Tibetan Nomads

Turning Mongolia's grassland into desert

"Fly over Mongolia in summer and the steppes look as green as they must have done when Genghis Khan and his armies galloped across the land—but the switch is startling as the flight crosses the border into China's Inner Mongolia region. The ground suddenly turns brown.

The danger facing [Outer] Mongolia is that its steppes may be transformed into a desert similar to the one eating away at neighbouring China. The culprit is the humble goat—and the fascination of fashionistas for cashmere."

—Jane Macartney, The Times (UK), August 8, 2009

The cashmere goat is responsible for desertification of the grasslands? Well, it's a bit more than that—it's a tale of greed on the part of humans too. China is up to its old tricks—trying to shuffle the blame. Chinese officials have been trying to pin blame for erosion and desertification of Inner Mongolia on overgrazing by Mongolian nomads. But for this one, the Chinese have only their own disastrous experimental agrarian policies to blame—and their unbridled greed for cashmere.

Back in 1949, the ratio of Mongolians to Han Chinese in Inner Mongolia was estimated at 5 to 1. By 2010, the ratio was inverted, with an estimated six Han Chinese for every one Mongolian. Estimates placed the Han Chinese population at 24 million, and the Mongolian population at just 4 million. And those Mongolians are no longer nomadic—they are being shifted off the grasslands into villages and cities as part of Chinese government policy. But a lot else has transpired on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. With the deliberate policy of overwhelming Mongolian culture with an influx of Han Chinese came new policies concerning land use. The Mongolians are traditionally nomadic—herding yaks, Bactrian camels, horses, sheep and goats. The Han Chinese set about introducing a more agrarian society, with corn, oat and potato fields—which resulted in erosion problems, and speeded up the degradation of the grasslands.

In the meantime, something quite catastrophic was taking place. By the 1990s, China had cornered the world market on cashmere, which derives from the soft undercoat of the cashmere goat. The cashmere goat only grows this undercoat in harsh, cold wind-swept conditions—as in Mongolia and Tibet. Cashmere goats require a hot summer and freezing winter to produce the valuable underwool. Catering to huge demand from Western buyers, it was decided to increase herds of cashmere goats in places like Inner Mongolia. One unforeseen problem: cashmere goats are definitely not grasslands-friendly. Unlike yaks, which graze lightly with minimal impact, cashmere goats graze voraciously—consuming all greenery and ripping grass out by the roots. The sharp hooves of cashmere goats can pierce the soil surface (a crust that is composed of fungi, mosses, lichens and bacteria that help retain moisture). Once the crust is torn, strong winds in Mongolia can carry away the sand underneath in dust storms.

In the 1990s, the herds of cashmere goats dramatically increased in Inner Mongolia to feed demand for high-priced cashmere wool, which was processed in Chinese factories and shipped at great profits to places like Italy. The end result was that large swathes of Inner Mongolia turned into a wasteland, stripped of grasslands by the greed of the cashmere goats—and by the greed of Chinese entrepreneurs selling cashmere. When Gobi Desert dust started raining down on Beijing, Chinese officials got the message: something disastrous was going on. Officials backtracked and ordered the decimation of cashmere goat herds, and ordered more rotational farming.

With a sudden drop in cashmere production from Inner Mongolia, China's cashmere buyers turned their attention to independent Outer Mongolia for supplies. Outer Mongolia's population of cashmere goats soared. China is the largest buyer of Outer Mongolia's raw and washed cashmere, taking an estimated two-thirds of all exports (one third legally, and one-third smuggled to avoid export taxes). And with this comes the same colossal cost: potentially turning the grasslands of Outer Mongolia into desert.

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