Academics Worry Over China’s Shrinking Grassland Coverage
Chinese experts have raised concerns over the massive decrease in grassland areas in the latest national survey and called for an intervention to investigate the lost landscape.
The momentum gathered after Ma Huiling, a National People’s Congress (NPC) delegate, submitted a proposal at the “two sessions” political meetings earlier this month, urging authorities to investigate the changes in grassland areas in the latest national land survey. Ma, also a professor of grassland science at Gansu Agricultural University, suggested involving different ministries, as well as academics, farmers, and herders, to investigate the grassland resources.
Results from the third national land survey published last August showed that China had an estimated 264.5 million hectares of grassland, including 213 million hectares of natural grassland. The steep decline from the previously widely-recognized figure of 400 million hectares of grassland in the 1980s has raised eyebrows among Chinese experts, who are now questioning the accuracy of the new statistics.
“The decrease of grassland areas may be related to land conversion and mining since the ’80s,” Dong Shikui, professor of grassland science at Beijing Forestry University, told Sixth Tone. “But no matter what, it’s impossible that we’d have lost more than 2 billion mu (133 million hectares).”
Dong, who is also involved in drafting the NPC delegate’s proposal, said the change in area coverage reflects the narrowed definition of grassland, which only includes land coverage dominated by grasses with little or no trees. The definition excludes grasslands with scattered trees and bushes.
According to UNESCO, grassland refers to land covered with herbaceous plants with less than 10 to 40% of canopy cover of trees and shrubs.
Dong said that China’s agricultural authorities, which previously managed the grassland areas, used the definition from the U.N. organization. But the classification changed when the reformed National Forestry and Grassland Administration under the Ministry of Natural Resources started overseeing grasslands in 2018.
Distributed mainly in the temperate regions and the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, grassland accounted for 40% of China’s land area, making it the second-largest terrestrial carbon sink after forests in the country. However, human activities and climate change have now degraded 90% of the country’s grassland areas, which support the livelihoods of millions and are key habitats for wildlife.
Dong said he was worried that the new classification system may result in the loss of protected status for large areas, encouraging land grabbing and reclamation projects. In January, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the National Forestry and Grassland Administration jointly said that future grassland management would be based on the mapped results of the third national land survey.
“I think we have to at least guard the bottom line (of grasslands),” Dong said. “This is something that requires the attention of all of society.”
Correction: Due to calculation error, previous version of this story incorrectly quoted Dong Shikui as saying 200 million mu of grassland has been lost. It should be 2 billion mu.
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: Cattle and sheep graze on a grassland in Chifeng, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, July 16, 2021. VCG)