Feature Story

A balancing act

September 5, 2017

Over the past decade, the traditional way of life in Western Mongolia has been changing, with rapidly intensifying land degradation and desertification placing the future of herders – and the integrity of the mountain and desert steppe ecosystems that support them – at risk.

A herder’s life

Western Mongolia is the most remote, ethnically diverse, and mountainous region of Mongolia. Its vast mountain steppes provide habitat for many species, corridors for seasonal migrations (of wildlife as well as herds of livestock), and critical ecosystem services. In Uvs ‘Aimag’ (province), some 38,000 nomadic and semi-nomadic herding families occupy these landscapes. Herders are adapted to the rigours of living in these mountainlands, and have a deep and intimate relationship with their land and the critical resources it provides – water and grazing – to support the animals that are their primary source of food and cash income.

Tuvshinjargal Orgodol (who is known as ‘Tuvshee’) is a 57-year old herder who lives in Gurvan Jigertei (‘Three Jigertei’) in the Bukhmurun ‘Soum’ (district), close to the Mongolian-Russian border. She, like her ancestors before her, is a sheep herder with a deep love of her homeland, “My ancestors lived here for a very long time as herders, and I have lived this life since I was born – I have never been to school or university. I have raised eight children here. Four of them are herders, but the others have gone away to live in Ulaanbaatar (the capital city). When I was young, the landscape of Gurvan Jigertei was really beautiful. In summer the area was covered with dark green grass and throughout the seasons the steppes provided abundant grass and water. Many herds of cattle from surrounding areas used to come here, and our livestock grazed alongside black-tailed gazelles. We had a peaceful and abundant life.”

Changing times

Over the past decade, this picture has been changing, with rapidly intensifying land degradation and desertification placing the future of traditional herders – and the integrity of the mountain and desert steppe ecosystems that support them – at risk. Below the surface of the steppes lies a vast repository of mineral deposits – coal, copper, and gold – and mining exploration and exploitation is increasing rapidly, restricting the amount of land available for herders and affecting water supplies. Tuvshee describes the situation, as she sees it, “Gurvan Jigertei has been degraded by coal mining operations and poor land management in recent times. Our pastureland is being damaged and is disappearing and even small springs, ponds, and hand-wells are drying up. The vegetation was so scarce between 2012 and 2014 that our animals could not lay on enough fat to survive the harsh winter, and we lost many livestock. This brings such misery to nomadic herders like us whose livelihoods depend directly on nature’s resources and the weather.”

With increasing competition for land between different land users, herders and wildlife can no longer move unfettered across the landscape, leading to overcrowding and overgrazing. Increased herd sizes, changed grazing regimes, and land tenure arrangements, have resulted in declining availability and health of pastures, reduced herd fitness, soil erosion, degradation of water sources, and loss of biodiversity – with all of these impacts worsened by the effects of an increasingly unpredictable climate.

The herders show great awareness of the problem, but did not know how to solve it. Tuvshee explains, “We are heavily dependent on pasture condition. Many herders are trying to live close to the border region where grazing is still available, and some of them have even settled there. We are aware that this small area cannot provide enough pasture and water for all of our livestock – and the animals of nearby herders – as there is not enough rain and there are no more springs. But we have no other choice.”

Setting off on a new path

This is where the GEF-funded ‘Land Degradation Offset’ Project has come into play. In a collaborative effort involving government, the mining sector, and local communities, a range of measures is being put in place to address land degradation issues arising from competing land uses (such as those described by Tuvshee), and to invest in Sustainable Land Management (SLM) to rehabilitate degraded lands and avoid future degradation. One of the critical interventions has been to address the issue of water supply and quality, and to restore productivity to over-burdened rangelands. Tuvshee describes how the project is helping in her area, bringing benefit to about 18 herder families, “Last spring, we discussed this problem with the regional (‘Soum’) government and the land degradation project team. As a result, a small pond (check-dam) has been established nearby to help us store water, and about 250 hectares of pastureland are being restored.”

In addition, alternative income generating activities are being introduced that allow communities to retain their deep connection to their land and rural lifestyles, while using natural resources in ways that maintain ecosystem integrity. Living near the check-dam described by Tuvshee, is the ‘Tsakhir’ community conservation group. They are pursuing livelihoods based on wildlife management and sustainable use of wildlife resources. The land they occupy has been reserved for conservation and sustainable use as part of the government’s commitment to set aside ecologically sensitive areas, protecting them from damaging extractive land uses such as mining, and using them instead as natural assets to support sustainable livelihoods. In Tuvshee’s view, these efforts are showing signs of success, “The Tsakhir community are no longer managing their livestock as other nomads do, but are earning their income by managing the wildlife. This environmental group has now become one of the most successful communities in this area when it comes to income generation.”