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Causes of overgrazing in Inner Mongolian grasslands: Searching for deep leverage points of intervention

Xuening Fang, Center for Human-Environment System Sustainability (CHESS), State Key Laboratory of Earth Surface Processes and Resource Ecology (ESPRE), Faculty of Geographical Science, Beijing Normal University; School of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, Shanghai Normal University
Jianguo Wu, School of Life Sciences and School of Sustainability, Arizona State University


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The legendary Mongolian Plateau has faced increasing environmental challenges associated with overgrazing, and achieving a sustainability transition for this region needs herders’ participation. However, why herders let grasslands be overgrazed even after property rights were privatized—“the tragedy of privatization”—remains unclear. We aimed to understand the causes of overgrazing in Xilingol, Inner Mongolia, and sought deep leverage points of intervention by examining livestock decision-making processes with semi-structured interviews. We found the following: (1) Herders generally recognized grassland degradation with decreased plant diversity and vegetation height. (2) Nearly half of herders were not satisfied with their current quality of life, especially in terms of income, food security, energy security, and clean water. (3) Herders prioritized economic benefits and food provisioning services of grasslands and did not think of overgrazing as an important cause for grassland degradation. (4) Herders tended to protect their own grasslands but over-exploited leased grasslands. (5) Herders tried to keep a high number of livestock without being able to anticipate climatic and economic fluctuations. (6) The government’s Forage-Livestock Balance policy was widely ignored by herders. We conclude that herders’ zeal for higher living standards, misperceptions about key drivers of grassland degradation, decoupling of herders’ income from grasslands, inability to cope with drought, and ineffective policies together constitute the underlying causes for overgrazing. Future grassland policies should focus more on the deep leverage points of intervention including reducing poverty and economic inequality, improving the grassland property system, reconnecting the long-term health of leased grasslands to herders’ livelihoods, and developing holistic livestock management strategies that integrate science with herders’ traditional ecological knowledge.

Key words

grassland degradation; grassland policy; human-environment system; landscape sustainability; participatory approach; sustainability science

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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087