Dust, hail and bank loans: Mongolian herders face grassless life

wattGanzorig Tserenchimed grimaced as he thought about last winter. Icy winds blew across the grassland and a thick layer of frost formed on the ground, preventing animals from reaching the small grass below. The temperature plummeted to below -35 degrees Celsius.

Dozens of his livestock, weakened by hunger, froze to death. Some animals suffocated in pens as they struggled to stay warm. To save his remaining livestock, Ganzorig traveled hundreds of miles in search of pasture, sleeping in his car for weeks. The experience nearly broke his resolve.

“What’s the point of herding cattle through these difficult times?” Ganzorig Tserenchimed said from his yurt. Photography: Fred Hart

“This nomadic lifestyle is our tradition and I’m proud to continue it,” Ganzolig said as he passed around a bowl of fermented mare’s milk in a traditional Mongolian round felt tent. “But it’s become very Difficult because “I’m almost 50 and sometimes I think: ‘What’s the point of grazing in these difficult times? ‘I could sell the house and get a job in the city. “

About 30% of Mongolia’s nearly 3.5 million people work as herders, traveling across the grasslands as the seasons change in search of fresh pasture for their animals. Even city dwellers are proud of their country’s ties to livestock.

“We are closely related to livestock,” said Byambadorj Sainjargal, an official in Uvurkhangai province in central Ganzorig. “Nomadic culture is in our genes.”

Yet climate breakdown and mismanagement are destroying Mongolia’s grasslands, 90% affected Due to desertification, hundreds of thousands of herders have abandoned their flocks and succumbed to urban pressures.

Ganzorig Tserenchimed and his wife drove across the grasslands to their yurt.
Ganzorig Tserenchimed and his wife drove across the grasslands to their yurt. Photography: Fred Hart

Temperatures in landlocked Mongolia have risen by 2.2 degrees Celsius since 1940, well above the global average, while annual rainfall has fallen sharply, According to the United Nations. This transition brings dry summers, followed by harsh winters – a unique weather phenomenon in Mongolia, known locally as Zude.

Not long ago, there were storms once or twice every decade. “It happens almost every year now,” Granzorig said, listing the most recent severe winters: 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022.

There is little rain in summer and there is little grass on the grassland, making it difficult for animals to fatten up for the winter. When it rains, heavy and fast, it will wash away the topsoil. Extreme weather events such as hail and sandstorms are also becoming more frequent.

“Climate change is happening,” said Bayan-Altai Luvsandorj, country director of Save the Children, which provides emergency help to pastoralists. “Unless policymakers take immediate action, this climate change will The nomadic lifestyle will disappear and the country will lose everything.” An identity. “

On the gentle plains where Ganzorig has set up his yurt, the effect is clear: the sparse grass growing out of the sand is short, dry and brittle. A few miles away, her grandchildren were herding the family goats into a pen. That night, Ganzorig’s neighbor Jamb Navgan recalled how different her life was when she was young.

“We have a lot of wildflowers in the summer and a lot of rain, but for the past 10 years we have barely had any grass”… Jamb Navgan, Uvurkhangai. Photography: Fred Hart

“When I was a girl, my parents couldn’t find me in the grass because it was so high,” the 68-year-old said. “We had a lot of wildflowers in the summer and a lot of rain, but in the past ten years We’ve barely had any grass for years.”

Like many herders, Jamb’s family went into debt to buy feed. Loans last winter totaled MNT 13 million, equivalent to about £3,000. The family had hoped to pay off the loan in the spring by selling lambs and kid goats, but few of their loans ended up breeding the malnourished animals. Now they are discussing taking out a new loan to pay off the old one. “It’s like a cycle,” Jambu said. “We will never produce enough to pay off our debt.”

Having witnessed their parents’ hardships, few young Mongolians are willing to follow in their footsteps. At secondary schools in the nearby town of Santes, students want to be teachers, police officers and doctors, not herders. , it’s so hard,” said 15-year-old Shirrentuya Enkhtur.

However, climate breakdown is not the only problem; overgrazing also poses huge challenges, with roots in the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Under Communist rule, livestock was managed by the statePastoralists can own a small number of animals, but government associations raise most livestock. Things changed after the Iron Curtain fell. Restrictions on private property were lifted, as were livestock taxes and laws regulating ranching.

As a result, the size of the national cattle herd has exploded: historically hovering around 20 million, that number more than tripled to 71 million in 2022. desertification This means more animals grazing on less land.

Sheep and goats on overgrazed pastures.
Sheep and goats on overgrazed pastures. Photography: Fred Hart

Meanwhile, global cashmere prices are soaring, driven by demand from China’s growing middle class, and Mongolian herders are scrambling to buy more goats, which cause more damage to grasslands than sheep and cattle because of their habit of eating tree roots and seeds.

Mongolian herders have become dependent on cashmere. Jamb estimates that 80% of her family’s income comes from wool and says their financial situation would improve if they were able to purchase more goats. “In this area, there are no other options,” she said. “There is no market for the meat.”

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Worse still is the emergence of large herds, often owned as investments by wealthy city dwellers and entrepreneurs. Approximately 80% of pastoralists own less than 500 livestock, and their livestock account for 45% of the national herd. The remaining 55% of livestock in Mongolia is owned by the richest 20% of herders, according to government data.

“In my opinion, the government is not doing enough,” said Nyamtaivan Odongerel, director of the pastoralist advocacy group Steppe and Hoof. “We cannot control the weather, but we can introduce policies to combat the effects of climate change.” …”

Crucially, Mongolia lacks legislation on rangeland management. Several bills have been drafted; the latest will be discussed in parliament soon. Regulation would be deeply unpopular with pastoralists and rural councilors fearful of losing their votes would hamper decision-making.

“This is a big issue for parliamentarians,” said Burmaa Dashbal, head of the National Federation of Pasture User Groups (NFPUG). “Pastoralists have a strong voice and when they speak as a group, No one can beat them.”

Currently, Mongolian herders can take their livestock anywhere. New legislation would change that, giving pastoralists rights to their local pastures and the ability to prevent outsiders from grazing. In theory, herders would have the ability to rotate their pastures across the country. Years, give it time to recover.

Herders prepare a traditional meal of boiled mutton.
Herders prepare a traditional meal of boiled mutton. Photography: Fred Hart

Burmaa said both Steppe and Hoof and NFPUG encouraged the use of artificial insemination and modern veterinary methods to increase the value of individual animals, allowing pastoralists to reduce herd sizes without losing income.

“They all recognize that land degradation is a problem and something needs to be done, but they can’t agree on specific measures,” she added.

At the same time, a large number of people Moving to the capital Ulaanbaatar, a traffic-choked area of ​​crumbling Soviet buildings, apartment blocks and smoking power plants. Most people have set up tents here. “Yutt area”A series of poor neighborhoods located on the edge of the city that lack sanitation facilities or services.

To keep warm, residents burned coal. The smoke is trapped by the mountains surrounding Ulaanbaatar, turning into a thick smog that makes the city even colder. One of the most polluted capitals in the world.

Bartbaatar Ulzibat outside his ger in Ulaanbaatar.
“We have 40 horses, 40 cattle and about 350 goats and sheep”…Bartbaatar Ulzibat outside his ger in Ulaanbaatar. Photography: Fred Hart

“Inequality is growing because you build urban families in the city and then immigrants come in from the countryside trying to make a living,” Bayan-Altai said. “They have little access to basic services and are often exploited by their employers.” “

Bartbaatar Ulzibat moved in 2010.That year, a particularly devastating storm Eight million animals across Mongolia became extinct, triggering one of the largest migrations from Ulaanbaatar in recent memory. “We have 40 horses, 40 cows and about 350 goats and sheep,” said 43-year-old Bart. “Then suddenly the wind came and took everything away.”

In Ulaanbaatar, Batbaatar worked as a guard, worker and forklift driver. His yurt was set up under two towers. It’s a new tent provided by Save the Children, after floods in August destroyed his old tent.

“The pollution is the worst, especially in winter,” he said. “At night, I feel severe pain in my lungs, and every time I spit, it’s black.”

People in front of the war memorial on a hill overlooking Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
People in front of the war memorial on a hill overlooking Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photography: Fred Hart

Like many others, Babatar originally planned to stay in the city for a while, just enough to make some money and start over, but he never saved enough. Now he has to live near his children’s school.

He cherishes a faint dream that one day he can return to the grasslands with fresh air and open air, but he has no idea how to do it. “Where I used to live, there are not many herders left,” he said. “Everyone is moving there.” The city. “

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