Herders’ communal work revives degraded pastureland


Herders of “Bayantuhumiin Uguuj Horshoo” group are encouraged by their results to make their desert area green (UNDP Mongolia)

This summer, herder communities involved in UNDP’s “Sustainable Land Management for Combating Desertification” project harvested high yields of hay, which was the result of several years of effort to improve the soil condition in their localities, representing arid and semi-arid regions. 

With funding from the Netherlands and Switzerland Governments and UNDP, the Sustainable Land Management (SLM) project started in 2008 and operates in 13 soums (districts) of four provinces representating different ecological zones of Mongolia. It aims to introduce and promote sustainable land management practices, adjusted to local soil and climatic conditions and livelihoods. Herder communities involved in the project have fenced new hayfields to prevent livestock movement and obtained abundant harvest by improving irrigation and applying organic fertilizers.

Mongolia is located in the arid and semi-arid zones of continental Asia, which are characterized by hot and dry summers, low soil fertility and scarce vegetation cover dominated by few species. Nomadic herders rear sheep, goats, cattle, horses and camels as their main source of income. They are often faced with insufficient hay and fodder in winter and spring, which is one of the main obstacles in sustainable livestock husbandry. In recent years, herders have become less mobile, leading to overgrazing, which hinders plant seed maturation. This in turn leaves pastureland barren and prone to wind and water erosion. From 1940 to 2007 the average annual air temperature in Mongolia rose by 2.1°C due to climate change effects, while annual precipitation decreased in most areas, resulting in intensification of droughts. 

Highlights:

  • According to the definition provided in the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, 90 percent of Mongolia’s landmass is highly vulnerable to desertification and land degradation, and 72 percent is affected by desertification to a certain degree.
  • Following the experience of the “Bayantuhumiin Uguuj” herder group, 5 new groups involving 43 households were established in 2010, all working on soil improvement and pasture management. With UNDP support, the herders have created value-additions to and alternate income opportunities aside from livestock husbandry through small-scale vegetable farming and diversified dairy and wool products.
  • With UNDP support, the annual soum-wide pasture/land management plan was developed and implemented with the herder community participation. This plan will be the basis for achieving a significantly reduced area of degraded land towards the end of the project. The UNDP-supported herder groups pioneered a revival of collective action for pasture management and prevention of land degradation.

With the collapse of the socialist system and dismantling of state owned cooperatives in the 1990s, livestock was privatised, but the land itself was not. Although the number of livestock have been steadily increasing, the practice of collaboration between herders was lost and the rearing of an excessive number of livestock over the pasture carrying capacity has significantly degraded the land during the past two decades. 

Before the start of the SLM project, 70% of Baruunbayan-Ulaan soum in Uvurkhangai province was degraded and featured increased sand invasion. The main cause of this was unsustainable use of pasture exceeding the carrying capacity.

The “new generation” of herders lack knowledge about pasture use and have limited experience in haymaking, pasture rotation and fencing to support the natural regeneration of the pasture. 

The UNDP project provided support in forming herder groups and a series of training opportunities with field demonstrations on pasture management, hayfield fencing, soil quality improvement and maintenance techniques, as well as methods of planting alfalfa and barley. In 2009, the training courses organized by the UNDP project enrolled over 2600 participants, 60% of which were women. After the training and with support from the project, herder communities fenced off 12 hectares of pasture in the Taats river valley in 2009. The plot was previously used by a former state collective farm to grow barley and haymaking over 20 years ago; however, continuously declining water levels have made irrigation increasingly difficult and therefore herders have slowly abandoned crop farming in this location. The UNDP project also provided technical assistance in restoring old water ditches and establishing a borehole well to be used in case of severe water shortage. 

In 2009, under the technical guidance of the UNDP project, the “Bayantuhumiin Uguuj Horshoo” herder group planted alfalfa in 2.2 ha and barley in 1 ha. 10 ha of land was used for hay making. Due to their collaborative efforts to maintain hayfields, fencing and improved irrigation, herders were able to once again harvest crops and prepare their own hay for the winter. The herder community harvested 2.5 tons of alfalfa, 2 tons of barley and 80 tons of hay that fully met their needs. 

The herders who worked on the hayfield established a formal herder group involving 10 households and 23 members in 2010. The group leader Mr. D.Tumurchudur said “We worked as one to rest our field from livestock, irrigated and used organic fertilisers, which rewarded us with good amount of hay. Because of hay reserved, we did not lose a single lamb in the past severe winter. Neighboring herders now come to us to learn from our experience”. 

He also stated that herders can harvest five times more hay from one hectare by merely supporting natural regeneration. In itially, the herders were pessimistic about planting new crops; however, after seeing the first results, the community was very much inspired. Women from the herder group made barley flour and, besides using the flour for household needs, sold the excess on the provincial market generating a revenue of MNT500,000 (apprx. US$385). The herder group won first place in the brand product fair of Uvurkhangai province.