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Project Description

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Since the advent of reform China has undergone rapid social and economic change, including large-scale urbanisation and development. This has been fuelled by the extraction of non-renewable resources, something which has rendered the country the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. In response to this, the Chinese state has shifted its energy policy towards renewable resources, becoming the world’s leading producer of, and investor in, renewable energy (Dodson 2012). The most significant renewable resource in China is wind energy, the country being the largest wind energy provider in the world with an industry that is growing 30% per year (Lewis 2012). With wind farms in 21 provinces, China has 100 gigawatts (GW) of on-grid wind power generating capacity and is expected to be able to meet all of its electricity demands from wind by 2050.

The centre of China’s wind industry is the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, where conditions are aptly suited for wind power, comprising vast grasslands and a relatively sparse population. With all wind energy companies based in Inner Mongolia, the region accounts for 40 percent of national wind energy output and, with over 1 terawatt (TW) of unharnessed wind power – enough to satisfy China’s total energy demand - it is set to remain the centre of the country’s wind energy revolution. Inner Mongolia, however, is an ethnic minority region, one that has experienced conflicts as a result of the resource industries. This began with the extraction of non-renewable resources such as coal and gas, which has transformed the Inner Mongolian landscape and created conflicts with local communities. This has continued with the shift to renewable energy as large-scale wind farms are being developed in areas primarily occupied by ethnic minorities, many of whom are (mobile) pastoralists who depend on the same areas as the wind industry for their livelihoods. The northeastern provinces of Hulunbuir and Xilingol are cases in point, comprising vast grasslands, long histories of mobile pastoralism, and significant ethnic minority populations. In recent years, they have undergone fundamental changes as a result of the wind industry, with communities being forcibly settled and relocated to make way for wind farms, grasslands enclosed and herding restricted, and pastoralists forced to practice increasingly sedentary forms of herding.

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As with other industries in China, the majority of wind energy companies are joint private and state-owned enterprises and, as a result, serve as a channel through which the state engages with ethnic minority pastoralists. Here the state relocates communities and grants use-rights to pastures specifically in accordance with the needs of the wind industry, simultaneously using conservation and modernisation as justification. In response, conflicts have emerged between pastoralists, wind energy companies, and the state, the former sabotaging wind farms and taking to the streets in protest, something that has received little scholarly attention but which has fundamental implications for China’s energy sector and its social, economic, and environmental future.

This research investigates the transition to wind energy in Chinese Inner Mongolia and its impact on the region’s ethnic minorities. Adopting a multi-scalar approach, it explores the linkages between the various stakeholders within China’s wind industry, including the national and regional state, international and Chinese wind energy companies, sedentary and mobile pastoralists, as well as the broader ethnic minority population. Coordinated over a 23-month period, the project will include 6 months of ethnographic fieldwork subdivided into two parts. First, the transition to wind energy will be explored through a study of four major wind farms in Hulunbuir and Xilingol, assessing the institutional mechanisms associated with their policies, construction, and management. Drawing upon relationships with government officials and local scholars, participant-observation will be carried out at the wind farms themselves to elucidate their everyday operation, assessing how the wind industry is facilitated in the context of Chinese reform and elucidating the fluid relationship between wind energy companies and the state. Secondly, fieldwork will be carried out amongst pastoral communities affected by the wind industry, as well as the broader ethnic minority population. Here participant-observation will captures people’s experiences of forced settlement and relocation, the effects of grassland enclosures and impact on herd animals, as well as the implications on herding practices. In the process, the everyday effect of the wind industry will be closely elucidated, including how pastoralists adjust to the presence of wind farms by developing new skills and practices, as well as how they ensure grassland sustainability in the context of China’s energy transition.

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Although China is at the forefront of the wind energy revolution little research has explored the transition to wind energy on local and displaced communities. At the same time, while increasing attention is being given to China’s ethnic minorities, little has considered their relationship to the new resource industries, something that has important implications for the country’s broader national stability as China’s alternate energy future is intimately tied to ethnic minority regions. Here the research stands as just one example of the broader transformation of rural and ethnic minority spaces into renewable energy landscapes taking place across the country, including the unequal supply-chains associated with producing, managing, and harnessing renewable energy in ethnic minority regions, as well as the relationship between renewables and ethnic minority politics. In the process, the research will explore how policies of conservation and energy securitisation are intimately related to those of minority relocation and modernisation, as well as the new forms of energy governmentality associated with the transition to a (potential) post-carbon future. At the same time, the research will offer insight into the contested meanings associated with ‘green’ industrialisation, for while the state presents wind energy as sustainable and equates it with the ‘beauty’ of the grasslands through advertising, this conflicts with the experiences of many ethnic minorities, demonstrating the persistent inequalities associated with an imagined ‘post-industrial’ future. In this regard, the research contributes not only to the anthropology of China and Inner Asia, the transformation of pastoralism, pastoral communities, and minority-state relations, but to the emerging sub-fields of climate ethnography, energopolitics, and the anthropology of energy (Boyer 2011; Nader 2001; Crate & Nutall 2009).

Cambridge Interdisciplinary Research on the Environment is a group that was initiated through a seminar series funded by CRASSH in 2011. This series was co-convened by the Departments of Social Anthropology, Geography, and the Engineering Department's Centre for Sustainable Development.

The series brought together people from a range of academic and non-academic backgrounds including the sciences, arts, humanities, and social sciences, and those working within policy, industry, activism, education, and media. The series has run each year since culminating in the Paris 2015: Climate Histories Seminar Series. 

The connections and networks made through the discussions in this series formed the backdrop against which some funding bids were developed and the projects that resulted are also featured on this site.