Effects of land-use change on grassland ecosystem services in Inner Mongolia and their implications for livelihoods and sustainable management

Du, Bingzhen


Grassland degradation has become a major challenge in many parts of the world, especially in arid or semi-arid areas, such as the Chinese Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region (IMAR). Previous studies of the grassland ecosystems in IMAR focused on climate change and its environmental consequences or on the land-use conflicts between agrarian communities and nomads. For better planning and management, a more integrated analysis of the consequences of land-use change for the livelihood dependence and other benefits (services) of the grasslands in IMAR is needed.

Studies on ecosystem services of IMAR’s grasslands are usually based on remote sensing data (TM images) to assess the total value of the grassland ecosystem services using benefit transfer. Thus far, to my knowledge no study collected original data on the detailed use of ecosystem services by pastoralists on the Mongolian Plateau or on their livelihood dependence on these services at the household level. Also, no data is available on the changes over time in contrasting situations for different grassland types (like meadow, steppe and desert steppe). I therefore aim to analyse the interactions between the people and the ecosystems in IMAR in an integrated manner, and especially focus on analysing the different utilization patterns of ecosystem services and the livelihood dependence of local herders and other stakeholders in selected study sites. The ultimate goal of my study is to contribute to sustainable management of the IMAR’s ecosystems.

To achieve the goal of my PhD study, the changes in land use, household consumption patterns and their impacts have been addressed and investigated for four selected study sites: Hulun Buir, Xilin Gol, Ordos and Alxa Right. These sites are in a ‘transect’ from southwest to northeast to capture the gradient in use of ecosystem services in IMAR. The methodological framework of this research combines quantitative and qualitative tools to analyse ecosystem services. It specifies an integrative approach in specific spatial and temporal contexts to evaluate trade-offs between human activities, use of ecosystem services and human well-being. This framework enables to analyse the effects of multiple factors (e.g. policies or climate and geographic conditions) on utilization patterns of ecosystem services and the influence on society. The data used to apply the framework stems from a bottom-up approach by using household surveys and other local field data.

The results show that the householders’ intake comprised a low amount of crops, including staple foods, vegetables and fruit with a high amount of meat. However, more crops and less meat are increasingly preferred now. From 1995 to 2010, fuel consumption patterns changed from bio-fuels (especially dung) to mainly electricity and gas. Beside the influences of different environmental conditions and economic development, the grassland restoration policy measures changed grazing activities and basic household consumption patterns. Grazing activities were less affected by seasonal grazing and rotational grazing measures than other policy measures. However, when grazing was prohibited, immigration and livestock rearing control policy measures (e.g. in Xilin Gol and Ordos) fundamentally changed the basic household consumption patterns (especially for food and fuel).

Livelihood’s food-consumption highly links to potential water consumption. The results show that compared to the direct water consumption, the indirect water consumption through food production was a major share of total water consumption. From 1995 to 2010, indirect water consumption decreased in Xilin Gol and Ordos because meat consumption decreased and fruit and vegetable consumption increased. The grassland ecosystem degradation in IMAR leads to a shortage of meat production and this causes people to purchase food from outside, but the ability to purchase food also depends on income levels.

The implementation of the grassland conservation policies significantly affected household livelihoods and this in turn, affected household use of natural assets (primarily the land), their agricultural assets (farming and grazing activities) and their financial assets (income and consumption). The households developed adaptation measures to account for the dependence of their livelihoods on local ecosystems by initializing strategies (e.g. seeking off-farm work, leasing pasture land, increasing purchases of fodder for stall-fed animals and altering their diet and fuel consumption) to compensate for their changing livelihoods. In general, the household dependence on local grasslands decreased. This indicates a transition from traditional pastoral grazing to control grazing, rising of modern dairy cattle (intensive animal husbandry), diversification of income sources and decreases in land-based employment and in the household food and fuel consumption. These changes increased the diversity of livelihoods, household resilience and environmental sustainability.

Five grassland utilization patterns were identified, including no use (natural grasslands), light use, moderate use, intensive use and recovery sites (degraded sites protected from further use). The results show that light use generally provided higher levels of ecosystem services than intensive use and no use. Only supporting ecosystem services differed. Surprisingly, I found no consistently positive effects of the strict conservation activities across the sites, since the results varied spatially and with respect to differences in the land-use patterns. My results suggest that appropriate grassland-utilization patterns likely enhance the supply of ecosystem services and reduce negative effects on both household livelihoods and the environment. For example, in the Hulun Buir grasslands, the precipitation is 50% higher than in the other areas. Therefore the area tolerates a higher grazing intensity before degradation occurs and its grasslands provide more provisioning services but at the cost of decreased regulating and supporting services.

After implementing grassland conservation policies, income from cultivation and animal grazing decreased, whereas income from compensation and off-farm activities increased. The herders preferred an annual payment of 99.2 US$ ha-1 for participating in conservation activities, but the government prefers to provide only 83.8 US$ ha-1, resulting in an annual gap of 15.4 US$ ha-1. These currently too low payments probably lead some herders to expand their grazing into restricted grasslands or increase their number of animals, particularly if such payment program ends. To create an improved and sustainable payment scheme, solutions are needed that enable the herders to sustain their livelihood, while conserving the grasslands. My findings can help to establish appropriate grassland-utilization patterns and more effective payment schemes for the grasslands of IMAR and similar regions.