There are no less than 6 major donor funded projects, just like mine, actively working to reduce the pressure on the pasture and secure livelihoods of poor herders. All programs educate herders on animal stocking and pasture rotation. All drill more wells. Most projects work to enable herders in developing alternative businesses. This project has been implemented time and time again. Long-term results for these short-term projects remain unmeasured; once the final report is written, that is that.
This week, the provincial governor told me that international development projects like mine repeatedly spend millions to train herders in alternative trades and fund many small and medium business enterprises surrounding small towns. He says that after a couple of years the herders always return to the countryside and these small businesses fail. This news hit me like a brick because, secretly, I felt that the most promising aspect of our project was the businesses development portion. My work on pasture management felt dubious due to global and state political strife.
Today, I am back in Ulaanbataar and feel the stress of living in this city. My lungs feel inflamed from the long winter breathing the thick black coal burning day and night. Cars and trucks honk incessantly, and the metallic breaking of accordion buses outside are like nails running across a chalkboard. There are public water outages in portions of the city on a daily basis. Today power was out at the Ministry, so I couldn’t work. I understand why a rural herder would not last long here and return to the plains, mountains, or desert.
Knowing how to live off the land is respected and most appreciated by those who have done it. Life is hard one season, but long carefree days are promised in the next. Each time you make it through a year, you are a champion. Wilderness offers an ocean of peace found nowhere else for many of these peoples. For this reason I am driven to conserve these wild lands and subsistence livelihoods.
If you are a poor herder in Mongolia and you loose your animals to due to lack of sufficient grazing material or water, you understand that is a fact of life. You tried your hardest and did your best. You attempt to raise more animals the next season to secure your livelihood and prepare the next trial.
Herders have a practical understanding of ecological processes. They understand that their grasslands support a limited number of animals. They will tell you that the trees are vital for rivers because they hold water. They understand that mining depletes the lakes and rivers. The will tell you the topsoil is blowing away to China, Korea, and other Asian lands due to prolonged drought. They know the timing of precipitation has shifted annually and reference climate change.
Herders come to the cities when they are bankrupt or the lure of money is high. Moving to a polluted city where you must toil long hours year round to obtain a small wage is not the preferred lifestyle, but they will all be in ghettos around cities if pastureland continues to degrade.
Today Mongolian animals are fed imported feed and kept alive at higher numbers than dry lands naturally support. Water use has grown exponentially, and the water table and aquifers are unable to rebound. Herders report rivers and lakes have disappeared. Government officials and international development agencies report animal production is down due to a lack of functional wells. If herders do not increasingly contribute to Mongolia’s new market economy, they will loose land to mining. Giant international mining contracts play an increasing role in government policy decisions.
Still I remain optimistic that long-term solutions can be found to keep Mongolians working the land with ample clean water and wilderness. I am collecting and publishing environmental data that can be used to help solve environmental questions now and in the future. The wells I will permit will reduce the impact of livestock on riverbanks and perhaps reduce herders washing vehicles in them. I am also assisting a World Bank project to establish wool grading laboratories, so herders increase wool quality, rather than quantity. Otherwise many friends are working with Mercy Corps to improve global tourism around Mongolia’s unquantified globally-rare wilderness riches, creating new local economies.