April, 2011

I

n the dry Mongolian grasslands, far away from the bright lights and noise of the capital city of Ulan Bator, two round tents stand in isolation.

Some years are good, some years are bad, that’s just the way life is,” says 64-year-old Sumya as he stands besides his family’s yurts staring out over the vast Mongolian grasslands and into the distance where their animals are grazing. His son stands beside him, thirty years younger, but also committed to the nomadic life.

As lifelong herders Sumya and Sukhbaatar (Mongolians traditionally go by just one name) know the travails of the nomadic life, yet after the last in a long line of bitter winters and increasing competition for the remaining pastureland, many just as seasoned herders don’t share their determination to continue the pastoral existence.

“Last winter was just too hard,” said Bayanzul, a care-worn herder we had passed an hour earlier walking slowly towards the capital with his animals strewn across the landscape in front of him. “I am going to try to sell everything and get enough money to buy a small minibus and charge people for rides,” he says.

Life has never been easy for nomadic herders in Mongolia, but, with bad winters appearing with increasing regularity and the desert swallows up vast tracks of pastureland, there are fewer and fewer nomads clinging to the life of their parents and their parent’s parents.

Following the particularly devastating winters the country experienced between 2000-2002, a total of 68,800 people — mostly herders who had lost their livestock and with it their livelihood — moved to the capital city. Thousands more moved to secondary cities.

Experts now estimate that as many as 20,000 more could have joined them or will in the near future after the 2009-2010 winter’s -45 degree temperatures decimated herds, killing 8 million animals — approximately 17 per cent of the country’s entire livestock population — and left upwards of 160,000 people with less than half of the livestock they had from the year before. Many of the remaining herders, estimated to be around 170,000 families, will struggle to survive this current winter if it is anywhere near as bad as the last.

Sumya is not too worried about this year (“We can survive about 2-3 bad winters in a row”) but is concerned that time is now against their way of life and that his children and grandchildren might be forced to abandon the nomadic life – the only lifestyle they have ever known.

“It is not possible to just be a nomads freely moving anymore,” he says with visible sadness. “When I was a child there was no problem just moving from place to place, you were welcomed, but with less available land for herds people are less welcoming.

“Even local government officials are now telling new herders who arrive in the area that they must move on.”

A major cause for this increased protectionism is the rapid encroachment of the desert in the far west of the country, which has caused the mass migration of nomads from the western provinces into the more fertile central and eastern regions, further straining already limited resources.

When Sumya and his family moved to the area seven years ago there were far fewer families and those already there were happier to let others share the watering holes and grasslands. “Now the population is so much bigger,” he says with a resigned air, “and with every bad winter more families keep trying to come.”

While the Gobi Desert has always been a vast and defining geographical feature of Mongolia, the U.N. Development Program now estimates that 90 per cent of the country’s entire landmass is fragile dry-land; land under increasing threat from desertification.

“The threat of land degradation and the resulting desertification is one of the major threats to Mongolia’s growth,” says Shoko Noda, deputy resident representative of the UNDP, sitting in her office a few hundred metres from the shining new parliament building in central Ulan Bator.

Government measures have so far done little to aid the plight of the country’s herders, with politicians’ primary energy directed towards tackling the country’s high rate of unemployment (50 per cent in some areas of Ulan Bator) and bringing in investment to extract and profit from Mongolia’s abundant natural resources.

“When we have really bad winters the government tries to help but what they give is always very small,” says Sumya, “often little more than one or two boxes of grain. In times like that the only way to survive is to turn to your family or neighbours.”

Back in his tent, cradling a cup of warm yak milk, the elderly herder explains how things have changed since the country embraced capitalism back at the start of the 1990s.

“Before 1990 all of the animals belonged to the government, we were just herders moving from place to place taking care of the animals’ needs,” he says. “Hot weather or cold, living or dying, it didn’t matter.”

Following the end of communism, however, the animals suddenly belonged to the herders, along with all of the resulting successes and risks.

“After free market if you were successful it was your success, but if all of your animals died it was also your problem,” says Sumya.

For a while this seemed to work out well for the herders, and many new people tried to take up the lifestyle; buying sheep and goat and heading out into the countryside to try their hand at the profession of their ancestors.

In fact, by 1995 it is estimated that the number of herder families had nearly doubled, from about 147,000 in 1990 to 284,000.

Yet, as new herders arrived and existing herders began increasing their livestock numbers exponentially, available resources were strained and the delicate natural balance was further damaged.

A Swiss Aid study published in 2010, entitled ‘Livelihood Study of Herders in Mongolia’, estimated that pastureland productivity had decreased by almost 30 per cent in the desert area and over 50 per cent in the steppe in the period 1961 to 2006.

“The degradation of pastureland accelerated rapidly as a consequence of herding controls being replaced by open access during the transition from socialism to a market economy,” the study reported.

This has affected everyone, including the traditional nomadic herders who are trying simply to follow in the footsteps and practises of their ancestors, and who are now struggling to survive with resources stretched and pastureland rapidly degrading.

A few valleys across from Sumya and Sukhbaatar, S.Boldbaatar and his large extended family sit in the ill-lit tent that forms the centre of their family life. The 70-year-old patriarch — surrounded by his sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren – pulls smoke from a beautifully-wrought silver pipe that he bought as a 20-year-old for the equivalent of 500 pounds and listens with curiosity to the foreigners who have come to ask him questions about his life.

“In springtime it is better to have goats as you can sell the cashmere for a good price. In autumn it is better to have sheep since people are wanting meat,” he starts by explaining. “This never changes.”

The family has close to 350 goats, double this number of sheep, and a few horses and cows; a pretty standard size herd for Mongolian herders.

The fundamentals of life have changed little for the family over the years: The young children go to school in a nearby town but return during the holidays and immediately take up the chores and pastimes they occupied themselves with before, while the adults tend the herds and, occasionally, pack up the tents and move to a fresh piece of pastureland (an operation that can be accomplished in a single day if the new location is not too far away).

From the age of three all of the children are taught to ride horses (it is not hard to understand why Genghis Khan and his Mongolian hordes were able to sweep across Asia setting the countryside to sword), how to care for the animals, and how to deal with the various types of disasters that can affect them and their herds.

Yet, despite this, there is little any of them can do to prepare for or mitigate the changing weather and drying of the Mongolian landscape brought about by desertification and the over-grazing of the precious pastureland.

“The summers are becoming drier, with little rain; they are worse for us than the winters,” says S.Boldbaatar. “This past year the spring was also very difficult. The cold continued and the winds were bad – it was pretty much the same temperature as the winter.”

Outside S.Boldbaatar’s tent the ground is dusty and the grass is spread thin. The family’s herd are far away in the distance, constantly on the lookout for fresh grass.

Yet S.Boldbaatar refuses to consider the idea of ever moving to an urban environment.

“Towns seem okay, but we are happiest when in the countryside” he says, patting one of his grandsons — who is sitting next to him playing with a toy made from a series of sheep ankle bones and string — on the knee.

“People in the towns and cities seem to have forgotten the simple pleasures of life,” he says with a smile, returning to his pipe.

“For the moment there is enough pasture, but it is getting harder,” says one herder we encounter sitting beside a small lake where his animals were drinking under the midday sun.

“More and more people are coming here because the land is getting worse elsewhere,” he says. “When I first came to this area in 1995 there were just five families, now there are 35. In 1995 there were about 3,000 goat and sheep, now there are maybe 15,000.”

This arrival of herders from other provinces and the stress it is putting on resources is likely to overburden the nearby pastureland, and the grasslands in the thousands of other areas similarly affected, if a solution is not found soon.

“Migration from the arid western provinces is not the only answer,” says UNDP’s Noda. “If herders could somehow better manage the land they have rather than just abandoning it. We have to see whether there are other income sources that can be identified and whether the local population is willing to move if needed from herding to another business.”

“We are expecting a lot more migrants to come in to the urban areas.” says Bolormaa Gulguu, a program officer for Save the Children in Mongolia.

“However, [these nomadic herders] have been herding for generations. When they come to Ulan Bator they don’t have the vocation skills that are needed to get a job. This is going to be a big problem across the whole country.”

This is a hard reality to swallow for Sumya and others like him who have tried to follow the best practises of their ancestors and do not want to abandon their nomadic ways.

“We have met many long-term herders who have travelled long distances,” he says. “Most are dreaming of finding a good, new place. Most still seem pretty optimistic.”

As for Sukhbaatar, who has remained quiet and deferential to his father throughout? “Maybe I will go to live in London,” he jokes as we get up to leave and he returns to watching over his family’s herd, as his father, his grandfather, and his grandfather’s father have done before him.

Images by Jeffrey Lau