“Nature is taking revenge, it’s all our fault,” rues herder

Talking about the dzud and its devastating effects, P. Zagarzusem, governor of Uyanga, an administrative district and one of the worst-hit areas, told an AP correspondent, "For many herders, livestock is their main source of income. It"s their business. It"s what they do. That"s why the loss the herders are experiencing is the same as when a company or a bank goes bankrupt. Other countries have tsunamis or earthquakes, for example, and people lose their lives and possessions. In Mongolia a dzud is a disaster on a similar scale."

This dzud is raising uncomfortable questions about the herders" way of life, as integral to the Mongolian identity as Chinggis Khaan, whose image graces currency notes and vodka bottles. The constitution enshrines livestock as protected national wealth. Herders form a powerful constituency; parliament rescinded a head tax on livestock to curry favor with them. The government, in a report last year, identified the unfenced grasslands and the herds that roam there as acutely vulnerable to climate change, citing more frequent droughts and harsh dzud winters.

"We Mongolians did not treat nature properly. Nature is taking revenge. It"s all our fault," said a 34-year-old herder who drove his herd of 1,000 through three different counties in the winter trying to find pasture not buried under snow. Only 100 of his herd remain.

Government officials and development experts say herders are contributing to the problem. Since Mongolia dumped the planned economy and its Soviet client-state status for free markets 20 years ago, livestock numbers have more than doubled, to 42 million head. Much of the increase is in goats valued for cashmere, who eat voraciously, damaging the roots of grasses and other plants that anchor the soil and prevent the pasture from turning to desert.

While the government wants to move herders into other lines of work and decrease herds, an uncontrolled exodus from the steppe is already under way. After three harsh winters a decade ago, more than 70,000 herders ended up in Ulaanbaatar, swelling the shanty town fringes of the capital and mainly living on government handouts. The flow is expected to accelerate if the aftermath of the latest dzud is not controlled.


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