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Mongolia at Crossroads

Global market pressures and climate change are endangering the traditional life of Mongolian nomads

The lives of Mongolia’s nomadic people, who make up about a third of this landlocked country’s small population of 3 million, has been shaped by climate for over millennia. These pastoral herders, who live on the country’s vast steppes, grazing their livestock on the lush grasslands in summer and living off their meat and milk during the long, cold winters, have developed an intricate taboo-system that helps them remain in balance with nature’s cycles.

mongolian herderphoto by Saif Alnuweiri Mongolia's pastoral herders graze their livestock on the the country’s vast steppes in summer and live off their meat and milk during the long, cold winters. But as their pasturelands get degraded, many of them are being forced to migrate to urban centers and join the ranks of the urban poor.

Most taboos are connected to food scarcity and rough natural conditions. All natural phenomena, places, and wild animals have protectors, the “Lord Spirits”. There is a multi-layered taboo-system concerning fire, which, observed from a nature preservation point of view, has to do with preventing the outbreak of fires in the dry continental climate, especially in arid areas. The Lord Spirits of fire are thought to be especially sensitive, and there are rules on where and how to place embers, how to camouflage fireplaces, as well as bury embers.

Central Asia’s dry climate and water scarcity, combined with soil largely unfit for agriculture and its barely three-months-long growing season, forced the people living here to take care of their environment, intimately understand the local ecosystem, and adopt a dynamic harmony with it. Nature can’t be exploited carelessly in the steppes because regeneration of this fragile ecosystem in the area takes a long time.

But today, due to the economic imperatives of a globalized market and climate change, which are both rapidly degrading Mongolia’s grazing lands, the herders of Inner Asia can no longer quickly adapt to the extreme changes they are exposed to. In the past three decades, more than 600,000 former herders, about 20 percent of the country’s population, have given up their nomadic lifestyle and moved to Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar, which is now struggling to provide basic services to its rapidly ballooning population.

The average temperature in Mongolia has increased by 2.1 degree Celsius since 1940, more than double the rise of average global temperatures, according to the UN Environment Program. The impact of this can been seen in the rapid desertification of grasslands; increasingly extreme weather, including frigid winters (think -50 Fahrenheit), dry, hot summers, and long periods of drought, or sudden floods in previously arid areas.

In the arid Gobi Desert area, for example, rapid desertification has led the endangered golden-barked saxaul tree is to the brink of extinction. Nomads are being forced to use it as firewood due to stay warm during ever-harsher winters. Sandstorms are also contributing to the saxaul’s demise and in turn, the decrease in saxaul trees is accelerating desertification, as they normally help impede wind erosion and stabilize sand dunes. According Greenwatch’s Global Climate Risk Index in 2014, Mongolia was amongst the top 10 countries affected by extreme weather events from 1993-2014.

gers in gobiphoto by Paul WilliamsA ger, the traditional round-shaped, felt dwelling of the Mongols, in the Gobi Desert. Due to deforestation and climate change, the desert is expanding, claiming large chunks of green pastures in the south.

There is another silent killer in the steppes that has been triggering environmental migration, and endangering herders and animals lives alike. It is a periodic weather phenomenon called dzud. Dzuds generally create dry summers with low grass production that are followed by extreme winter conditions. Its literal meaning is death.

During a dzud; thousands of animals die due to lack of nutrition since the herders don’t manage to gather enough fodder stores to see them through the harsh winter months, and this leads to food scarcity and economic crisis for the nomads as well. There are several kinds of dzuds, the most common being the tsagaan dzud, which means white death, characterized by heavy snowfall. Then there is the khar dzud, or black death, which is typically defined by a complete lack of snowfall and extremely cold temperatures leading to drought, and tamir dzud or “iron death,” which is characterized by the ice cover that forms over the grazing lands due of extremely low temperatures following heavy rainfalls.

Dzuds are now occurring more often in Mongolia than ever before. Government records show that a total of 20 million livestock animals perished as a result of dzuds in 2000–2002, and 2009–2010, leading many herders to migrate to urban centers and join the ranks of the urban poor.

Meanwhile a growing number of gold, copper, and coal mining projects, as well as an exponential rise in the number of goats being raised to serve the cashmere industry are also adding to the destruction of traditional grazing lands. Mining is central to Mongolia’s economic aspirations. Copper, gold, uranium, silver, and coal account for 89 percent of Mongolia’s of annual exports, and a fifth of the country’s land was recently opened up to mining as part of an effort to entice foreign investment.

 The mining industry does not take sacred sites, burial places and water scarcity into consideration; causing catastrophes by setting up mines in ecologically fragile areas.

One prime example is the example of Noyon Uul in Selenge Aimag, exploited by the Canadian Centerra mine. Noyon Uul is not only a sacred Hunnu burial site holding over 200 tombs, but it feeds eight small rivers in the area and contamination of this water resource will have an impact on Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake that lies north of the Mongolian border. There are some 360 medicinal herbs at Mount Noyon and in the surrounding territory. The crops, pastures, and soil in the area too, will be affected by mining blasts.

Moreover, illegal mining has been on the rise here over the past few decades after two devastating dzuds wiped out the third of Mongolia’s livestock in 2001 and 2002. Today, nearly 100,000 Mongolians work as unlicensed miners, scouring sites for scraps of gold and copper. The illegal “ninja mines” pay no regard to environmental and safety standards. It’s a sad irony, that many of the illegal miners are herders who lost their livelihood due to mining, and dramatic climate events in their ancestral lands.

Mining is water intensive, and Mongolia is scarce in water. If safety standards for water extraction are not met, groundwater contamination is inevitable; leading to the death of tens of thousands of animals, and jeopardizing the livelihood of many herders.

The presence of the mining giant Rio Tinto owned Oyu Tolgoi copper mine has had an especially grim impact on the Gobi area. Copper from this massive mine, considered one of the world’s largest, makes up 44 percent of the country’s exports. The mine has not only caused contamination of the local environment, but has been rapidly depleting precious groundwater supplies in an extremely arid area full of endangered wildlife.

According to a 2011 World Bank report, the Southern Gobi region has only sufficient groundwater reserves for the next decade. These reserves are shared between people and animals. The Gobi desert is not just a deposit of minerals, but home to the critically endangered Mazalaai bear and many other rare or endangered species, including the Asiatic wild ass, the black-tailed gazelle, argali sheep, ibex, Mongolian gazelle, corsac fox, cinereous vulture, steppe eagle, and grey wolf.

According to Gerelmaa Batsukh (32), who fled the Gobi to find work in the city and school her three children, the last winter she was in her homeland they were nearly frozen to death. They had no money left to buy coal, as nearly all their animals died during the dzud. The Gobi, she says, is expanding and has claimed large chunks of green pastures in the south.

The cashmere trade underpinning the herder economy is another leading cause of the degradation of nearly three quarters of the country’s pasturelands. Mongols, of course, have been rearing goats for centuries for their fur. Unfortunately, the growing global demand of cashmere resulted in growing numbers of goatherds. Today, Mongolia is the second largest exporter of raw cashmere in the world, unsurprisingly resulting in an unsustainable livestock density per area. Goats’ sharp hooves cut through the soil, and their grazing habits —mostly ripping the plants by their roots —make it impossible to sustain the pasturelands. Just 30 years ago, the cashmere goats made 20 percent of all livestock in Mongolia, but today, it’s a whopping 60 percent. China is the biggest importer of cashmere.

nimal husbandry, Bayankhongorphoto by ILO/N. Munkhbaatar 2014 The cashmere trade underpinning the herder economy is another leading cause of the degradation of nearly three quarters of the country’s pastureland.

Moreover, the cashmere trading system is flawed, due to the remoteness of the cashmere herders. Traders and brokers go out once a year to buy cashmere, then sell it to a consolidator, who then sell it to mills. These traders fix the price and cooperate, thus making fair trade prices impossible, marginalizing the nomadic people.  There is an urgent need for better pasture management techniques, as well as the application of fair trade practices in the cashmere industry.

Due to these multiple onslaughts on their pasturelands, Mongolia’s nomads have been slowly abandoning their traditional way of life. Most herders first migrate to sums — small settlements serving as the capital of aimags or counties, followed by a move to the capital city, Ulaanbaatar.

According to Mongolian law, each Mongolian citizen is legally entitled to own a plot of land. Many claimed their plots in the informal outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. These families have abandoned their animals and instead of the endless steppes, have chosen the relative security of the informal “Ger Districts,” so called after the traditional round-shaped, felt dwelling of the Mongols, often called “yurt” in Western literature.

There was no urban planning involved in the way these districts were set up, and the ger area has been growing haphazardly, completely off the grid for nearly three decades. The living standards in these areas are very poor given that there are no sewage systems, and the fact that gers are not fit for longer periods of sedentary lifestyle. Additionally, wintertime coal burning by families in these settlements has turned Ulaanbaatar into one of the worlds’ most polluted city.

Mongolia is now facing vital challenges in preserving its traditional way of life and natural balance. It’s not yet clear if the country will be able to protect its endangered wildlife, and take care of the social and economic wellbeing of its citizens. The good news is that Mongolia has a young, well-educated, ambitious population. Their education in ecotourism, tech, engineering, environmental sciences, and sustainable development is already resulting in a shift in thinking. Environmental groups, student organizations, and other ground-up initiatives popping up, aiming to solve the problems of coal-dependency and natural resources exploitation, including initiatives to save endangered wildlife, such as the elusive snow leopards and the Mazaalai bear of Gobi.

A shift to renewables could help with many of the country’s problems. The total hours of sunshine are high in Mongolia, and the country has decent wind-power potential as well, especially in the Gobi desert, where research shows that about 11 gigawatts of wind power can be harnessed.

Mongolia is at the crossroads with plenty of opportunities for conservation. Cooperation across industries and levels of government is more vital than ever.

Ono Borjgyn
Ono Borjgyn is an ecological economist, founder of an ethical, wild-foraged herbal supplement brand, Kanate (kanate.co) and founding board member of Breathe Mongolia (breathemongolia.org), an NGO aiming to curb deadly air pollution in Ulaanbaatar.

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