China: Grassland Restoration in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region


The degradation of grasslands has become a serious problem in China, as once-productive lands are being lost to desertification and destructive sandstorms are occurring with increasing frequency. Past restoration efforts have focused on planting trees to mitigate these storms and disseminating seeds from airplanes in an attempt to re-establish native vegetation. Because these techniques have proven largely unsuccessful, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) conducted a pilot project in the Hunshandake Sandland of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in order to test the potential for natural revegetation. Large tracts of severely degraded grassland were enclosed and protected from grazing and human interference, while smaller plots were planted with necessary forage for the livestock of local villagers. Given reprieve from anthropogenic pressures, the degraded grasslands showed remarkable recovery after only a couple years of monitoring, and have led the Chinese government to re-examine its policies and practices for grassland restoration. It is now thought that restoration through effective, strategic land management has the potential to produce desired results more quickly than other conventional approaches.

Quick Facts

Project Location:
Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China, 43.37822, 115.05948149999995

Geographic Region:

Country or Territory:


Grasslands & Savannas - Temperate

Area being restored:
2,670 hectares

Project Lead:
Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS)

Organization Type:
Governmental Body


Project Stage:

Start Date:

End Date:

Primary Causes of Degradation

Agriculture & Livestock, Urbanization, Transportation & Industry

Degradation Description

The primary reason for degrading grassland ecosystems in Inner Mongolia is the region’s exploding population (McNaughton, 1990; Ware, 1997). Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Xilingol League’s population has grown from 205,000 to a current total of 920,000, a net increase of 348% (Compiling Committee of the Annals of the Xilin Gol League, 1996). In the wake of this population increase, and the insatiable demand for better material conditions, the number of domestic livestock has also increased dramatically from 1.6 million to 23 million head, a net increase of 1338%. In this way, the foraging pressure on the grasslands goes up at such a fast rate that very soon it exceeds the bearable limits of the whole grassland ecosystem. Indeed, the average pasture area to support a standard sheep’s survival has dropped from 5.13 to 0.467 hectares. This means the net grazing pressure on the grasslands sees an increase of up to 950%.

Another contributing factor in the grasslands’ degradation has been the change in community lifestyle and the corresponding shift in policy orientation. Beginning in the 1990s, the traditional nomadism of local inhabitants was replaced by fixed settlements, and this has led to an increasing trend toward grassland depletion, as more emphasis is placed on modernization and improved standards of living. One common result of the increased pressure from more sedentary lifestyles can be characterized as follows: after a long, tedious and famine-prone winter, the livestock scramble to the sensitive budding grass in early spring when it is still developing the photosynthetic organs that stimulate its initial growth. If the grazing livestock is not too numerous (i.e. if population density is not too high), the ravage caused in the early spring may be compensated for by nature itself. If, however, the grazing activity is widespread, the budding grasses are too suppressed to grow soundly. Thus, year by year, a malignant cycle comes into being whereby fewer grasses emerge and are grazed even more heavily than the year before.

According to the project’s monitoring and observation data, during the 1970s, the land desertification rate in China was 1,560 square kilometers per year. The figure became 2,100 square kilometers during the 1980s, 2,460 square kilometers during the early five years of the 1990s, and 3,436 square kilometers during the following five years (National Environmental Protection General Agency, 2005.). The environmental disaster caused most directly by the ecological depletion of sandy grasslands is the sandstorm (Shu and Jiang, 2002). During the past 100 years, China has been hit by almost 70 sandstorms. During the first 30-40 years of the last century, a sandstorm occurred once every three years on average, and the situation has only become more aggravated in the last decade or so. In fact, there was only one recorded sandstorm from 1930 to 1960, and then one every two years during the 1960s and 1970s. The frequency of sandstorms has since increased dramatically: one each year in the 1990s; 12 storms in 2000 alone; and a staggering total of 18 occurrences of dusty weather in 2001, including a strong sandstorm that lasted 41 days in a row. From March 18 to 21, 2002, most areas in northern China experienced the most ferocious dusty weather since the start of the 20th century, with a land surface of up to 1.4 million square kilometers affected by the storm.

Reference Ecosystem Description

Originally home to more than 800 advanced plant species and five habitats — fixed dunes, semi-fixed dunes, shifting dunes, lowland and wetland — Hunshandake resembled an African Savannah landscape, rich in elms, grasses, lakes, wild geese and wolves.

Project Goals

To assess the plausibility of conducting grassland restoration using careful land management to encourage natural recovery, in lieu of planting trees or employing costly airplane seeding.


The project does not have a monitoring plan.

Description of Project Activities:
Initially, 100,000 yuan (13,000 U.S. dollars) worth of willows were planted on the degraded land because "conventional thinking held that planting trees is the best solution for curbing desertification and sandstorms". A root hormone was used to foster the growth of the willows, but to no avail, as all the trees withered and died in a year's time. In a semi-arid area with less than 300 mm in annual precipitation, the trees were like "water-pumping machines," and the sandland simply could not sustain them. Facing an uncomfortable truth and unwilling to repeat the mistakes of the past, the research team shifted its focus away from re-forestation and opted instead to adopt a new strategy of "nurturing the land by the land itself." The approach essentially concentrated on improving the efficiency of land use practices in order to keep larger tracts of land unused and undisturbed so that they might recuperate themselves via natural processes. Agrarian production was reshaped such that working plots were established in areas where the supply of water, electricity, fertilizers, transportation access and agronomic techniques were reliable. Forage material for the animals was planted on these plots in order to satisfy the requirements of the local population. At the same time, the seriously degraded grassland (accounting for 99 per cent of the total area) was enclosed and protected from livestock grazing and fuel gathering in order to facilitate the natural recovery of native vegetation. The ratio of working land to protected land might be set as low as 1:100. The reason for such a low ratio is that, at present, a depleted ecosystem has very low productivity. For example, the fresh biomass production rate for a degenerated meadow is 450-1500 kg per hectare, whereas the figure might rise to 90,000 kg per hectare after technical treatment. To supplement the loss of forage resulting from grassland fencing, project planners delineated 67 hectares of land adjacent to the fenced area as a forage base that produced high-yield corn. Meanwhile, the 2670-hectare grassland was left to mend without human interference.

Ecological Outcomes Achieved

Eliminate existing threats to the ecosystem:
The results of this project indicate that, without grazing, formerly degraded grassland can recover rapidly through natural processes in 5 years (Jiang et al, 2006). The herbal plants exhibited an all-round restoration in the first year, with coverage up to 100% and grass height of more than 80cm. The results after the second year were stunning: grass height was up to 1.43 meters, and fresh forage harvest averaged a record 79.5 tons per hectare. Moreover, the natural germination rate of two-year-old elm seedlings was 321 saplings per square meter. The average biomass increased twofold, and the mean coverage in shifting sand dunes increased by about 60 per cent. In fixed sand dunes, total community coverage was three times that of the control site (Liu et al., 2003). The original dominant species Artemisia frigida and Artemisia commutata were replaced by Artemisia intramongolica and Agropyron cristatum and so on. Prior to the experiment, the predominant species were Chenopodium glaucum and Chenopodium acuminatum, but the ascendant species in the lowland are now Festuca ovina and Elymus dahuricus. The degenerated vegetation in the study area was restored to a condition on par with that of the 1960s.

Socio-Economic & Community Outcomes Achieved

Economic vitality and local livelihoods:
This CAS program has triggered a series of changes in the region, both in terms of material wealth and the way people think. More than one-third of the villagers now have access to electricity, and annual income per person has risen from 2400 yuan (314 U.S. dollars) in 2000 to 2700 yuan (353 U.S. dollars) in 2004. This rise in income is partly due to the fact that from 1998 to 2002, the survival rate of young animals increased by 10 percent, and milk production by 200 percent, as a result of the sufficient forage supply. Another factor contributing to higher incomes is the improved annual harvest of dried hay. Totaling over 10,000 tons per year, dried hay now represents more than four million yuan for the local economy (at the current price of 0.4 yuan per kilogram). Because the required management input for recovering lands is fairly low (160,000 yuan for building fences and enclosures and approximately 10,000 yuan for security fees), the majority of these income benefits directly contributes to an improved standard of living and greater economic security for local villagers.

Key Lessons Learned

As a result of the favorable outcomes achieved by this project, the Central Government of China has finally changed its policies regarding the restoration of degraded grasslands. Before the year 2000, there was no voice against planting trees in the steppe, and few restoration efforts took into account the well being of the people living in degraded lands in these arid or semi-arid regions. It has been shown that before any of the projects combating desertification in grasslands can work properly, we must allow the forces of nature to restore the degraded lands. The people living in these areas should then be well looked after. Tree planting in the steppe should be prevented, especially the planting of single tree species such as Populus spp. Ecological services, rather than the direct utilization of land with lower productivities, should be stressed in areas such as desert, sandland, steppe and so on. Shifting of land use function should also be considered, such as breeding animals in farm areas while farming chickens in the steppe.

Long-Term Management

Having seen the potential for natural recovery, project planners hope to upgrade restored areas to the status of natural reserves under administrative protection (Peng et al, 2004).

Sources and Amounts of Funding

This pilot program was conducted as part of the interagency project on the Sustainable Management of Marginal Drylands (SUMAMAD), an internationally-coordinated research initiative supported by the Flemish Government of Belgium, UNESCO, UNU-INWEH and ICARDA. Financial support was also provided by the Chinese Natural Science Foundation.

Other Resources

Dr Jiang Gaoming
Professor of Institute of Botany
The Chinese Academy of Sciences
Deputy Secretary-general, UNESCO-MAB Committee of China
The head of the Site Project of Hunshandake/Xilingol Biosphere
20 Nanxincun, Xiangshan
100093 Beijing
Tel: ++86 10 62536286
Fax: ++86 10 62595380
Email 1:
Email 2:

Primary Contact

Organizational Contact