland resource?
Grasslands, which cover 41% of the land surface, provide livelihoods for nearly 800 million people, as well as forage for livestock, wildlife habitats, carbon and water storage, renewable energy, recreation and tourism; grasslands remain the primary source of genetic material for improving our food crops and an increasing number of pharmaceuticals (White et al, 2000). Many of the grasslands occur in very susceptible dryland areas and unfortunately, largely through human-induced modifications, the health of the worlds grasslands is declining, with grass cover being disturbed by agriculture, overgrazing, excessive use of fire, fragmentation of areas, and urbanization. A recent study by the World Resources Institute (WRI, 2000) to gauge the impact of human activity on grasslands found that there have been major changes in the extent of grasslands in many areas, for example only 9.4% of the tall grass prairies remain in N. America, only 20% of grasslands remain in L. America and while in Asia, Africa and Australia the figures were better at more than 50%, everywhere the picture gives cause for concern. Focusing specifically on Mongolia, White et al (2000) pondered how sustainable the grassland ecosystems will be in future and whether Mongolia can balance indigenous herding traditions with the forces of urbanization, modernization and the transition to a market economy.
In China grasslands cover more than 40% of the total land area with 84% of the total being located in western China (Fuzeng Hong and Ren Jizhou, 2001), much of it semi-arid and high plateau pastoral land. As with other major grassland areas, Chinas grasslands are being subject to many negative forces and to rapid change. According to Miller (2001) estimates suggest that about 34% of all rangelands in China are moderately to severely degraded and about 90% are degraded to some degree. The future of Chinas grasslands is of increasing concern for the livelihood of many people; the grasslands are important areas for the conservation of biodiversity, with their many distinctive species; the headwaters for many of Asias major rivers are found in these areas and what happens in these grassland areas will have important implications for millions of people downstream. In spite of their extent and importance, Chinas grasslands are being subject to the many forces of degradation and difficult decisions will have to be made to reduce the extent of land degradation and loss of biodiversity and to safeguard this vital resource for Chinas future generations. Managers will face difficult challenges and decisions in order to ensure the sustainable development of Chinas grasslands (Miller, 2001).
With increasing population the present pressure on the grasslands can only increase in future years. We are aware of what is happening at a global level, but what is happening within some of the areas that make up these large global ecosystems are management systems being developed that will not only provide the offtake needed now (in terms of meat, milk and fibre etc), but also will ensure that in the longer term there is no degradation and loss of the resource? In developing areas of grassland are we certain that our management systems will ensure the sustainability of the grassland and of the way of life of herders and farmers? Are we making good use of the grass and water and will the same resources be available for future generations?
This paper focuses on two case studies, both from China: the first in Altai in N.W. China looks at an ancient transhumant system where for centuries Kazak herders have moved with their livestock from the low desert areas, where they winter, to the higher summer pastures for rich summer grazing, moving back down again as the days become shorter and colder. The introduction of winter bases and irrigated land for forages and cash crops has had a significant impact on their way of life. The second study concerns a totally different grassland ecosystem, the desert oases of Gansu where cropping (including fodder crops) has traditionally been practised in the central zone near the water source with drier rangelands surrounding this central core and further out the moving sand dunes. With the better returns from cash crops in recent years there has been a move to increase cash cropping and consequent use of water, with less concern for the rangelands which have been seen as a free resource available to all with little need for careful management. What have been the consequences of the changes introduced? In both cases the question to be asked is "Are the systems of management and development that have been adopted sustainable in the longer term or is the development leading to instability and seriously degrading the grassland resource?"
Case Study 1 - Kazak herders, winter feed and transhumant systems in Altai Prefecture, Xinjiang, China
The rearing of livestock using transhumant production systems is the main land use and livelihood in large areas of the arid and semi-arid temperate zones of Asia. One of the major constraints to improving livestock production and family incomes (Li-Menglin et al, 1996) is the lack of feed during winter and early spring which reduces the number of animals that can be carried through the winter and also means that pregnant breeding stock may be at their most vulnerable in the period of lowest feed availability. Attempts have been made in a number of countries to permanently settle nomadic people often with less than desirable social consequences. This project attempted to provide settled bases for herders where fodder for the winter period is produced and where education and social facilities for the herders' households are provided, but where for the major part of the year the traditional transhumant system is followed.
Altai Prefecture is located in the northern part of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China near the border with Kazakstan and Mongolia. Bounded on the north by high mountains and cut off from southern Xinjiang by a large expanse of desert and semi-desert, this is an area with a markedly continental climate, hot summers, very cold winters, snow and low rainfall. The mean minimum temperature for January is -26 oC and the mean maximum for July is 30 oC. Precipitation, which mainly falls as snow, ranges from less than 100 mm p.a. on the plains to more than 600 mm p.a. on the high pastures, where the problem of high winds, snow and spells of extreme cold, with temperatures of less than -40 oC, means that many areas of high pasture are open for less than 3 months each year. Of the total area of 11.8 M ha, more than 9.8 M ha are pastoral and over half of the population is engaged in livestock farming (dominated by transhumant systems) which contributes nearly 60% of the value of agricultural production in Altai.
The main livestock are cattle, sheep, goats, horses and camels, with sheep and cattle being the most important. Most Kazak herders follow a transhumant way of life with good summer grazing for their stock on lands above 1, 300 m limited to only 2.5 to 3 months per year (late June to late September). In spring (April to late June) and autumn (mid-September to end November), grazing occurs on the heavily grazed transition routes and winter grazing (December to end March) occurs on the desert plains. The transhumance route is long, 180 to 200 km from the desert plains to the high summer pastures.
A number of rivers and areas of relatively flat land provided the base for an irrigation-based solution to the winter feed problem. Over the last ten years, a development programme has been implemented to produce and conserve fodder by cultivating over 20,000 ha of irrigated land for hay. The production of lucerne (Medicago sativa) on the irrigated land was assisted by WFP and UNDP/FAO. Starting in 1988, work was begun at Burjin, Fuhai and Altai to produce "through irrigation by gravity of 34, 425 ha of land, large quantities of hay, expected to reach 130, 000 tonnes per year at full development, and to settle 8, 650 families through the allocation of irrigated land" (Li-Menglin et al, 1996). By 1997, some 6, 100 Kazak households had been settled, and 32, 000 ha had been developed, providing 20, 000 ha of alfalfa (Medicago sativa) pasture. The average farm size is 3.7 to 4.3 ha, producing annually about 18, 000 kg of hay from 3 ha (with the remaining land utilized for wheat, maize, beet or sunflower) with a house for winter quarters for the family and for those who remain on the plains for haymaking in summer while the livestock are away on the summer pastures. Usually a proportion of the wheat, soybean and sometimes lucerne is sold. A number of farmers grow maize solely for making into silage. With 26,700 ha of existing alfalfa land and the newly established 20, 000 ha, the present area in Altai Prefecture is some 46, 700 ha and there are plans to establish another 20, 000 ha under the Ninth Five Year Plan.
Visitors to the area can quickly appreciate the degree of success of the project in transforming former (Gobi) desert areas into productive irrigated farms and herders into herder/farmers. The project has had a very big impact in Altai and is accepted as a model for further Kazak herder resettlement schemes (Anon, 1992). The findings of the 1995 evaluation mission were that "the project has attained its ambitious targets. An area of 30,218 ha is under irrigation and settlement of 7,550 Kazak herdsmen is proceeding on schedule. Food security for the region as well as household food security of the target population has been dramatically increased without dismantling the traditional socio-economic system upon which livestock transhumance is based. The project's beneficial impact on living conditions is evident and has resulted in a steady increase in family incomes and access to education and health facilities. However, the future of pastoral farming in the region is ecologically fragile because of the constant threat of the "salting-up" phenomenon. Proper drainage maintenance and efficient water management are crucial. Livestock pressure on transitional pastures will also need to be monitored carefully. Therefore sustainability is heavily dependent on a continuous and scrupulous management of the environmentally sensitive components of the project" (Reynolds, 1998).
The project has successfully demonstrated the complementarity of mobile pastoralism and sedentary agro-pastoral development. Whether the benefits so far enjoyed by the "settled" Kazak herders (who represent more than 15 percent of the Kazaks who live in Altai Prefecture) can be enjoyed by those who still follow the traditional transhumant way of life year round is likely to depend on funding from the Government of China for an expansion of the irrigated areas.
Is the system sustainable?
At the present moment in time the (transhumant) system that has evolved over many centuries and been modified with the recent introduction of irrigated lands (for haymaking and the growing of winter feed) and winter bases, appears to be approximately in balance, with fluctuations due to wetter or drier years; certainly the lot of the Kazak herders involved has improved, but even so there are worrying signs:
- herders on the high summer pastures speak of many more families visiting the area than previously with larger herds (Reynolds, 1998); increased livestock numbers and more herders needing more wood, water and grass are placing additional pressure on the summer pastures;
- while herders have increased incomes by being able to carry more animals through the winters and lambing earlier, these additional numbers are leading to additional pressure on the already heavily grazed intermediate grasslands in Spring and Autumn. Is there sufficient control of livestock numbers in terms of the carrying capacity of the grasslands?
- problems on the irrigated areas include the whole process of training herders to become farmer-herders, poor irrigation techniques, build up of saline areas due to poor water management, dodder development in alfalfa, low crop yields, low fertilizer use, lack of experimental work to look at rotations etc.
Although the system presently appears to be approximately in balance there are signs of increasing pressure on the grasslands and both these and the irrigated crop and fodder areas require careful monitoring, not for short term fluctuations but for longer term change.
Case Study 2 - Desert encroachment and grazing in Minqin County, Gansu Province, China
In central China north of Lanzhou there are many desert oases with a central area of irrigated cropland surrounded by rangelands and desert. The history of the area has been characterised by a continuous struggle to prevent further desert encroachment onto the areas of cropland. In recent years increased livestock numbers on the rangelands surrounding the Minqin County desert oasis have been thought to be one of the main reasons for increasing dune system movements and encroachment onto croplands. This example briefly describes investigations carried out under a UNDP/FAO/Government of China project to assess the role of livestock and overgrazing in influencing the encroachment of mobile and semi-mobile dune systems onto croplands.
Minqin County, located in central-eastern Gansu Province on the Alashan Plateau between the Badanjilin and Tenggeli deserts and some 70 or 80 km from Wuwei, is said to be typical of many of the desert-oasis (an irrigated area of predominantly cropland surrounded by desert) counties of inland China with its combination of pastoral and agricultural production regimes. The main physical features of the county are large areas of sparsely vegetated natural grazing lands and desert with a central zone of irrigated cropland, which is associated with the Schiyang River. Minqin County covers 1.6M ha. and the topography is characterised by a shallow basin with some low-lying hills and large areas of mobile and semi-mobile dunes and the Gobi desert. Altitude ranges from 1,000 to 1,936m (mostly 1,300m) and there is an arid continental climate with hot summers, severe winters and low rainfall. Mean annual temperature is 8 degrees C with summer highs of 40 degrees C and winter lows of minus 27 degrees C. Annual evapotranspiration is 2,600 mm and the annual precipitation about 110 mm which falls mainly as summer rainfall with a very small component of winter snow. In fact some 47% of total annual rainfall may be expected in just two months - July and August (Harris, 1997).
The main water sources are the Shiyang river, the Hongyashin reservoir and underground water. As the demand for water has increased, the supply capacity of the Schiyang river and the associated Hongyashin reservoir has declined dramatically since the 1950s, resulting in increased use of underground water. Since the 1960s some 17,000 wells have been dug or drilled, but Thorp (1997) indicated that only 8,800 were usable due to water depth and poor water quality, especially in the northern part of the county "where high mineralization has seriously affected underground water. Here, 192 wells have been drilled, each over 300 m deep in order to secure water of reasonable quality". Thorp indicates that "each year about 600 million m3 of water are extracted from underground reserves of which it is estimated that 400 million m3 is not replenished. Three main hydrological basins supply underground water to the county - the Changling basin is reduced by 1 m each year, the Buqu basin by 0.6 to 0.7 m and the Huqu basin by 0.5 to 1.0 m. All these factors indicate serious depletion of surface and underground water reserves and make water resources the main factor in consideration of long-term sustainable agriculture". Harris (1997) suggests that "consequently, the water table has fallen from 2 metres in the 1950s to 8 metres during the 1980s". The rate of lowering of the water table is increasing as irrigation water is drawn off and the quality of the water is declining.
Sheep, goats, donkeys, mules, horses, cattle and camels are the main livestock raised with total numbers of at least 340,000 of which more than 75% are sheep. The oasis zone comprises some 114,000 ha. within which the main crops are wheat, maize and seed melon with other crops such as cotton, potato, hemp, sunflower, soybean, alfalfa, etc. In recent years there has been a tendency to concentrate on the growing of crops for cash and less on fodder crops. Most livestock are owned by cropping farmers of the irrigated oasis and use the rangelands mainly during the summer. The timing and degree of movement to and from the rangelands is primarily governed by the seasonal cropping patterns and according to seasonal rangeland forage availability which is, in turn influenced by the highly variable rainfall (Harris, 1997). For periods of the year when forage production from the rangelands is limited (September to April), livestock forage intake is made up of herbage carried over in situ from the growing season and the feeding of all forms of conserved and purchased forage. On the rangelands there are a number of watering points and livestock are herded.
A project on Integrated Desert Control and Sustainable Agriculture was started in 1993 with the overall objective of protecting the desert fringe of Gansu (particularly the Tenggeli and Badanjilin Deserts) from further desert encroachment, and to arrest and reverse the decline in land productivity and living standards by improving water use, farming systems and range management through the extension of more appropriate technologies. The key focus of one of six sub-projects was work at the Gansu Desert Control Research Institute (GDRCI) in Wuwei and the Minqin Integrated Desert Control Experiment Station (MIDCES) to prepare a broadbased research programme for GDRCI on priority areas bearing in mind the needs of farmers and graziers, by gathering and interpreting the existing information and then proposing more appropriate technologies. With inputs from an international range management consultant
a Remote Sensing/GIS unit was established, staff trained, a number of thematic maps of Minqin County produced, studies of the cropped lands and surrounding grazing lands and a range monitoring programme initiated.
There are still active dune systems within the cropping area and there are large areas of mobile and semi-mobile dunes in the surrounding desert lands. Therefore there is a continuous battle to stabilize the dunes within the cropland and also to prevent further desert encroachment around the outer fringes of the crop area. Stabilization schemes are particularly active where the areas of irrigated cropland (especially for seed melon and wheat) are being pushed out into the rangeland areas. Recently there has been an increase in movement of dune systems, which has been attributed to the increases in the numbers of livestock and the overgrazing of the rangeland surrounding the oasis. A series of investigations into range vegetation cover and status, numbers of livestock, quantities of fodder crops grown, water use and water table status, methods of improving water use efficiency etc. were undertaken to assess the likely factors influencing environmental conditions and sustainability of the present agricultural and pastoral systems.
As well as the ever increasing demand for and offtake of water from underground sources for cash crops it was noted that cropping of marginal land is an increasingly common practice and if some of these areas are abandoned after a poor harvest then the sites present a greater soil erosion risk than if they had been left as rangeland and retained for grazing with the vegetative cover left intact with their root systems. The importance of even isolated clumps of vegetation (such as Nitraria) in holding the shifting sands is obvious from the mounds, which build up around the plants.
Rangelands appear to be subject to two negative forces. One is the continual increase in livestock numbers and the other is the effect of the declining water table caused by irrigation. Current evidence suggests that reduced livestock condition is the first effect of a declining rangeland forage ration per head associated with the increasing livestock numbers. Even though there is greater pressure on the rangelands than previously, the rangeland vegetation is probably sufficiently resilient to recover. Current livestock herding practices and spatial patterns of livestock use of the rangelands have evolved according to the environmental conditions and cannot easily be improved upon. The major factor that is expected to have the greatest negative influence on the rangeland vegetation and productivity and therefore on livestock support capacity is the continued depletion of the underground water and lowering of the water table. Soil desiccation is likely to result in vegetation changes, which will result in decreased ground cover and increased sand mobility and therefore even more severe desert encroachment.
Work is presently underway to reduce water demand by improving water use efficiency, increasing the use of plastic film technology, stricter monitoring of water extraction, lining canals and reducing wastage, increasing the price paid for water etc. In addition livestock production can only be improved if some of the cropland is used to produce high quality forage crops to complement the crop residues already being produced. Harris (1997) recommended that with present livestock numbers an additional 5,000 ha. of irrigated land needs to be set-aside for the production of high quality forage crops and to reduce the use of the rangelands by animals owned by cropping farmers. A grassland resource-monitoring programme is in place to monitor trends in the condition of the rangeland and limits to the use of the rangelands need to be put in place to prevent any further increases in stocking loads. Another proposal 4 years ago was to establish a 5 km. wide buffer zone around the oasis, around the outer edge of the irrigated croplands which would be livestock free and the degraded rangelands could be rehabilitated, protected and stabilized through programmes to establish bushes and trees.
Is the System Sustainable?
It is clear that with the water table falling rapidly the system being developed is too exploitative of the available resources with water being used faster than it can be replenished. The cropping system is not sustainable in its present form and the surrounding rangelands are at risk from desiccation and overstocking. Allen (2001) recently described a non-sustainable crop production system in the Texas High Plains which used precipitation and supplemental irrigation with water pumped from the Ogallala aquifer at rates that far exceeded recharge, where alternative systems are required for the future. While this paper does not consider any developments in the last 4 years in Minqin County it is clear from the 1997 evidence that the initial focus should be on ways of reducing water extraction rates, to make better use of water (increase efficiency), to reduce water losses, to cease cultivation on the very marginal lands and probably to increase fodder crop production; also to change attitudes so that the rangeland is seen as a valuable resource that should not simply be available for everyone to run unlimited stock numbers. The desert oases systems are extremely fragile ecosystems and great care is needed in the short term to ensure that sustainable practices are adopted.
While some of the lessons learned differ for the two case studies, there are a number of common features:
- Government must focus on the issues associated with grazing rights, free access of all to grazing lands, and the breakdown of traditional systems;
- to varying degrees the problem of animal numbers has to be addressed. The provision of winter feed to enable more animals to be carried through the winter will place greater pressure on spring, summer and autumn pastures and the situation needs to be closely monitored. Uncontrolled stock numbers is a key issue both for sustainable grassland systems and for improved incomes;
- in many areas careful exploitation of water resources may be the key to long term sustainability of grassland systems and particularly those associated with the desert-oasis systems in Gansu. In other areas care is needed in managing irrigated systems to ensure that increased salinization does not become a major problem threatening long term sustainability;
- the practice whereby crop farmers purchase animals as an investment with little regard for the grassland carrying capacity can have severe consequences for the sustainability of grassland ecosystems;
- long-term success in terms of sustainable grassland systems depends on full people's participation and taking note of the aspirations of the local population;
- it is possible to successfully settle pastoralists, without destroying their pattern of life, as long as it is recognised that their survival depends upon maintaining their overall mobility for a portion of the year so that the flexibility remains in their system to sustainably exploit natural resources;
- the concept of a settled base for transhumant herders can work well by providing extra feed for feed shortage periods (from intensively managed fodder production areas) and increasing incomes, as well as providing a base for the provision of services (such as education, health etc.). The concept is particularly favourable for families, women and children;
- changes in systems may be slow and long-term and even may not be apparent in the short-term. Governments must be fully committed to providing the resources needed over the long-term and be willing to take appropriate political and economic decisions that may be required for the sustainability of rangelands and for the long-term benefit of the peoples dependent on these areas;
- changing institutional, economic and marketing conditions - nationally, regionally and globally - will have a significant effect on rangeland use in the coming decades. With globalisation, decentralisation and liberalisation, the focus on technological development will have to be in parallel with social, environmental and ecological considerations.
This paper has looked at only two case studies; one apparently fairly sustainable but requiring careful monitoring, the other highly unstable. Although extrapolation from only two case studies is not contemplated, what would be the implications for China if similar conditions existed in many other grassland ecosystems? Perhaps in conclusion we should contemplate some recent words from Miller (2001): "......current livestock production systems in many of the pastoral areas of China now appear to be unsustainable and development of intensive livestock production systems as a means to increase production of livestock products and alleviate poverty in pastoral areas will place additional pressure on rangeland ecosystems".
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