Trying to keep up in China’s grasslands

Rob Schmitz Nov 4, 2010

Trying to keep up in China’s grasslands

Rob Schmitz Nov 4, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: Our Shanghai correspondent Rob Schmitz has been out and about lately. Yesterday, he took us to Inner Mongolia, China’s northern plains and their seemingly endless rolling hills of grass. Underneath those hills lies 20 percent of the country’s coal and a third of its natural gas. That’s turned Inner Mongolia into the energy source for China’s booming economy. And it has forced locals to give up everything they know about farming and raising livestock to try their hand at new fossil-fuel based economies.

Here’s Rob.

Sound of coal trucks rumbling by

Robert Schmitz: Big blue trucks filled with black boulders race each other out of a coal mine. This region is the largest coal basin in China. And these trucks are barreling down the highway to Beijing.

Cars honking

A couple of months ago, a two week-long traffic jam outside the capital city was caused by trucks from these mines. Urban China’s hunger for coal energy has made this region rich overnight. Some here have tapped into this new wealth. Others are just left bewildered.

Motorcycle starting

A motorcycle is one of the only things 57-year-old Meng Ke has left. He used to have hundreds of sheep and cows, but he had to sell all of them. The government is forcing him and the rest of his village off their land. It’s part of a policy that aims to undo decades of environmental damage from overgrazing.

Meng Ke speaking in Chinese

My land is worthless anyway, he says. It’s all turned to desert.

Sound of hammering

Workers put the finishing touches to Meng’s new home. The government gave him an apartment the size of a garage in the nearby city of Wushenqi. This in exchange for his family’s 300 acres of farmland. He’s here to check on progress. Once construction’s finished, he’ll have something else to think about.

Meng: Now the problem is a job. People like me, in their 50s and 60s, we need jobs too. The government should think it over. If the government can solve this problem, I think people will be happy living in these apartments.

There are plenty of jobs in this region. The nearby city of Ordos has the highest per capita GDP in China, thanks to the region’s abundance of fossil fuels. But these jobs require specialized skills in mining, financial services or real estate development, says Enghebat Togochog. He runs an organization seeking more freedom for ethnic Mongolians in China.

Enghebat Togochog: I’m not really optimistic about their future, because most of the Mongolian herders who lived in a rural area, they do not have the skills to survive in Chinese cities.

But that doesn’t mean some won’t try.

Sound of corn being cut

Forty-year-old Wu Da Ba La harvests corn by hand at her farm. She hasn’t moved to the city. The city moved to her. The government built a four-lane highway in her front yard this summer. Her neighbors were forced to move, but she was spared. So she dusted off a few old yurts the family had in storage, put them up in the front yard and is now the proud owner of a Mongolian-themed roadside diner.

Wu Da Ba La: Once the road was built, there were so many out-of-towners driving by in luxury cars, I thought this type of business might do well. They come here, eat mutton, some cheese, drink sheep’s milk and learn a little about Mongolian culture.

Wu now makes three times what she made herding sheep. But building a roadside attraction isn’t the answer for everyone. Pan Zhaodong is an economist at the Inner Mongolia Academy of Social Sciences.

Pan Zhaodong: We need to create a more diversified economy here with more jobs. Everyone should share in this region’s rapid development; it shouldn’t be channeled to the richest minority. That’ll just make the wealth gap here worse.

And it’ll hurt people like Meng Ke, the herder who’s been forced off his land.

Sound of hammering

Standing by his unfinished government apartment, Meng isn’t sure what to think of his new life. All he’s ever known is herding animals, and that’s all gone now.

Meng: It would be nice if, someday, the government here could set aside a piece of land for old herders like me so we could raise cattle and plant some grains. But I haven’t heard what their plans will be for us.

This is, says Meng, what the government calls “social development.” But what’s next for him, he says, looking at his new apartment, he doesn’t know.

Reporting from Inner Mongolia, China, I’m Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: You can see how the landscape — economic and actual — is changing for those herder, and also what a roadside diner made out of old yurts looks like, on our website.

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