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.
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.