Mongolian farmers herd together in face of adversity

Climate change, gold prospectors and heavy industry threaten an ancient way of life

A Mongolian herder: severe winters have killed millions of animals in recent years, devastating nomadic communities. Photograph: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

A Mongolian herder: severe winters have killed millions of animals in recent years, devastating nomadic communities. Photograph: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

 

Summer was bountiful for the herders of Darkhid, a small farming community about 40km from the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator. Yaks and cows roam across the grassy steppe. A youth on horseback corrals a flock of sheep. The air is thick with the sweet smell of sea buckthorn.

“Three years ago it was not like this, it was a rocky and sandy place where very little grew,” says herder Jadamaa Davaa. “Now we have vegetables, fruit trees, and bushes.”

Davaa, a broad-shouldered man in middle age with a thick moustache, points approvingly at a squat greenhouse perched on a gently sloping hillside: “Now it has changed completely.”

The catalyst for change was the creation of a community co-operative in Darkhid seven years ago. Before 2007, these nomadic families farmed the same way they had for centuries: working in isolation, moving four or five times a season, living in the circular ger tents that are common across Central Asia.

The dome-shaped gers are still dotted across the horizon but now the seven families that make their living off Darkhid’s land pool their resources and expertise. “We co-operate now. When we sell milk, for example, we gather all the milk from all the families together and share a truck to take the milk to Ulan Bator,” says Davaa over bowls of salty milk tea and handfuls of aaruul, dried milk curd, in his neat, homely ger.

Land degradation

Mongolia

“Before we established the community group we just herded [animals on] the land everywhere,” says the co-operative’s de facto leader Davaasuren Terbish. “The livestock were eating all the grasses, so the land turned into a kind of desert. So now we manage the land together. We have seen an improvement in the soil.”

The Darkhid grass looks verdant and lush, but appearances can be deceptive. Part of the land has been contaminated by “ninja mining”, illegal gold prospecting that often uses cyanide and mercury. The ninjas – named after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because they carry distinctive green bowls on their backs – are thought to number about 60,000 and have wreaked environmental havoc across Mongolia.

As well as starting to clean up the mining contamination, the Darkhid community has managed to curtail illicit logging, the effects of which can still be seen in parched strips cut through the hillside overlooking the hamlet. “We have even created a waste management system,” says Davaa.

Destroying soil

“Climate change is affecting herdsmen too, creating dust storms and drought,” she adds.

The effects of these changes are most keenly felt in communities like Shinejinst, a small settlement of a few hundred gers and tin-roofed brick houses about 900km from Ulan Bator, in the Gobi desert.

Eking out a living on the dusty soil here has long been a struggle, but as the desert spreads finding enough grassland for livestock becomes increasingly difficult.

“This was not here five or six years ago,” Munkhbat, a council worker from Shinejinst, says as he stands in front of a 25ft high sand dune on the verge of a rutted track that is the road to the capital. “Before, the desert ended there.” He points a kilometre or so back into the Gobi.

The encroaching desert is not the only threat to the livelihoods of Mongolia’s herders. After the country’s communist regime collapsed in the 1990s, thousands returned to the sparsely populated land. But, increasingly, the direction of travel is from the countryside to the city.

In 1990, Ulan Bator was home to about half a million people. Now the city’s population is an estimated 1.5 million and that number is growing at a rate of about 40,000 a year. About half of all Mongolians live in the capital.

One of the reasons for this rapid urbanisation has been a series of bitterly cold winters that have decimated livestock and left herders unable to survive on the barren steppes.

In 2010, a dzud – the Mongolian name for particularly extreme winter conditions – saw temperatures drop to -50 degrees. About 10 million animals, including cows, camels, yaks, goats and sheep died.

Thousands of smaller herders were forced off the land. “We have had some very bad winters. Families lost all their livestock so they had to move to Ulan Bator or somewhere else,” says Anne-Camille Souris, director of a project dedicated to protecting the Mongolian mule and its habitat.

Many former herders struggle to find employment in the city, often pitching their tents in the vast, informal ger district that has sprung up on the outskirts of Ulan Bator and taking odd jobs to get by.

But the lure of the city can affect even successful herding communities. “The big issue is who will take over,” says mother of four Khandaa Davaa over lunch in Darkhid. Three of her children are studying in Ulan Bator. She does not expect any to return to the farm.

“The young generation don’t want to work in something so difficult. They go to the city and they don’t come back.”

Even with the improvements brought by the co-operative, making ends meet is still a struggle for Darkhid’s herders.

Ulan Bator is close but on the dirt road the journey to the market takes well over an hour. The herders complain, too, that many milk factories are using cheap powdered milk from China rather than buying fresh milk. Prices are down amid a country-wide economic slump, but costs continue to rise.

Nomadic life

For Nomadic Nature Conservation’s Tungalagtuya Khuukhenduu, Mongolia has one big advantage as it wrestles with seismic economic, social and environmental challenges – its people: “Mongolians are really able to accept new things and adapt quickly.”

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