Qi Lihe district sits awkwardly on the outskirts of Lanzhou, a heavily polluted industrial city in north western China. Trains regularly steam through the district, rattling the makeshift homes along the track and slicing a divide between the slum dwellings and the modern sprawl of high-rise apartment blocks and shopping malls. These developments have begun to sprout up as Lanzhou attempts to compete with the prosperous boom of China’s other provincial capitals.

There has been a steady surge in the number of migrant families arriving into the city from their remote villages in the Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture; a homeland for the Hui and Dongxiang Muslim minorities, situated three hours north of the capital. The Hui’s ancestors were Silk Road traders, largely of Arab and Persian descent, who first came to China in the 7th century. The Dongxiang are closely related to the Mongolians and as an independent ethnic group, they arose through contact with central Asians who converted them to Sunni Islam in the 13th century.

For hundreds of years the Hui and Dongxiang have farmed the land surrounding their ancestral villages. However, desertification has forced much of the landscape to become infertile and while pockets of farming communities still exist, life has become too difficult and remote for many, necessitating thousands of families to seek a better existence and to hope for a new future in Lanzhou. Economic marginalization continues to greatly impact on Qi Lihe’s migrant families. Life in the provincial capital remains extremely difficult, as the majority continue to live in poverty, struggling to survive from one day to the next.

As desertification continues to swallow up the countryside of Gansu Province and rural communities continue to disperse to the bigger cities for survival and in search of a new life, this pattern of economic and environmental migration will continue to rise. Existing ecological problems will be compounded and the plight of these people will continue.