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Room to Roam

From community initiatives to local government decisions, a national policy of fencing off grass and pastureland has started to loosen

By NewsChina Updated Sept.1

On June 17, the news portal of New Barag Right Banner, an area in Hulunbuir, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, reported that herders from the local Manglai Animal Husbandry Cooperative started to remove tens of thousands of meters of grassland fences that have been established for over a decade under the national “grassland contracting policy” implemented since the middle and late 1980s in the region. Data given to NewsChina by New Barag Right Banner indicate that from 2002 through 2018, fences were built on 6.6 million hectares as part of a national project to rehabilitate overgrazed pastures.  

Tian Zhongliang, an official from New Barag Right Banner told NewsChina in early July that in 2019, the banner was designated as a pilot place for practicing animal husbandry modernization by the government of Inner Mongolia. A banner is a term used in the region which is equivalent to a county.  

“A livestock husbandry cooperative was set up in Kerlunsumu Gacha Village in attempt to enhance the efficiency of livestock husbandry and production, improve the ecological environment and increase local herders’ household incomes,” Tian said.  

As of early July, herders in Kerlunsumu Gacha Village had dismantled some 90,000 meters of wire fencing which had enclosed 7,333 hectares of pasture. Tian said that while the project to enclose pastures had been somewhat beneficial in delineating who owned what land and had helped restore degraded grasslands, there were many negative outcomes. The fragmentation of the grasslands led to the inability to rotate grazing land as was the traditional practice, and this impacted the livestock industry and pastureland ecology, as well as restricting the movement of wildlife. As a result, it was decided to remove the fencing in certain areas.  

Research published in April by Chinese scientists showed that although fences can protect plants from livestock, prolonged fencing over time may result in negative impacts such as limiting connectivity for other organisms, interrupting the food chain and artificially dividing landscapes.  
Fencing Initiative
Grassland property rights reform in China started in the 1980s. The livestock contract program implemented in the early 1980s was a facsimile of the farmland household contract responsibility program which provided work incentives for individuals to raise productivity and increase agricultural output. To apply the policy, fences were built around each household’s allocated pastures to prevent other livestock from straying on to one another’s land.  

Although this policy did solve the problem of the tragedy of the commons as a legacy of China’s collective system in the 1950s through the 1970s, and increased livestock production dramatically, it led to fragmentation and degradation of grassland caused by overgrazing and other ecological and social problems. To promote sustainable production, the government continued to enforce the fencing system and set stock rates to contain the number of livestock. 

Statistics released by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2007 showed that 42 percent of China is natural grassland, an area of some 393 million hectares. But even then, 90 percent of usable grassland was categorized as degraded. 

The fences erected by households or by government projects are made of steel wire normally at a height of 1.2 to 1.5 meters. In areas where large animals like yaks graze, the fences are usually made of barbed wire so they are not easily destroyed. Apart from the grassland in Inner Mongolia, since 2003, grazing exclusion has been widely practiced on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, mainly through erecting fences in order to restore the degraded alpine grassland. 

According to the Overall Plan for Grassland Preservation, Construction and Utilization released by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2007, by 2020, it was intended that 150 million hectares of grassland was to be enclosed, covering Inner Mongolia, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, and other areas including Gansu and Yunnan provinces. In 2005, the area of enclosed grassland was around 38 million hectares.  

Grassland fences are removed in Qiangtang Nature Reserve, June 15, 2018

Effective Strategy? 
But in the last decade, there was continued discussion among ecologists over whether the fencing program was effective in preventing grassland degradation.  

An article titled “Reconsidering the efficiency of grazing exclusion using fences on the Tibetan Plateau” published in the journal Science Bulletin in April makes a comprehensive meta-analysis through field surveys and reviewing published studies on fencing experiments in the past few decades on the Tibetan Plateau.  

Sun Jian, assistant researcher at the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences and lead author of the report, told NewsChina that the study was an initial outcome of his team’s research since 2016, the purpose of which is to “raise people’s awareness of pastureland ecological preservation and address the relationship between fences and the grasslands.” In Sun’s view, it is time to “solve the tricky issue relating to the trade-off of fencing the grasslands.”  

The research found that “grazing exclusion with fences was effective in promoting above-ground vegetation growth for up to four years in degraded alpine meadows and for up to eight years in the alpine steppes of the Tibetan Plateau.” However, fencing hindered wildlife movement, increased grazing pressure in unfenced areas, lowered the satisfaction of herders, and rendered substantial financial costs to both regional and national governments. Therefore, according to Sun, long-term fencing did not bring any ecological or economic benefits.  

“We recommend that traditional free grazing should be encouraged if applicable, short-term fencing of four to eight years should be adopted in severely degraded grasslands with removable fences that can be reused elsewhere, and fencing should be avoided in key wildlife habitat areas, especially where there are protected large mammal species,” Sun said.  

One thing to be clarified, according to Sun, is that where the grassland is already degraded, fencing is an effective way to prevent further damage. If the ecological system degrades beyond a certain limit, it will be difficult to rehabilitate and cost much more. “If it is possible to not use fences, then try avoiding it,” Sun said. “At the same time, we should understand that healthy grassland needs proper herding practices for the sake of grassland protection. Grazing and grassland coexist and are inseparable from each other.” 

Wild animal populations, including Mongolian gazelles, are rebounding in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region

Previous Attempt
There have been previous programs to remove fencing. In June 2018, Qiangtang Nature Reserve in northern Tibet Autonomous Region started removing grassland fences that had been in place for over a decade in an area of 666.7 hectares to allow migration of the Tibetan antelope and movements of other wildlife.  

In April 2016, community members made a joint agreement in Ganda Village in Yushu Prefecture, Qinghai Province to revive free grazing and community co-management of natural resources. As a result, since early 2017, villagers started removing all fences within the village domain. According to Dongzhou Choephel, secretary general of the Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association (SGR), a local environmental NGO which has been involved in community-based preservation efforts in Ganda for over a decade, fences set up on pastureland of 6,333 hectares since the mid-1980s have caused disputes and inconvenience for livestock grazing among the over 370 households in the village.  

“Removing the fences was a joint decision of the community in Ganda, and after three years, the most apparent change is the improved relationship among community members,” Dongzhou said. “Now mutual assistance has been rekindled by sharing water and grassland resources and by joint herding among community members. The community cohesion of old is back, and villagers say that their yaks are much healthier with higher spirits than before. People are starting to feel more connected with nature.” 

Dongzhou said that despite the obvious positive effects such as reducing grazing pressure, expanding space for the movement of livestock and enhancing community cohesion, authorities in Qinghai Province have equivocated, either expressing support or denial of the positive effects of the fence removal movement in Gandan due the sensitive nature of the issue. “It was a complete community voluntary initiative,” Dongzhou told NewsChina.  

Breaking Barriers
Li Xiaonan, former director of Sanjiangyuan National Park Administration in Qinghai Province, told the reporter in August 2017 that grassland fence construction is controversial.  

“The national key infrastructure construction projects including grassland fencing cannot be randomly removed. We have conducted preliminary studies and found that fencing and a grazing ban did effectively contain grassland degradation in certain areas. We need scientific studies to support future possible decisions on when to remove fences.” 

Addressing Ganda’s community-based initiative in early 2017, Li said: “We can’t completely deny the effectiveness of fencing projects to preserve grassland resources based only on a single case.” 

In an article published in mid-June in the China Green Times by Nan Zhibiao of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, Nan reiterated the importance of grassland fencing. “Fencing is a scientific utilization of the grassland resources and an important measure to enhance production efficiency... It is also a universally adopted measure for grassland management and utilization,” Nan wrote. “We cannot deny the function of [all] fences just because there have been problems in construction and utilization of fences in certain places.” 

Sun Jian told the reporter that accurate fence control experiments require long-term observations and should be conducted in different places. “Our research is based on comprehensive analysis of the current literature so far, which is a preliminary conclusion rather the final one, and we suggest that further studies, especially long-term field research, are urgently needed,” Sun said.  

“Fencing on the grassland poses different problems in different situations, thus there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and it is also not wise to remove all fences at the moment across the whole nation,” Sun said, who believes third-party evaluation is urgently needed for a policy review addressing updated grassland management policy.  

In Sun’s view, to maximize the benefit of having fencing, there should be periodic evaluations to form a long-term mechanism, so that once grassland degradation is contained and recovered, fences can be removed.  

The removal of fences in Inner Mongolia is significant, as it marks the beginning of an official fence removal movement for sustainable grassland management.  

“When the grasslands were allocated to individual households by contract, almost every household started to set up fences... We hope the recent removal of the wire fences can break the barriers that restrict rotational grazing and will foster the revival of harmonious coexistence between humans and nature,” Mijige Dorji, chairman of the Manglai Animal Husbandry Cooperative and Party Secretary of Kerlunsumu Gacha Village, told local media.  

“This is the first stage of a pilot program in Inner Mongolia, and we will keep evaluating if removal of fences would improve the ecology and livelihoods,” Tian Liangzhong said.  

“As far as there is no consensus and scientific conclusion addressing the fence issue, we remain cautious and reserved. We’ll choose appropriate places to trial the fence removal initiative depending on local conditions.”