Herding a Market Economy

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 because my work on pasture management felt dubious due to political strife.

Today, I am back in Ulaanbataar and feel the stress of the city. My lungs have felt inflamed most of winter due to the black coal burning all day. Cars and trucks honk incessantly and the breaking of large crippled buses outside are like nails running across on a chalkboard. Water and power is out in portions of the city on a daily basis, and today the power was out at my place. I understand why a rural herder would not last long in the city.

Knowing how to live off the land is a skill that is respected, but most appreciated by those who have done it themselves. 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 overs an ocean of peace found nowhere else for many peoples. For this reason, I am driven to conserve wild lands and subsistence living.

little herders

little herders

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 this is a fact of life. You tried your hardest and did your best. You will attempt to raise more animals to secure your livelihood and prepare for life’s next trial.

Herders do have a practical understanding of ecological processes. They understand that their grasslands can only 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 water table and rivers. They know that their topsoil is blowing away to China, Korea, and other Asian lands. They will tell you that global climate change has magnified drought conditions.

Herders will come to the cities when they are bankrupt or the lure of money is high. Moving to a polluted city where you will have to toil long hours year round to obtain a small wage is not the preferred lifestyle, but they will all be in cities soon, if the pastureland continues to degrade.

The reality is that many Mongolian animals are fed imported feed and kept alive at higher numbers than these dry lands naturally support. Water is being drained from the water table faster than it can be naturally recharged. Herders report that rivers and lakes are disappearing and government officials, international development agencies, and herders report that animal production is lower than it could be due to a lack of wells. I suspect that if herders do not increasingly contribute to Mongolia’s new market economy, they will loose their land rights and protections because large international mining contracts play in increasing role in government land use and 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 suspect that wells will reduce the impact of livestock on riverbanks and perhaps herders from washing vehicles in them. I am collecting and publishing environmental data that can be used to help solve environmental questions now and in the future. A friend is working for the World Bank establishing wool grading laboratories, so herders can be paid more for improved quality, rather than quantity. Another friend is working with Mercy Corps to improve the tourism industry, so that you can see the wild Mongolia, its currently unquantified, globally rare wilderness riches.

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10 responses to “Herding a Market Economy

  1. definitely herding is not market economy, land right is commons, livestock is protected by constitution, labor is subsistence. 3L

  2. Grandmom and GranRoy

    Best of all good luck, Heather. We love you!

  3. U r doing a wonderful job. Livestock herders in Pakistan and I believe every have identical issues.

  4. There is a definite need for securing land rights for herders without jeopardizing mobility. I mean a right that would allow them sue intruders, but will not give them a right to fence. I guess nobody including all those project staff do not know how or who knows perhaps they do have some ideas. After reading what you have written, I felt like going home. :)
    Keep going the good job!!

    • Soum land officers are mapping areas and trying to draw up better and additional land leases. This approach is community/government driven. The ‘intruders’ are typically relatives or family friends that travel great distances for green pasture. Herders assert there is no grass due to drought. While drought is a factor, the steppe is arid by definition and cattle numbers have not been controlled for more than 20 years. Overgrazing is an issue, but limiting animals not simple. When a family has few animals and economic and climatic conditions are poor, they routinely loose everything in a bad winter. My project funded alternative businesses development for poor herders in addition to land management – but I didn’t hear any revolutionary ideas. The most common business plan involved Buuz production. My project is one of many million dollar development projects funded the past 20 years, touting herder education/small business. Each time more family wells are established, animal numbers jump in response, and then international emergency aid is requested in the form of animal feed. I tried to measure feed given as aid in a season, but it was impossible. I can only say that it was both LOADS and not even close to making an impact. If true market solutions are required for failed market economies, Mongolia’s industrial growth center is truthfully mining. This triggers cultural and spiritual red flags for Mongolians, yet government is not focused on attracting alternative big business. I heard some awesome alternative development ideas from Mongolian academics and youth, so I hope their voice grows stronger. Their visions were world visions and Mongolia can’t survive in isolation – it never did (Remember the Silk Road).

  5. Mining would bring lots of money flowing in, but if we fail to spend it wisely, it would surely bring resource curse. It is just so plain wrong for the government to handout cash to gain political support. Nevertheless, they keep doing it. If all the money is mining is spent on providing social security, I doubt we see much growth. Second thought, that all the money from mining sector did not come without price. Failure to rehabilitate, improper environmental impact assessment, kicking out herders from pastureland, polluting already scarce water resources etc to name few. Poor herders are left without land, water and there is no legal remedy for them. That is the tragedy of the commons. :(
    It would be great if you could supply more information about your project activities and on the 6 donor projects and the alternative development ideas you heard from some people.

    • My project is wrapping up later this year. Wells have been drilled for small herder groups (typically one family). These herders control the pumps and keys for the well houses and were trained in various land management practices. A few handfuls of small businesses were funded. These include Buuz making, leather product making, ice cream shops, and at least one tire repair shop. Herders were given multiple opportunities to share land tenure ideas with local leaders directly and I can attest that they spoke their minds. Herder group land agreements will be drawn to afford them government legal protection. Policy recommendation papers have been written, including papers on extension station development, sharing of map data, and business development. The final report will be found on the ADB website.

      Other projects are also funded by international donors, so final reports can be found online or printed as a free books available in Ulaanbaatar offices. Look for reports with the World Bank, UNDP, Swiss Development, USAID, and Millennium Challenge. An online literature search will get your reports dating back 20 years on very similar projects. Take all project reports with a grain of salt. Projects only attempt to nick away at greater issues. Long-term accomplishments aren’t verified and if you don’t state great results, you don’t get funding in the next round.

      So, my favorite alternative development plan was presented on TV in Mongolia. I don’t remember the guy’s name. He was Mongolian, young, good looking, highly educated, and wealthy. He had international experience carbon trading markets. He advocated that Mongolia formally aspire to become the world’s 1st Green County, carbon neutral and clean. This would secure funding for development of green energy markets and attract big business looking for solid cap and trade partners. Mongolian’s living off the land in traditional ways would gain security. Mongolia’s lack of development is its greatest asset in this plan. I think Mongolia could easily be marketed as the modern day picture of paradise or Eden. Foreigners already want to believe it is true – and my experience living in Soum Centers and cities in winter is was far from paradise. It is REALLY HARD on the lungs. It is hard not to believe that securing clean air and water would help money flow into Mongolian, beyond the riches gained from resource extraction.

  6. thank you for the detailed information.
    I also would like to hear about your opinion on the effectiveness of the so common pool resource management or common property regime. Many of these projects implement management of pastureland through herder groups. How effective is it for reducing pastureland degradation? What is your idea about giving pastureland possession right to herders or herder groups?

  7. Herder groups are too small a unit to truly respond to land degradation issues. When you think herder group think family and then think family just working to support them selves the best they can monetarily. It is not big picture thinking. It is subsistence living. Long-term planning is a year for them. Land degradation does not recover in one year and it happens over the course of many years, so the temporal and spatial scale of herder groups is completely wrong for this issue.

    As far as land tenure, you can give herder groups land control, but if their cousin or neighbor has no grass then they will not be sent away. Herder groups fault climate change and weak government for land degradation. They point to the past when government controlled numbers strictly and say its does not protect them now. I think common pooled resources can work if the proper governing scale is employed for the problem at hand.

    My project addressed land use by giving ownership of the new wells to herder groups. This limits the number of herders per well, but not the number of animals. Animal number reduction was not up for discussion. Herders are getting wise to wells running dry regionally and the race to dig deeper is underway. I suspect animal numbers will drop because herding will become cost prohibitive and too risky. I also suspect that herders will sell their land rights. Again I think these issues need address on a regional or national scale.

    I would like to see a project that sends Mongolian herders to China, so they can think about their impact on the land and the various land control options. You can see China’s fence lined from space.

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