When I arrived in Mongolia last year, I looked at the number of tasks outlined by the grant and wondered why I could not just get these done in a few months and go home early. These were foolish thoughts in retrospect. My job has required major rethinking due to serious development issues.
There has been winter weather and flu travel restrictions that lasted for months. I have seen what looks to me like a dichotomy of good and bad herders, as one herder will lose only a few animals and a neighbor will loose all of them. The pastures when I arrived looked extremely degraded and I have sat on a national committee where this is the discussion. I have felt judged for working on a project installing more wells because most scientists feel that the pasture is 1/3 overstocked due to nil government regulatory controls. I have also learned that the mining is actually the driving economy, it is no longer agriculture and there is a lack of integration between the industries. Regions of the country now have multiple serious documented mercury pollution issues, and many more areas complain of the same. Many herders practice this dirty mining to secure funds so their kids can afford school. The more environmental option sometimes doesn’t work either. For instance, this winter a herder in my project area decided to comb his goats early to collect enough funds for his child to continue schooling, and the cold killed all his goats a week later.
As far as my project goes, I understand now that the eroding grasslands are the result of an unstable market economy. Even this winter, when a large percentage of the animals died so there is little wool to be had, the factories are refusing to pay a fair price. They are attempting to wait out the herders to get the lowest price. It’s a game of survival with no winners presently. The every-person-for-themselves plan is just not working here, and the environmental and economic repercussions are serious and escalating.
Rather than purely focusing on creating project maps, I have shifted work this winter to capacity building. This is more than conducting trainings. It’s organizational development inclusive of management structure, relationships between organizations, and regulatory frameworks that enable organizations to work at their maximum capacity. I also submitted a policy paper to the Government of Mongolia detailing a path for a national geographic information system where I argue for an integrated system with full participation of government, academic, and business sectors, so that future attempts at capacity building result in sustainable development systems can be handled internally. Presently there is a reliance on foreign donors and international NGOs in Mongolia to handle poverty, natural disaster, and market development.
Mongolia has not had a mass exodus of skilled workers evident in other developing countries. There are many highly skilled people still working in Mongolia, and they are working outside their profession because higher education is not valued highly enough. Many government jobs are appointed and staffed based on family and friend relationships, rather than skills and abilities. I am consistently asked to train government GIS employees who have only had a week-long course from an international NGO.
Outside of work hours, I have advised many Mongolian graduate GIS students, working on projects focused on the extent of mining pollution, forage prediction, water use and policy, climate change indicators, and urban planning. Professors lament that their brightest ecology students all end up working for mining companies because no other employer pays. The majority work as secretaries and other administrative positions only using their word processing and number skills.
In response, I am planning a GIS conference on in hopes of sparking some of the missing connections between government, business, and academia. The committee is working to personally invite local leaders with no training in GIS, to educate them on the value of this science for economic growth and development solutions. I just built a conference website at www.geospatialmongolia.org and if you are just learning about this conference and you want to contribute a talk or poster—ignore the abstract dates and email the committee. We want you to be there!