Efforts to preserve Mongolian nomadic farming traditions

Groups of herders work together to collaborate in pasture management and improve livelihoods.
Groups of herders work together to collaborate in pasture management and improve livelihoods.

Mongolian herders face a raft of pressures on their traditional nomadic pastoralism, researchers say.

Dr Kate Moore, who spent five months conducting fieldwork in Mongolia, said: “The herders that I met were deeply aware of climatic and environmental change in their pastures that are affecting their lifestyle.

Goats are combed for cashmere wool in the spring.
Goats are combed for cashmere wool in the spring.

“They often have to move further and more often to find good grazing for their goats, sheep, horses and camels. Therefore many are concerned that any moves towards privatisation of pasture will reduce their ability to maintain their livelihoods and nomadic culture.”

Geographers from the University of Leicester, in England, are involved in research on pastoralism, environment and livelihoods at a critical juncture in decision-making over the future of Mongolia’s rural areas.

The two-year study, “Community, Place and Pastoralism: Nature and Society in Post-Soviet Central Asia”, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and involving work in both Mongolia and Kazakhstan, led to a meeting in Ulaanbaatar last month, organised by the university team and their Mongolian colleagues.

At the meeting herders were able to discuss key land and livelihood issues directly with ministers, donors and government advisers.

Dr Caroline Upton, the principal investigator for the project, said: “Mongolian herders are facing multiple pressures on their livelihoods, traditionally based on nomadic pastoralism, from climate change, mining, desertification and new policies on land.

“Through our project, national decision-makers were brought together with affected parties and local stakeholders to debate some of the vital issues pertaining to nomadic culture, livelihoods and identity in modern Mongolia.

“They were also able to draw lessons from the Kazakh context, based on our project results.”

Mongolian herder drawing water from a well to water his goats.
A Mongolian herder draws water from a well for his goats.

In recent years, Mongolian herders have been encouraged through government policy and donor interventions to form herder groups. These groups are designed to collaborate in pasture management, labour sharing and environmental conservation, as well as marketing of their livestock products, thus improving local livelihoods and resilience.

A long-debated draft pastureland law, to be considered by the new Mongolian government in the next session of parliament, seeks to strengthen rights to key seasonal pastures for families and herders groups.

Although this law focuses on possession rather than ownership rights, for some herders it has raised fears over the ultimate privatisation of pastureland and reduction in the ability to move, particularly in times of need.

Government policy is also promoting intensification of livestock production. Thus, there are tensions between mobile and more sedentary livestock production in rural areas and questions are raised over the place of nomadic culture and identity in modern Mongolia.

Upton said: “This is a critical moment in decision making about the future of Mongolia’s rural areas. Enhanced rights of herders’ groups to key seasonal pastures have the potential to make positive contributions to local livelihoods and to conservation.

“Increases in mining activity also make the recognition of land rights especially important, so that herders’ voices may be heard in defending and seeking compensation for land loss and displacement.

“However, centuries old traditions of mobility, flexibility and reciprocity should not be lost. As other pastoral cultures have found, ‘modernity’ does not necessarily equate with sedentarisation or privatisation. Nomadic heritages and practices retain great value.”

The Leverhulme team is finalising detailed reports and articles to share with herders, international donors, and government policy makers, as part of their contribution to the vital, ongoing debates.

Results of the work have also been presented at this years’ Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) annual conference in Edinburgh.


2 thoughts on “Efforts to preserve Mongolian nomadic farming traditions

  • November 2, 2012 at 5:02 pm

    The herders I know talk about how tall the grass used to be when they were younger, where there is now just a few weeds and little soil. Herder groups are a good idea, rather than every family for themselves – it’s a bit like going back to the days of socialism when grazing was more controlled in theory.

  • November 6, 2012 at 2:59 am

    No doubt climate change is having an impact, and the very severe winters have led to many livestock losses ( so overgrazing is less likely ), but I can’t help feeling that when bureaucracy becomes involved, what were once ‘sustainable’ systems get well mucked up !


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