In Mongolia, many nomads despair

NOT just North America and Europe are pulling out of harsh winters. Mongolia has had its bitterest winter in decades. Nearly 3m of the country’s livestock, something approaching a tenth of the total, are said to have died, and some Mongolians. Now, with the glitter of huge mining projects on the horizon, questions are being raised about the future of nomadic herding, which has sustained Mongolians for millennia.

A few years ago I made a BBC radio series about Mongolia that took in a week-long stay in February with a herding family in Uvs province, in the far west of the country. Marsaa and his family (elderly mother, who has since died, wife, two young boys) keep 250 animals—sheep, cashmere goats, cattle, horses and a couple of camels—and live in winter quarters that consist of a ger (round tent) of homemade felt that is put up each year in the same natural dimple in the rolling mountain steppe, offering a modicum of protection from winter storms. No roads, electricity or running water: the nearest permanent settlement, the county centre, is a day’s horse ride away.

The temperature ducked down to 35 degrees (centigrade) below zero at night and was never warmer than minus 20 by day. Inside the ger it was cosy enough, a mild-steel stove burning the frozen animal dung we collected at dawn each day. The animals all huddled around the walls of the ger for warmth. In the mornings we took them down to the plain below to scratch for what grass they could find under the snow. But when you opened the door of the ger, sheep and goats charged you head down with the aim of gaining entry into the warm. Only dams with newborn kids were allowed a day or two inside, and they moved up so close to the stove at night that the air filled with the singe of their coat.

By this stage of the winter, Marsaa was feeling the strain. It had been a severe enough winter to be labelled a zud, conditions that are dangerous for livestock. The worst type of zud is when early-winter snows fall, thaw and then freeze again as ice to make it impossible for the livestock to get at the pasture. Marsaa picked up a carcass every two or three days. But the toughest times stills lay ahead. By April what fodder had been laid down in the autumn would have run out, while fresh shoots of grass would not appear till May.

My Mongolian friends have not had news from Marsaa this winter. Nineteen of Mongolia’s 21 provinces have been hit by heavy snow, with temperatures down to minus 50 degrees. In the days when the country was a Soviet vassal, herding was organised along collective lines, with supply lines running out of the county centres. Now herders rely on middlemen to buy their meat and wool, but these traders have not been able to get out to great swathes of the countryside. The herders are on their own.

The conditions have accelerated a long-term drift towards the capital, Ulan Bator, which now houses more than half the country’s 2.8m Mongolians, most of them in “ger districts”, Mongolia’s singular take on a shanty town. Many who have not yet given up herding have moved closer to Ulan Bator and lesser settlements, leading to widespread overgrazing. Prices for cashmere wool have halved in recent months, so the temptation will be to breed more goats—a vicious circle. With climate change threatening to bring ever less regular rains, recent commentary has wondered whether any future at all exists for nomading herding.

I am more hopeful. Everybody agrees Mongolia has more livestock than even this vast land, given low annual rainfall, can support. After the collapse of Communism, many herders borrowed to expand their herds. Others drifted from other work into herding, which offered a kind of safety net in Mongolia’s transition economy. Many lacked the experience to make a proper go of it. These herders are now suffering disproportionately.

If Mongolia’s livestock numbers fell by a third or even half, the remainder would be healthier and less susceptible to zud. What’s more, many of the further flung pastures (Mongolia is almost the size of Western Europe) are not overgrazed. The challenge for herders on these pastures is to get their produce to market—the tyranny of distance.

Here enlightened policy could help. In terms of transport policy, the government’s priority these days is to build roads not to help the herders but to ship out the valuable minerals that are presumed to lie in huge quantities beneath the steppe. And for lack of a well-managed market in cashmere, herders are often at the mercy of traders from China who smuggle wool out across the long border. In eastern Mongolia, tall-grass pasture is leased to Chinese companies who cut it and send it back as hay to China. Not just local herders lose out from this, but also the fabulous wild herds of Mongolian gazelle.

After that hard winter a few years ago, I went back the following July to see Marsaa and his family on their summer pastures. The sun shone after some welcome rain. The hills over which his animals were spread were of the brightest green. A sheep had been slaughtered for a big party that night. And the strain on Marsaa’s face was gone.



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