Mongolia, a country struggling with depleted government revenues and a historically weak currency, is seeking millions of dollars in international emergency assistance as a harsh winter known as a dzud threatens to decimate animal numbers.
The country’s herds have reached record numbers after several mild winters and government programmes that incentivise herders to raise more animals. With about 80 per cent of pasture degraded, many regions are locked in a downward spiral where herders require more animals to maintain their income, further damaging the grazing lands.
International agencies and multilateral banks could collectively offer up to about $10m in assistance, potentially opening the door to future multilateral loans if the country’s economic outlook continues to deteriorate in the coming year, when international debt comes due.
The economic threat to Mongolia’s herders comes as the country is already struggling with the end of the commodity cycle, which has depleted government revenues in the resource-rich nation and pushed the currency to historic weakness.
If colder weather and more snow this year prevent animals from foraging in March and April, when young and weakened animals are most vulnerable, more marginal herders will be pushed into the towns and cities, where few jobs await. A dzud in 2000 wiped out about a third of the country’s animals and pushed tens of thousands of families to shantytowns around Ulan Bator, the capital.
The Red Cross this week released funds from its disaster relief emergency fund and warned that “millions of animals” were likely to die this spring. But interviews with officials and herders in central Mongolia revealed that the problem has deeper roots than just cold weather.
“When I was a child, the elders told me the grass would grow so high you couldn’t see the cattle. But now it’s only about 10cm tall,” said Tsedensednom, the governor of Ulziit soum, or township, in the centre of Mongolia’s top goat-breeding region. Goats are prized for their cashmere but contribute heavily to desertification, because they eat the grass to the roots.
Mongolia’s Ministry of Agriculture in September estimated the total number of animals in the country at 70m, although other estimates put the number above 50m. Prices of meat and skins have fallen sharply because of oversupply, while wool and cashmere quality has deteriorated as the available vegetation declines. Exports to China were suspended until recently, following outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in Mongolia.
In Bayankhongor, the top goat-breeding province, the number of livestock has nearly doubled since 2011. Herders agree that almost no land is allowed to lie fallow to recover, and families encroach on each others’ lands as they move their animals in search of grass.
“For every young herder, it is a point of pride to reach 1,000 animals,” explained 31-year-old Unubold, who has received a medal as a “distinguished herder”. Goats make up more than half his herd, breaking a traditional rule that there should be only one goat for every 10 animals.
Source:Lucy Hornby of Financial Times in Bayankhongor province of Mongolia