Monday, May 30, 2016, 7:09 AM CST – China



Disinformation, Displacement, Destruction

Ten years ago, the Evenki, China's last tribe of hunter-gathering reindeer herdsmen, were moved off the land they have inhabited for centuries in the name of environmental protection. Today NewsChina tries to find out what has happened to the remnants of this unique and tiny ethnic group

The traditional nomadic life of the Aoluguya Evenki lasted until 2003 Photo Courtesy of Aoluguya

Evenki used to live a community-based lifestyle with many families eating together during herding excursions Photo by Feng xunlin

The “Aoluguya” model town, a cluster of Scandinavian-style log cabins designed to attract tourists Photo by Feng Xunlin

After a six-hour drive, Maria Suo and her companion Long Hair arrive at their herding grounds Photo by WangYan

March 6 in Inner Mongolia dawned well below freezing temperatures. Maria Suo, 84, dressed in traditional garb, left her daughter's warm apartment in downtown Genhe, climbed into the family minivan and set off to the family's herding grounds tucked deep in the mountains.

Despite the Siberian chill of minus four dedegrees Fahrenheit and a blizzard forecast for the afternoon, this elderly Evenki still thought nothing of a 260 kilometer drive. Accompanying Maria were her daughter De Kesha and son-in-law Zhao Sixin, both in their mid-fifties, and Long Hair, the family's eight-year-old German shepherd.

"My mother misses the reindeer and is eager to visit the herd, despite the cold," De Kesha told our reporter, adding that elder Evenki like Maria, who grew up in the pine forests of China's frigid north, simply cannot bring themselves to abandon their ancestral way of life.

Maria is now one of the most senior elders of merely 243 Aoluguya Evenki, widely described by anthropologists as China's smallest ethnic group who once inhabited the country's northern boreal taiga forests. With a semi-nomadic subsistence lifestyle comparable to those of the Sami people in northern Europe, the Evenki in Russia, the Inuit in Canada and the Dukha people in Mongolia, the Aoluguya Evenki managed to retain their nomadic and hunting culture, despite pressure to "modernize" from outside, inhabiting the vast Greater Khingan mountain range until year 2003.

Turning Point

The native land of the Evenki originally stretched from Lake Baikal in Siberia to the Heilong (Amur) river in China's northeast. Historical records indicate that a splinter group of some 700 moved to the northwestern part of the Greater Khingan range some 300 years ago and settled there, holding onto their semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer traditions. In 1965, the Chinese government built permanent wooden housing on the river banks near the town of Aoluguya for 35 Evenki households, a settlement which grew into a small town complete with schools, a clinic and stores. Despite this development, however, most Evenki in the area still maintained the wild reindeer herds that had fed, clothed and provided a living for generations of their ancestors.

This all changed in 2003, when the local government of Genhe Prefecture announced a government-sponsored "ecological relocation project" which required that the whole of Aoluguya's population of 498, including 232 Evenki, would be moved 300 kilometers south to a suburb of Genhe City.

According to government documents made available to our reporter, the Genhe government applied to the central government for ecological emigration project status in 2001, obtaining approval in August that year. The central government agreed to allocate 5.1 million yuan (US$ 820,590) for the relocation project, funds eagerly snapped up by the development officials in charge of the project.

Along with additional financial support from provincial coffers, a total of 9.8 million yuan (US$1.58m) allocated to the relocation project. In the new town area, five kilometers away from Genhe, 62 houses, 48 reindeer pens, one township government building, a school and a museum were built. In August 2003, the whole of Aoluguya was moved to the new site.

On August 10, 2003, a rainy summer day, a ceremony was held to "celebrate" the final removal of Evenki from their ancestral homeland, broadcast live by both local and national television stations.

Zhang Xiaoli, an Evenki in her late thirties, remembers the scene clearly. "Twelve trucks carried 37 Evenki and over 260 reindeer to the new township." The media hailed the project as a successful attempt to "improve the lives of Evenki" through their resettlement in concrete housing units and the domestication of their reindeer herds.

In just three days, however, the much trumpeted "domestication" drive, a cornerstone of the government's propaganda efforts, turned out to be unworkable. The wild reindeer simply refused to drink water and struggled to remain nourished in their confined pens. Many died from disease and malnutrition. Few of the surviving reindeer remained healthy. In the wild, the Evenki herds subsisted on natural lichens, not the hay and grass they were fed in the new settlement. Soon local media reports took on a grim tone.

"I was sad when I was told to move. In Aoluguya, the trees were lush, and there were plenty of fish in the rivers, and the winds were gentle," Maria Suo told he media shortly after her relocation. "Things in the new settlement in Genhe are completely different. No trees, only howling winds¡K most importantly, there is no lichen for the reindeer. Reindeer cannot leave the forest."

"I don't know what got into the heads of the officials who planned to domesticate the reindeer," she continued. "Do they think reindeer are the same as horses and cows? No one cared how many reindeer died due to the relocation, and no one even asked us about that, never mind offering compensation."

Ultimately, to save the surviving remnants of their herds, the Evenki moved their reindeer back to the original forests of Aoluguya.  At present, around 1,000 reindeer still roam and feed in the mountains. Some 50 people, mostly Evenki, continue to tend the herds through a network of eight hunting camps. Maria Suo is responsible for a herd of 400 reindeer.


China's nationwide "ecological emigration project" began in 2000, resulting in the relocation of populations inhabiting ecologically fragile regions into areas with what the government called "preferable environmental conditions." These relocations, according to officials, were expected both to enrich and improve the lives of these remote communities, most of them ethnic minority groups, while also boosting efforts at environmental protection.

Back in 2003, the concept of eco-emigration was a mystery to the Evenki. All the tribe knew about was sudden shortfall in funding for local infrastructure. However, when confronted with the new reality, this tiny community was unable to fight against the decisions being made for them.

"When we were informed of the relocation, we expressed our reluctance to leave, instead suggesting that the relocation money be invested in the old Aoluguya area," said Zhang Xiaoli. "The officials, however, told us the money set aside by the central government could only be used for the relocation project."

In a government statement obtained by NewsChina, the Genhe government, in justifying the relocation project, claimed that the forest regions where the Evenkis inhabited were suffering severe ecological degradation. "Excessive deforestation," according to this document, had caused the lichen, the staple food of the reindeer, to wither away. There was no indication as to how these fragile wild lichens would be cultivated in the new pens set aside in Genhe.

Government surveyors had argued that the domestication of their wild reindeer herds and confiscation of the Evenki hunting rifles, both key aims of the relocation plan, would help protect wildlife. The project proved so popular with these officials' superiors that in late 2004 Genhe City was named a "National Ecological Model" by what was then Environmental Protection Bureau (today's Ministry of Environmental Protection).

Critics claim that the government's reasoning was flawed. The Evenki, being dependent on the health of the forests and in many ways acting as unofficial park rangers, were motivated to protect the local ecosystem from external threats. Certainly more motivated, activists claim, than government-backed developers, poachers and opportunistic commercial interests would ultimately prove to be.

"For innumerable generations, we Evenki have always had a strong awareness of forest and wildlife protection," De Kesha told our reporter. "We were not destroying the forests. In 2003, when we were informed of the ecological emigration plan, we could not understand its aims, as neither the Evenki nor the reindeer were threatening the ecosystem."

Incredibly, following the relocation, even local government officials began to admit that leaving the Evenki alone would ultimately have been better for the forest than removing them. Through a dozen interviews with both ordinary people and government officials in Genhe, our reporter got almost unanimous confirmation that the Aoluguya Evenki were not a danger to the forest or the wider environment. Instead, according to both Evenki and non-Evenki interviewees, the deforestation, rampant poaching and excessive harvesting of wild plants which has followed in the wake of their departure has devastated the local environment.

Bu Lingsheng, Party secretary of Aoluguya Town, admitted to our reporter that for over 300 years in these mountains, the Evenki lived as hunters and herders while retaining their respect for the environment upon which their livelihoods depended. "The Evenki were not greedy," said Bu. "They took just enough from nature for their subsistence."

Yu Lan, 33, deputy township leader of the new Aoluguya Town and the daughter-in-law of An Tabu, an Evenki elder, listed a number of Evenki traditions concerning environmental protection. "Evenki hunters never shot female animals in the breeding season; they never shot pheasants in flocks; they only used dead trees for firewood; they would never harvest all the fruit from a single plant."

Zhang Xiaoli, a middle-aged Evenki, added to this list. "No one was allowed to ride on a reindeer except children under six and very old people," he said. "When I was young, our family moved around frequently, about once a week, so as to avoid excessive damage to plants due to our reindeer trampling them."

Both the government and local historians have also subsequently acknowledged that the Evenki played the role of rangers in preventing forest fires, acted as guides for government surveyors in the forest regions, and made major contributions to the construction of local railroads.

"We were an ethnic minority group thriving in a border area," said Maria Suo. "For generations, we lived in these mountain forests, subsisting through hunting. We were so close to nature that we could get everything we needed from our environment."

In his book China's Migration History, anthropologist Professor Ge Jianxiong of Fudan University said of the Evenki: "This hunting tribe living in the mountain forests cannot be termed ¡¥ecological migrants.'"

"If their lifestyle and hunting activities did not contribute to environmental degradation, they shouldn't have been uprooted in the name of conservation," he continued. "Even if their situation was very difficult, or their lifestyle backward, the government or outside forces only had the right to provide certain subsidies or advice to allow them to relocate voluntarily."

The real motive behind the relocation, as it later turned out, was that the local government was using the relocation as a fundraising tool. Liu Zhizhen, vice mayor of Genhe, explained to our reporter that the relocation was designed to promote poverty elimination and infrastructural upgrading in order to receive generous government subsidies. Calling the relocation an "eco-emigration project" was an attempt to capitalize on a much-trumpeted national policy, a way to milk funds from central government coffers. However, Liu remains committed to official assertions that their removal genuinely improved the lives of the Evenki. Few local officials have sided with the Evenki claims that their culture has suffered as a result of the relocation project, though most now admit that conservation was never a priority.

"The resettlement was for improving Evenki living conditions," said Bu Lingsheng. "But the Evenki weren't a factor in terms of environmental damage."


The camps set up for the herders are a far cry from those used before the relocation. Prefabricated houses have replaced the traditional cuoluozi, or pole tent. In addition, automobiles are essential for the commute to and from Genhe, necessitating the building of roads through once-pristine forest.

 "We did not use vehicles in the past," Maria Suo told our reporter. "We just lashed carts to the backs of our reindeer, including our tents. We had to move constantly to make sure the reindeer had enough lichen to eat."

The Greater Khingan mountain range and its reindeer herds have provided a rich habitat for bears, squirrels, rabbits and badgers for millennia. However, since the 1950s, deforestation has wiped out almost all the virgin coniferous woodland in these mountains. Despite the launch of China's first Natural Forest Protection Project in the late 1990s, the damage done by logging operations was already too extensive to be completely rectified. Broad-leaved forests have since replaced the conifers. Crucially, when indigenous Evenki reindeer herders departed, poachers moved in, devastating wild animal populations with the indiscriminate setting of snares. Many reindeer have also died at the hands of poachers keen to exploit the underground trade in animal pelts and parts. Others come to harvest the forests' once-abundant flora.

"Blueberries and mushrooms, the favorite foods of reindeer in the fall, are all gone, picked by people from outside," De Kesha told NewsChina. "In the 1960s, our people enjoyed a wide range of over 1,000 square kilometers. Now more and more poachers come here secretly and poaching has severely diminished animal populations."

"The most unfair thing for the Evenki is that officials have banned both reindeer herding and subsistence logging in some forest regions," said Xie Yuanyuan, a professor from China Agriculture University and a specialist in the Evenki relocation. "They feel they've lost their identity as well as their homes." 

The degradation and increasing nationalization of forests also means the Evenki are no longer free to graze their herds as they once did, restrictions which have prevented some herders from being able to feed their reindeer adequately.

"The Evenki ask why they cannot move freely in the forests while poachers can enter and kill animals at will," she said. "The forests have been well-managed by Evenki for hundreds of years yet, in a matter of decades, this resource has been depleted by intruders from outside."


As reindeer husbandry has withered away, the local government of Genhe has rolled out another familiar Chinese tactic for further exploiting ethnic groups for commercial purporses - turning the Evenki into a brand. In 2008, the city government invested 90 million yuan (US$14.5m) more than what was being spent on conservation, inviting Finnish company Pöyry to design an "Aoluguya Reindeer Culture Village." All 62 brand-new houses in the relocation site were demolished and replaced with Scandinavian-style log cabins, and the local museum was given an expensive facelift.

Old Aoluguya and its traditional way of life have gone, replaced with an utterly fabricated "Evenki" community, a model village which will host the quadrennial World Reindeer Herders' Congress this July, despite the fact that the community being celebrated remains on the losing end of a struggle to preserve any vestige of their former way of life.

In recent years, swarms of Chinese tourists have been attracted to the area by this retro-engineered "reindeer culture," purchasing souvenirs made of antlers, milk and meat. Once a subsistence culture, the Evenki are now encouraged to capitalize on their "quaintness," and market a family-friendly confection masquerading as authentic culture to growing armies of tourists.

Older-generation Evenki who remember their former homes remain deeply attached to the reindeers and forests. However, as with similar examples of indigenous ethnic groups relocated and rebranded as tourist attractions, the younger generation are increasingly comfortable with marketing their culture. Blue jeans, the Internet and videogames appeal more to this handful of Evenki youngsters than stalking and harvesting wild reindeer in the mountains. With their trendy hairstyles and unaccented Mandarin, these younger Evenki, most of whom use their Chinese names as a matter of course, see little to gain from keeping the old ways alive, unless it's to gouge tourists.

Ma Rui, a 23-year-old Evenki, told our reporter that he "could not bear" the "boredom" of herding. "When I stay in the forest, with no cellphone reception or TV, I can only listen to the radio and count the days until I can return to the city."

While Evenki like Ma enjoy their creature comforts, their former lifeblood - the local reindeer herds - continue to decline through a combination of malnutrition, poaching and interbreeding with other deer species. Despite a half-hearted effort to pad out herds with reindeer from Russia in the 1990s, only 30 reindeer were ever introduced to the area, and while conservationists continue to push for a resumption of this program, few officials are inclined to listen.

"Nobody is planning for the proper handling of reindeer herding¡K The government doesn't care about this core issue vital to the future of the taiga (boreal forest) and the reindeers," says Ure Ertu, an ethnic Evenki writer, "The Evenki are, to varying degrees, facing threats to the very survival of their cultural identity - transition to a market-oriented economy, tourism, the fading of their native language and assimilation into the ethnic majority."

"The damage to the ecosystem, both environmentally and culturally, is irreversible in this case, and the relocation in 2003 was a complete failure. The idea of domesticating reindeers was a mistake made by the government of the time" Ure continued.

In James C. Scott's book Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, the author states: "Irreversible interventions have irreversible consequences. Interventions in ecosystems require particular care, given our great ignorance about how they interact."

In the case of the Evenki, a combination of ignorance and opportunism has all but eradicated one of Asia's few remaining hunter-gatherer cultures.


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