Overgrazing and a cycle of summer drought and winter snow has degraded vital pastureland in Mongolia, killing livestock and jeopardising livelihoods
Mongolia is often referred to as the “Land of Blue Sky”, and after living in the capital city for over 3 months, I can definitely understand why. The country’s endless plains and mountainous ranges really do give you a breath-taking view. With just over 3 million inhabitants, Mongolia has an extremely low population in relation to its land mass, with the majority of citizens choosing to live in the country’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. The majority of those who do choose to live in the countryside are a part of Mongolia’s ancient herding culture and have relied heavily on traditional practices for more than 3,000 years.
Traditional herders in Mongolia are one of the last nomadic cultures. Mongolian nomads have always relied on their herds for survival and move their ger (also known as a yurt in the West) camps several times a year in search of greener pastures, shelter, and fresh water sources. These days, the majority of herders own land in various areas which they rotate seasonally.
Nomadic herders tend a variety of animals such as sheep, goat, yak, camel, and of course horses. Traditionally, herders would only keep small numbers of livestock, which they would use for household needs (such as dairy products and wool clothing) and income, but as the effects of climate change and overgrazing worsen, herders have resorted to keeping larger numbers of livestock, further worsening the effects on the natural environment.
Today, there are over 55 million heads of livestock in Mongolia as a result of herders trying to protect their annual income and supply the global demand for high-quality textiles unique to the nation. According to EurasiaNet’s Weekly Digest, the demand for high-quality fabrics such as cashmere and camel wool account for more than 20% of the country’s GDP and are bringing in around $180 million USD annually. Cashmere (seen in the photo above) is actually a relatively new phenomenon, brought on by a market-driven necessity for herders to generate profit after being cut off from milk and meat buyers in the former Soviet Union in 1991. As a result, goats now make up more than half of the country’s domestic animal population (almost 30 million) and counting, according to the Asian Development Bank. Mongolian goats produce a high-quality cashmere that is superior to most others due to the cold climate and high altitude; the highly desirable and rare blue goat (depicted below) is also a product of Mongolia’s unique climate.
Mongolians are no stranger to harsh climates, but the effects of climate change on the herding culture have become increasingly devastating over the past 5 years. Massive winter storms known as The Zud, have resulted in a large number of livestock deaths (approx. 8 million annually) due to starvation since they are unable to graze in the deep snow. As a result of these storms, herders have resorted to increasing the number of livestock they maintain even more, thus worsening the effects of brought on by overgrazing. Over 30% of Mongolia’s grassland biomass has been lost due to a large number of grazers, combined with a temperature rise of 2.1 degrees Celsius over the last 70 years. All of this has led to desertification and a decline in freshwater; around 17% of the country is now desert. According to a recent study by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), approximately 90% of the country is at high risk from the effects of desertification brought on by heavy grazing and drought.
In an effort to protect the country’s ancient herding culture, the government has begun to support farmers and local initiatives in their efforts to practice co-management (a form of management that promotes resilience among the community), as well as the need to shift from quantity to quality by improving breeding standards in an effort to reduce the number of grazers. In particular, herders are beginning to fight the effects of overgrazing by learning and practicing “sustainable pastureland management practices”, which have been identified by local environmental groups as an essential initiative to adapting to climate change. There are many challenges for herders in the years to come and support from researchers, policy makers, and local governments are essential to preserving Mongolia’s ancient herding culture.
About the Author
Nicole is a Development Practitioner currently working in Mongolia as a Market Development Advisor. She has been traveling and working abroad for the past 10 years, mainly focusing on projects relating to education and sustainable economic and community development. Nicole has successfully applied her diverse skills in the areas of gender equality, Project Management, and Results Based Management (RBM) techniques for successful project development. Having recently obtained her Master’s degree from the University of Waterloo in International Development Practice, Nicole has a strong passion for sustainable development, global food security, agriculture, education, and climate change. Throughout her travels, she has enjoyed learning about local cultures and sampling exotic cuisines.