Pastoralism Unraveling in Mongolia

By SARAH J. WACHTER
Published: December 8, 2009

A pungent odor like turpentine wafts over the hillsides north of the Mongolian capital. It comes from the sharilj, a wild plant that has taken over the scalloped landscape, a telltale sign of overgrazing since the plant is inedible for sheep and goats.
Sukhtseren Sharav has a herd of 150 goats and 100 sheep, and as they chew their way through everything else, and the sharilj spreads, he must shepherd them ever higher into the mountains to find fresh grazing land.
The lack of foraging terrain is not Mr. Sharav’s only worry. The price for cashmere, the wool made from the fleece of his goats, has plunged 50 percent from last year. The price of flour, his most essential food staple, has more doubled.

These are hard times for Mongolia’s cashmere industry, which provides jobs and income for a third of the country’s population of 2.6 million and supplies about 20 percent of the world’s market for the fluffy, feather-light fiber, prized for its warmth, delicate feel and long wear.

To compensate for low prices, herders have been increasing supply by breeding more goats — a classic vicious circle. Mongolia’s goat population is now approaching 20 million, the highest ever recorded.


Environmentalists and social scientists say this is destroying biodiversity and pastureland, and undermining herding livelihoods. But goats are hardier than other livestock, breed faster and can survive on sparser resources: so, the more the land is degraded, the more herders are driven to switch from cows, camels or other less destructive herds — another vicious circle.

Mixed into the problem is climate change. According to Erdene-Ochir Badarch, environment officer of the World Bank, rainfall on the Mongolian steppe has become increasingly erratic, resulting in the disappearance of 600 Mongolian rivers and 700 lakes. This too may be a chicken-and-egg problem. Increasing aridity and loss of plant species may itself be contributing to the dwindling rains.

In a study funded by Sony, Dennis Sheehy, a rancher from Oregon with a doctorate in range management, last year measured two of Mongolia’s four major ecological zones — desert and forest steppe — to determine changes in the composition of species compared with an earlier study made in 1997.

Mr. Sheehy found a 34 percent loss in plant species in the Gobi Desert and about a 30 percent loss in Mongolia’s forest steppe.

“Two conditions have created the loss in species: the proportion of goats in the herd in the last 10 to 12 years, and the areas are becoming increasingly arid,” Mr. Sheehy said. “The plant species that had disappeared were most palatable to all livestock, but especially to goats,” he added. “There are too many of them.”

The problem with goats is not only what they eat. In arid regions, their sharp hooves have been accused by environmentalists of piercing the soil surface, known technically as the cryptobiotic crust, a tangle of gray-brown material composed of fungi, mosses, lichens and bacteria which helps to retain moisture. Once the crust is torn, strong northwesterly winds carry away the sand underneath in dust storms that are contributing to the spread of the desert, according to a 2003 World Bank report.

Still, large parts of Mongolia remain in good shape, notably in the eastern parts of the country, and some researchers, including Andrei Marin, a doctoral student preparing a thesis on climate-change adaptation at the Institute of Geography, part of the University of Bergen in Norway, caution against jumping to conclusions about cause and effect.

Mr. Marin says the 10-year timetable for Mr. Sheehy’s comparative study may be too short to measure environmental shifts, and a 25-year span would be more meaningful.

The reasons goats are proliferating are as much about nurture as nature, Mr. Marin said by telephone from Bergen. When the country shifted from a planned socialist economy to a market economy and a parliamentary democracy, it largely retreated from supporting the livestock industry, leading herders to increase the size of the goat herd to finance rising expenses, he said.

“Government subsidies for transportation, boarding schools and a hay reserve have disappeared to a large extent,” he said.

Adding some complexity to the debate, land degradation, as a term, lacks a precise and widely accepted definition, and environmentalists urge a note of caution when discussing it.

“There are seven different ways to measure desertification in Mongolia,” said Tony Whitten, a biodiversity specialist with the World Bank in East Asia and the Pacific.

Yet another layer of the problem is the dysfunctionality of Mongolia’s cashmere marketing.

China is the largest buyer of Mongolia’s raw and washed cashmere by far, taking an estimated two-thirds of all exports — one-third legally and one-third smuggled to avoid export taxes.

Facing such a dominant buyer, Mongolian traders tend to get the short end of the bargain even in good times, accepting prices far below market value for high-quality fleeces and passing on the pain to the producers; and in the past year, times have not been good. As the global economic crisis shrank Chinese clothing exports, Chinese cashmere purchases effectively ground to a halt, just as another rain failure was pushing the herders into longer and more expensive migrations in search of grazing land.

“Climate change and globalization interacted to severely curtail the adaptive capacity of the herders,” Mr. Marin said.

Whatever the exact mix of causes, Mr. Sheehy says, the result is the same: a situation that poses a major risk to sustainability, with too many goats, and too much livestock in general.

The total Mongolian livestock herd numbers about 44 million animals, but Mongolia is haunted by the decimation of its herds when four successive years of summer drought, from 1999 to 2002, were followed by cold and snowy winters, killing off 9 million animals — a disaster from which many smaller herders have still not recovered.

“We’re predicting that with any significant drought, the whole livestock pastoral system will crash,” he said. “Especially in central Mongolia, where there is not much resilience — it is on the verge of a breakdown.”

But the solution is easier envisaged than done: reduce livestock numbers, when herders are hard up for cash, and introduce modern market management to a country that has never known it.

“Everyone thinks there are too many goats. But no one does anything about it,” Mr. Sheehy said.

Source:www.nytimes.com
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