Guest Post: The Future of Livestock Herding in Mongolia

By Daniel Miller

Will nomadism become extinct in Mongolia?

A Mongolian journalist recently asked me, “Do you think that it’s possible for nomadism to become extinct?”  My answer was:

Mongolia has a long history of nomadic pastoralism, with herders raising livestock on the grasslands for thousands of years. Multi-species herds and mobility were, and still are, key aspects of pastoral livestock production. Mongolians also have extensive traditional ecological knowledge and understanding of the varied landscapes they use to raise livestock. Herders now face many challenges: an increase in livestock numbers, overgrazing, rangeland degradation, snowstorms, drought, livestock diseases, climate change, accessing new markets for livestock products, and conflicts with efforts to conserve biodiversity. There are also opportunities for herders to increase their incomes and improve their livelihoods. Herders will have to adapt to prosper, but as long as they manage the grasslands and livestock well and combine the best aspects of their traditional practices and knowledge with appropriate science-based range and livestock management, they should be successful.

The declining health of Mongolia’s rangelands and the sustainability of many current livestock production practices concerns me.

Nomads or Herders?  Nomadism or Mobile Pastoralism?

Mongolians use the word, малчин (mal=livestock; chin=specialist) to refer to people raising livestock, which is usually translated as a herder, not a nomad. The Mongolian term for nomad is нүүдэлчин, which translates as a “moving person” and does not necessarily mean someone with livestock. Here, I refer to Mongolians who raise livestock as herders (malchin).

Pastoralism is a social and economic system based on the raising of domestic animals for livelihoods rather than agriculture. The term pastoralism comes from the Latin word ”pastor,” which means ”shepherd.” Nomadism refers to a way of life where people have no permanent settlement but move from place to place and doesn’t necessarily involve the raising of livestock. Mongolian herders can also be termed pastoralists and since they move between seasonal pastures their livestock production system can be called mobile pastoralism. The term intensive livestock raising is now being used in Mongolia to refer to specialized dairy producers, swine and chicken production, and cattle finishing or fattening operations (e.g., feedlots).

The World’s Last Intact Grazing Land Ecosystem

Encompassing 1.56 million square kilometers, Mongolia is twice the size of the U.S. state of Texas. About 75 percent of the country is rangeland; ranging from desert to desert steppe, steppe, forest-steppe, taiga, and alpine meadows. Rangelands provide forage for livestock, habitat for wildlife, important watershed function, and social benefits and ecosystem services. Mongolia has one of the world’s last largely intact grazing land ecosystems. As such, the proper use of this important global resource should be a priority.

A Long Pastoral History

Mongolians have been raising livestock for thousands of years. A horse-based nomadic culture existed 3,500 years ago where burials with hundreds of associated horse sacrifices have been found. The rangelands nurtured numerous nomadic federations and the rise of one of the largest land empires the world has known during the 13th century. Livestock production practices that existed for millennia were transformed during the socialist period (1921-1990) and then again with the transition to a market economy in the early 1990s. Growing domestic and export markets for livestock products will drive further changes in livestock production practices.

Are Mongolian rangelands at a tipping point?

Mongolia has a robust rangeland monitoring system to determine the health of the rangelands. Ecological site groups and state and transition models for Mongolian rangelands were also recently developed to communicate information on vegetation changes as a basis for improved management. Many herders are organized into Pasture User Groups to develop grazing plans to improve range management. Unfortunately, much of the rangeland is still mismanaged and a “tragedy of the commons” situation prevails.

In 2017, researchers determined that some Mongolian rangelands were approaching an ecological tipping point if grazing pressure was not reduced.  They also warned that a cultural tipping point could be reached if demographic and social trends lead to erosion of herder knowledge and identity.  That report was based on 2014 data when livestock totaled 52 million head. The livestock population has grown by another 20 million head since then. Many herder households have given up herding and moved to Aimag centers or Ulaanbaatar and fewer young people want to become herders. This leads to a growing loss of traditional ecological knowledge among herders.

Mongolia’s Nomadic Heritage Threatened

Heavy livestock grazing, especially in riparian areas used for summer pasture, is widespread and there is increasing evidence of rangeland degradation. The latest rangeland monitoring data indicates that about half of Mongolia’s rangeland is degraded to some degree. The large growth in livestock numbers and lack of proper range management imperil the very foundation of Mongolian mobile pastoralism. Effective extension services to provide practical advice to herders are lacking. As a result, too much misinformation and inappropriate “knowledge” is disseminated on Facebook. Mongolia’s nomadic heritage is threatened unless ways are found to reduce the livestock population and balance livestock numbers with available forage.

Innovative approaches that build on indigenous knowledge and practices, incorporate new scientific findings, including emerging technologies, and adapt current livestock production practices to markets are needed to secure a sustainable range-livestock production system in Mongolia.

About Daniel Miller

Daniel Miller is a range ecologist who first came to Mongolia in 1992 as a consultant on an Asian Development Bank project. In Mongolia, he has worked on livestock development projects for the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, Mercy Corps, the International Finance Corporation, and the United Nations. He has been involved in rural development and biodiversity conservation programs in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea.  He has a Master’s Degree in Forestry from the University of Montana. He is the author of numerous scientific articles, book chapters, and photographic books about his work with nomads in the Himalaya, Tibetan Plateau, and Mongolian Steppe.   He is currently writing his memoir, A Cowboy in Mongolia: Sport and Adventure in the Mountains and High Plains of Asia which will highlight an uncommon career in international development and natural resource management, focusing on his passion for wide-open spaces, horses, and nomadic pastoral cultures.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots
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