Chinese Dual-Ownership System Remains a Hopeful Model Despite Evenkis' Forced Relocation from Olguya
Until fall 2002, some 30 Evenki families lived in the village of Ôlguya at the northern tip of China’s Inner Mongolia province. While they were not the only Evenki in China, these few Evenki families centered around Ôlguya were China’s only reindeer-herding people. Out of this unusual confluence of lifestyle and administrative regime emerged a unique management system of dual ownership based on milk and antlers: The milk, or subsistence aspect, accrued to the Evenki herding families; the antler crop was owned by the state, which shared its profits with the herders; and the system as a whole came under an over-arching policy of support for a small minority people.
In other regions such as Fennoscandia (the region encompassing Scandinavia and Finland) and Alaska, reindeer milk and antlers are each associated with historically very different reindeer-management systems which were never practiced concurrently. Among the Saami of Sweden, reindeer-milking harkens to a period when the reindeer were utilized mainly as living resources for subsistence. This practice faded, however, as meat gained prominence with increased integration into the market economy and Saami reindeer herds became widely spread and loosely attended. In such an extensive herding system, milking the deer was hardly practical. Goat milk and later powdered milk compensated.
On the other hand, in Alaska, antler cropping—the cutting of fresh antler from live deer, usually for the highly lucrative Asian market—integrates well with extensive herding. The deer can be rounded up once a year to crop the antlers, and then left to roam extensively; the only herding investment necessary being to keep the deer from getting swept away by encroaching caribou herds. In fact, without the sizable profits from antler cropping, reindeer herding in Alaska would probably not have continued at all, as reindeer meat came to be of negligible economic significance with readily available meat supplied by the resurgence of the Western Arctic caribou herd.
Based on these trends in other parts of the world, reindeer milking is unexpected in a management system whose production is dominated by market-oriented antler cropping. Yet this is what occurred among the Evenki.
Four main family- or clan-based herding camps resided within Ôlguya's orbit, ranging as far as 73 kilometers from the settlement. The camps were named after the heads of the families involved in herding. In 1997, these camps were named Malisu (formerly Ledimi, after the deceased husband of Malisu), Damala, Gushulan, and Galishka. This handful of reindeer-herding Evenki were the surviving members of what had been a larger Evenki population of hunters moving freely across the Russian-Chinese border, and, in fact, a number of older Evenki could still speak Russian. Historically, they practiced a form of reindeer herding consistent with the other south-Siberian reindeer-herding groups: small numbers of clan-owned reindeer were milked and used for transport. The deer were highly prized and never slaughtered for meat.
When Russian-Chinese hostilities erupted along the border in the 1960s, this group of Evenki happened to be in Chinese territory. Intent on curtailing their free roaming across the border and settling the families permanently in one locality, the Chinese authorities gradually relocated them farther inland from the border, first quartering them in Alonson, then Manqui and finally building the settlement of Ôlguya with housing, a school, an antler-processing factory, administrative offices, and eventually even a small museum devoted to their history and culture.
Collectivization and Reform
Regarding the history of China's policies regulating reindeer herding in the Ôlguya area, in 1997 residents invariably referred to two major milestones: the collectivization of 1967 and the reform of 1984.1
In 1967 the Chinese state "collectivized" approximately 1,000 head of reindeer. It purchased all reindeer from the herders and provided a salary to them for their labor, much along the lines of the Soviet sovkhoz (state farm) model. The reindeer, however, remained under the care of their previous owners and herders, so the forced sale could not be readily distinguished from a form of development aid. Evenki agreed that the state embarked on this apparently disadvantageous transaction for ideological reasons, both because it believed all property in a socialist system should be owned collectively, and as part of its effort to raise China's minority peoples to a more "advanced" stage of development. During the initial stages of collectivization, profits from antler cropping were minimal. However, recognizing the income-generating potential of the antler trade, the Chinese government promoted the development of the antler industry under state control.
In an effort to increase antler profits by inducing private initiative, the state introduced a major reform in 1984. Formal ownership of the reindeer was returned to the approximately 20 herding families, who could use the reindeer as mounts and pack animals, and who had full control over the subsistence resources provided by reindeer. These resources consisted of mostly milk but also on rare occasions required the slaughter of a deer for the meat and hides. But the antler crop, which had by 1984 become lucrative, remained under state ownership. A specified household head from each family signed a contract, renewed annually, with the newly established antler company, agreeing to care for the deer and to supply the entire antler crop to the company. The contract herder would receive a subsidy of 30 yuan per reindeer per year and an additional sum for each newborn calf.2 This arrangement, heralded as stemming from a socialized market economy, demonstrated a remarkable dual ownership system of the reindeer.
Each year the herding contractors and others involved with herding work convened with administrators from the antler company and the local government in a Herding Council. The Herding Council was a particularly important institution in the arrangement, as it allowed for the active participation of the herders in management decisions. It is there that herding-related issues were negotiated: the split of antler profits, payment per head of livestock, provision costs, service needs, inheritance issues involving reindeer, applications for new contracts, and reassignment of reindeer to create new herds or to remove deer from a herder who was not able to meet the obligations of his contract.
By the early 1990s, the herders had lobbied successfully in the Herding Council to increase their profits by exchanging with the company some of the set subsidy per reindeer for a split of the antler profits. The initial arrangement called for 60 percent of the antler profits to go to the herders, and 40 percent to the state. This division was later adjusted in the herders' favor to a 70/30 percent split, but the herders were required to forego their salaries. From the company's perspective, this change was desirable, as it provided contractors with incentive to crop the antlers of all of their deer. It was also consistent with the national policy trend toward a so-called "socialized market" economy, whereby the means of production (in this case, the antlers) would remain in collective state hands, but profits for the workers would depend on their individual initiative and capacity for work. In 1997, approximately 350 kilograms of antler were produced, yielding a net average income for the herders of somewhere between 9,000 and 11,000 yuan per contractor per year (approximately US$1,000), a substantial income in this context. To maintain a high incentive for the herders to guard their animals diligently against predators and poachers, and to foster herd increase, the state herding company continued to pay set amounts per deer per year, now 15 yuan per deer and 40 yuan for each newborn calf. It was up to the contract herder to determine how much of his profit would trickle down to family members who helped with the herding work.
The reform of 1984 brought with it the most radical changes and improvements in the lives of the herders. With the establishment of the antler company and the local forest factory to provide financial support and infrastructure to the herding enterprise, living conditions for the herding families were enhanced. Movement between the settlement of Ôlguya and the camps, which previously could take a week by reindeer transport, became fast and easy by company motor vehicle. With settlement, money, and access to outside supply lines, the Evenki economy became enmeshed in that of the market. Salaries, a share in the antler profits, and numerous benefits to the herders and their families put the Ôlguya Evenki in an enviable position. The state likewise benefited. In addition to revenues generated by the antler trade, herders, from their dispersed vantage points, watched for and reported forest fires.
Problems With the Dual-Ownership System
This system was not, of course, without its share of problems. The privileged status of the Evenki had caused some resentment among the majority Han population. As an officially recognized ethnic minority, the Evenki were accorded special benefits, including prioritized positions of employment in a local timber factory, supplemental hardship pay to compensate for uncomfortable working conditions, government-subsidized prices for firearms and certain food staples, free education and boarding for children of reindeer herders, free housing, and exemption from stringent Chinese family-planning regulations. Only Evenki were permitted to hold reindeer under contract with the antler company. A few non-Evenki who had married into the group and who had dedicated themselves to the profession were also granted conditional rights to herd reindeer, but they could not become householders with company contracts.
In addition to ethnic tension and resentment, some non-Evenki argued that the overly pampered position of those in the Ôlguya settlement proved detrimental to the Evenki themselves. The benefits granted to reindeer-herding Evenki locked many Evenki youngsters into a situation whereby their best hope of employment was within the limited domain of the herding/company structure, hence they lacked the incentive to develop other skills. Problems with alcohol and violence in the settlement and surrounding camps stemmed, many non-Evenki claimed, from policies that ensured privileged treatment and priority employment despite poor performance. Herders had become prone to alleviate weeks of isolated and sometimes solitary surveillance of the reindeer in the forest with over-consumption of alcohol. Before, alcohol consumption was strictly regulated, but after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) the regulations were not enforced, and the growing road network spread alcohol everywhere. Now, paradoxically, alcohol is at times considered to be one of the perks of the herding profession and is brought to the camps, often in large quantities as gifts. Some Evenkis considered alcohol-related problems and violence to be prime reasons for what they claimed to be a reduction of the Ôlguya Evenki population.
Other problems were related to the distribution of profits among the Evenki themselves. The contract holders, who were not necessarily those performing the actual herding work, stood to benefit most from the contract arrangement. Some non-contract herders felt they did most of the work—especially the most strenuous and least desirable jobs, which kept them isolated for long periods of time—and that money that trickled down to them from the respective family contractors was, indeed, barely a trickle. With alternative employment opportunities scarce and camp life relatively well provisioned by the company, these dissatisfied non-contract herders would seek their own contracts rather than abandon herding altogether. Application to the Herding Board for a new contract stood no chance of success unless the company felt confident the antlers would still be efficiently cropped and the existing corps of contractors was willing to part with some deer in order to assemble at least a minimal start-up herd for the new contractor candidate. These conditions rarely prevailed. Furthermore, from the company's perspective, success as a contractor was predicated upon the contractor's ability to ensure the necessary labor force, usually with reliance on family members. This achievement was hardly possible for a young unmarried man and even less so for an unmarried woman.
Finally, an increase in poaching, spurred by improved processing and marketing of antlers and a greater profit margin, caused losses to both herders and the company. Constant surveillance of the prized and vulnerable reindeer herds was required to curtail poaching, but such intensive management was costly and demanding of high labor investment.
The collectivization in 1967 affected the lives of the Evenki only to a minor degree and meant nothing with respect to how the deer were distributed, herded, or utilized. It was primarily an exercise of ideological principle. Even the reform of 1984 brought no immediate or necessary changes in the actual placement of reindeer in the clan- and family-based camps. During neither collectivization nor the ensuing reform did the state see reason to squash clan or family relations if ideological and economic goals could still be met.
The reform did bring, however, profound changes in other aspects of the herders' lives, principally the establishment of the antler company. While clan ties were not extinguished, they no longer fully determined property relations with respect to reindeer, as they had done in the past. Mobile nuclear families were elevated to the status of independent owners of reindeer and contractors to the antler company. Various services, state subsidies and aid, and the sharing of profits from the antler trade significantly raised the standard of living of the herding families. The reform also promoted the careful guarding of the entire herd to prevent deer poaching. Yet despite all the changes occasioned by the reform and subsequent initiatives, certain basic forms of reindeer subsistence use, actual herding practices, relations of inheritance and control of reindeer, and herder-to-herder relations of power and authority remained much the same.
In 1997, the livelihood of the Ôlguya Evenki had been transformed from a hunting base, with small-scale herding for milk and transport, to a dual-ownership system of market-based herding to supply the antler market, supplemented by continued milking and hunting, and buttressed by minority policies and accompanying aid initiatives. The cooperative and symbiotic nature of this arrangement between the reindeer-herding Evenki and the Chinese state that existed in 1997, while not without its problems, proved beneficial to both sides and could suggest possible solutions to problems confronting all south-Siberian reindeer herders. Unfortunately, as the reindeer-herding Evenki of China are moved by the Chinese government from the mountains into the Mangui township settlement being built for them at the end of a railroad line (see page 32 this issue), it is all the more questionable whether they will survive as a socially and culturally distinct entity. Authorities say they will benefit from closer links to modern infrastructure. But in the end, these closer ties may well end this group's unique story.
1. From 1984 until 1997, revisions were made with respect to sizes of salaries or proportions of profit shared by the herders and the state, but the main principles of ownership established by that reform continue.
2. Evenki in Ôlguya in 1997 provided a few variable sums for these amounts, and it is difficult to discern whether this inconsistency reflected memory lapses or the confusion of minor historical periods in which adjustments in the amounts were negotiated by the Herding Council.
Hugh Beach is professor of cultural anthropology at Uppsala University, Sweden. His research among Saami reindeer pastoralists has been long-standing, but he has also researched other reindeer-herding peoples from Russia to Alaska. His research is funded by the EU, the Swedish Research Council, and The Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation.