Pastoralism after culture: environmental governance and human-animal estrangement at China's ecological frontier

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In the name of ‘ecological civilization’, the Chinese state has sought to adjust the ecologies of its degraded northern grasslands, using market instruments, such as payments for ecosystem services, to induce ethnic minority pastoralists to pursue non‐herding livelihoods. In the far west of Inner Mongolia, the resultant decline in the availability of rural labour has meant that most domestic camels that remain on the rangelands are now left largely unmanaged throughout the year. Local Mongol officials and intellectuals have long regarded extensive animal husbandry as a bulwark against Mongol dispossession through Chinese agricultural expansion. This article shows how they now make use of dominant ecological and market rationalities to articulate their defence of this form of land use, by figuring these ‘semi‐wild’ camels as providers of ecosystem services. In doing so, however, their proposals bypass the figure of the culture‐possessing rural minority subject, which in this region is associated with training and working with camels, and which has been fostered by the cultural heritage policies of the reform era. Divergent understandings of the ‘wildness’ of nonhumans thus reveal tensions between ecological and cultural politics at China's margins, and anxieties surrounding the rural minority subject in the context of new modes of environmental governance.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (JRAI)
Publication statusPublished - 2021

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