Fenced-in settlement changes pastoral society

By MENGGENDALAI / 05-09-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Landscape of the Xilingol League, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, July 25, 2023 Photo: Fang Ke/CSST

Pastoral areas are an important type of rural society. Therefore, it is vital to understand the current reality and characteristics of pastoral areas, as they are an important foundation for promoting the modernization of agriculture and rural areas in China. When we visit the grasslands today, we will unexpectedly find a patchwork of wire fenced pastures. The prevalence of fences cannot be separated from the implementation of the grassland contracting policy. The implementation of grassland contracting is tied to households, and under this policy pastoral areas have undergone a social transformation from a “sparse population and livestock under the sky, with nomadic grazing” to “dual contracting of pastures and livestock and fencing for a fixed population and livestock.”

From nomadism to settlement

The most significant change in China’s pastoral society is the transition from nomadism to settlement. Therefore, related policy studies mostly focus on this transition, examining the driving mechanisms and social impacts of the transition process. Increased settlement is primarily a result of changes in how grasslands are managed and used. In the 1980s, livestock was contracted to individual households and to avoid the burden of “livestock eating from a common pot,” the grassland contracting system emerged. With dual contracting for grasslands and livestock, collective grasslands in pastoral areas were subcontracted to individual herdsmen, in the hope of stimulating their personal ambitions.

In the end, reform of the grassland system not only changes the way people rely on land, but also reshapes interactions between the state, agricultural collectives, herdsmen, and external subjects, promoting the transformation of pastoral society.

Although the characteristics of settled pastoralism can be clearly seen in livelihood patterns and grassland use, the social transformation caused by adjustment of the grassland management system not only reflects the settlement of herdsmen, but also a social transformation process which reshapes relationships between people and land and among subjects in the pastoral area. “Land relations” mainly refer to livelihood connections between herdsmen and grasslands. “Subject relations” revolve around the rights relationships concerning the grasslands, mainly including the following relationships: rights among herdsmen themselves, between herdsmen and collectives, between herdsmen and external groups, and between herdsmen and the state.

Case studies

With the implementation of the grass and livestock dual contracting system in the 1980s, the pastoral areas have become not only “settled societies” but also “fenced-in societies.” Fences are tools for livestock carers to exclude others from using their contracted pastures, and also symbols of their rights to the grassland. The cases discussed in this article are field studies from G Sumu, located in Xilingol League, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, just north of Beijing. It is a large administrative unit that consists of grasslands, mountains, volcanic landscapes, and lakes. The study of this representative pastoral area clearly illustrates the transformation of Inner Mongolia’s pastoral society today.

The nomadic tribes’ traditional grassland use system adopts a communal use approach which relies on specific membership. Under this grassland use system, ordinary herdsmen do not have exclusive ownership over grassland resources, making fences and other symbols of exclusive ownership irrelevant. In the early days of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), grassland management in pastoral area society still relied on the natural conditions of the grassland and the habits of livestock, maintaining a communal use approach wherein “people followed livestock, and livestock settled to feed.”

After the establishment of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, public policies eliminated personal disputes, distinctions among herdsmen, interest struggle, and resulted in mutual benefits for herdsmen and herd owners. Within these policies, grasslands were publicly owned by all local ethnic groups and grazing was free. Thus, in the early days of the PRC, the grasslands of G Sumu were common grazing areas for all surrounding herdsmen. Winter pastures were not fixed and would be selected based on the arrival of snowfall. Throughout the winter, herdsmen would move to accommodate their grazing needs, and in the event of heavy snowfall, they might even migrate longer distances across multiple communes. Grasslands within communes were planned and managed seasonally according to herdsmen’s usage habits. G Sumu implemented livestock contracting in 1984, while grassland contracting among individual herdsmen was not implemented until 1997, with the minimum contracting area per capita being 825 mu (55 hectares) and the maximum reaching 1500 mu (100 hectares).

After the implementation of the grassland contracting policy, a grass-livestock balance was gradually achieved using a government management process to effectively curb overgrazing. The intention was to limit the number of livestock, keeping the number within the grassland’s carrying capacity to achieve a sustainable balance between grasslands and livestock. Working from this baseline, more stringent governance policies such as grazing bans, compulsory rest periods, and fencing transfers were introduced. This formed a grassland governance system with a set of auxiliary institutional designs for grassland contracting. The direct result of grassland contracting was the widespread use of fences.

In this new fenced-in context, nomadic grazing was no longer possible. In order to effectively protect contracted rights and interests, enclosing pastures became a “shared practice” for herdsmen. Fences stretched across the grasslands and divided pastoral areas into independent individually contracted pastures. Herdsmen, using fences, further narrowed down the boundaries of grassland usage rights based on traditional clan identities and commune membership, which delineated access on the individual level. As long as a pasture was fenced, it became owned territory, with this “owner” being either an individual herdsman, a collective ownership, or the government. Therefore, fences are important symbols of the broad changes made to shared land rights. They have reshaped the relationships between people and land, and between subjects in pastoral areas.

Social transformation

The implementation of the grassland contracting policy has brought about a complete social transformation. This policy has disrupted the traditional belief that pastoralists are tied to the land, instead the grasslands have become production resources for the free circulation of herdsmen. The independent development and use of enclosed pastures has become the main priority for herdsmen today. Livestock are now restricted within fenced areas and can no longer migrate based on their natural habits, requiring more manpower to establish systems for feeding and care. To alleviate grassland degradation, China has developed a carrying capacity management method centered around the balance between grass and livestock. Therefore, under the grassland contracting framework, the livelihoods of herdsmen rely on fixed grazing — not only in spatial terms, but also limited according to the level of grassland usage rights.

Fenced-in settlement not only changes animal husbandry production methods, but also changes herdsmen’s identities and lifestyles. This began with a “housing revolution” in pastoral society. With the disappearance of nomadic grazing, herdsmen began building fixed adobe or brick houses within the fenced-in pastures, and the traditional Mongolian yurt became supplementary housing or storage warehouses. Meanwhile, there has been a change in the use of time. After an initial investment of extra labor, most herdsmen experience liberation of leisure time

In addition to reshaping livelihoods via new human-land relationships, the reform of grassland use and management systems also changed relationships among local people. Grassland managers have shifted from collectives of communes to individual herdsmen. With the establishment of new families, there has been demand for a secondary allocation of contracted pastures within families. This process changes the helping-one-another bonds of acquaintance society, while it also alters redistribution methods and interpersonal relationships within families.

The transitioning grassland management system also changes the relationship between herdsmen and collectives, demonstrating ambiguity and variability in many cases. At the outset of grassland contracting, the most critical issue was “who could obtain what quantity of grassland in what place.” Although the government emphasizes the principle of fair land distribution based on household registration, in the process of institutional implementation, grassland allocation was often deeply affected by local traditions and village regulations.

In fact, herdsmen’s interactions with the government reveal a latent power game. On one hand, herdsmen’s grassland rights are inseparable from the empowerment of the state, thus connecting respect for the state to herdsmen’s views on grassland ownership. At the same time, the overall goal of grassland governance and management is for the state to restrict herdsmen’s excessive development and use of contracted pastures through measures such as grazing bans, resting periods, or ecological migration to “reduce people, reduce livestock, and restore ecological balance.”

Finally, herdsmen’s relationships with external markets have become more direct and much closer. With the implementation of household-level grassland contracting and the promotion of land transfer support policies, the commercial value of grasslands has been further enhanced, making grasslands a special commodity that can be traded.

In reality, nomadic tradition still coexists alongside fenced settlement. If we summarize the intrinsic characteristic of rural society into the phrase “from the soil” (xiang tu), then the core livelihood of nomadic people can be summarized as a “livestock-centric” survival strategy. In addition to valuable nomadic traditions such as animal husbandry techniques, some herdsmen have recognized the drawbacks of individualized management and attempted to revive traditional nomadic mutual aid groups.

Grazing space is now compressed, and urban-rural mobility is growing stronger. The clarification and individualization of spatial rights to grasslands have further fragmented the total grazing space. The movement of labor and capital between cities and pastoral areas has become more frequent. To effectively manage grassland ecologies through grassland contracting, governance policies such as ecological migration and relocation of pastoral area populations have been gradually implemented, further expanding the spatial interaction between urban and pastoral areas.

A resource-dependent development model has taken shape. The reform of grassland contracting to households allocates collective grasslands to herdsmen, thus transforming nomadic people into pasture owners within fixed contracted pastures. In the current fenced-in settlement model, herdsmen need to build fences, improve infrastructure, purchase fodder, and lease grasslands to meet the risk-resistant needs of individualized management. To improve livelihoods in limited pastures, continuous investment of resources is required, which not only comes from the pockets of herdsmen themselves but also requires continuous investment from governments at all levels. Under the existing system, herdsmen continuously draw resources from the state and localities to meet their own reproduction needs.

The rise of fenced-in society reflects the intertwined development between urban and pastoral areas in the process of Chinese modernization. The free circulation of grassland resources within fences accelerates the marketization process in pastoral areas, diversifying local society. At the same time, grassland governance and management, in the form of fence practices, have become the main method for decentralizing state power, making the public nature of pastoral society more evident.

Menggendalai is from the School of Ethnology and Sociology at Inner Mongolia University.

Edited by YANG XUE