Mongolia: A balancing act

Sep 26, 2017

Photo credit: GEF

Mongolia is a land of extremes. With a land area of some 1, 500 million km2, and a population of a little over 3 million people, Mongolia is the world’s most sparsely populated country. The rugged beauty and sheer vastness of its landscapes – which include everything from the high, snow-capped Altai mountains, to vast steppes, lush forests and parched deserts – is awe inspiring. The country stands at the interface of the world’s southernmost tundra and northermost desert, and its diverse habitats harbour globally significant biodiversity – this includes numerous rare, endangered and unique species, such as the secretive snow leopard, giant argali sheep and Przewalski horses. Climatically, Mongolia is characterized by an extreme continental climate – long, cold winters, short hot summers, a high incidence of wind, and unpredictable rainfall; with an average of 257 cloudless days a year, this is undoubtedly the ‘country of blue sky’.

Mongolia has a long history of human occupation dating back 10,000 years, and today is home to a rich diversity of peoples, which include ethnic groupings with origins in both European and Asian civilizations. About 40 percent of the population is rural, made up of traditional herders who still follow nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyles, with customs dating back to the times of Genghis Khan. The rest of the population is urban, and mostly young, with people following modern careers and lifestyles and aspiring to a higher standard of living.

Despite the low population pressure, more than 70 percent of the land surface of Mongolia is affected by land degradation. This has been caused by a combination of natural factors (extreme weather, skeletal soils and climate change), and human-induced impacts such as overgrazing and, increasingly, mining. UNDP is helping the government of Mongolia to implement a GEF-financed project, known as the Land Degradation Offset Project, to reduce and offset negative impacts of mining on rangelands in the western mountain steppe region, and to test new approaches to overcome the challenges and conflicts that have arisen between mining and traditional land uses such as livestock herding.

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 Province (‘aimag’), some 38,000 nomadic and semi-nomadic herding families occupy these landscapes. These 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.

Yanjmaa Batmunkh is  58-year old herder who lives in Khar Alt (‘Black Gold’) in the Bukhmurun district (‘Soum’) of Uvs Province, 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 8 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 Khar Alt 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 for grazing, 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 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. Yanjmaa describes the situation, as she sees it: “Khar Alt region has been degraded by coal mining operations and poor land management in recent times. Our pastureland is disappearing and being degraded 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. Yanjmaa 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 new paths

This is where the 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 Yanjmaa  Batmunkh - and to invest in Sustainable Land Management 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. Yanjmaa 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 has been established nearby to help us store water, and about 250 hectares of pastureland are being restored.”

Communities are also being introduced to alternative income generating activities that allow them to retain their deep connection to their land and rural lifestyles, but using natural resources in ways that maintain ecosystem integrity. Living near the pond described by Yanjmaa, is a community conservation group named ‘Tsakhir.’ 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 Yanjmaa’s view, these efforts are showing signs of success: “These people are no longer managing their livestock as other nomads do, but are earning their income by managing the wildlife. The Tsakhir environmental group have become one of the most successful communities when it comes to income generation!”

Digging Deeper: Building partnerships to implement land degradation offsets in Mongolia

Mongolia’s economy has shown rapid economic growth in recent times, driven largely by exploitation of the country’s vast mineral resources, but this has carried high costs: erosion of cultural values and traditional lifestyles, and increasing land degradation. The result has been decreased land productivity, with serious implications for vulnerable rural communities, national productivity and the quest for equitable and sustainable development.  Three years ago, some 2,768 mining exploration and exploitation licenses had been granted, covering about 11 million hectares (representing about 7.5 percent of the total land area). Exploitation of mineral resources is essential for sustaining the type of economic growth needed to meet the aspirations of an increasingly urban population and a rapidly-growing market economy. But, a balance needs to be struck between this and other land uses - especially livestock husbandry, which is the second largest economic sector in the country and the mainstay of rural communities - and managing Mongolia’s unique ecosystems sustainably.

It is for this reason that the Government has embraced the concept of a green development programme which includes measures to rehabilitate degraded land and water resources; reduce and avoid future degradation, offset and the negative impacts of mining operations where they do occur.

The concept of offsets is new in Mongolia, with the first ever biodiversity offset programme introduced as recently as 2012. For this reason, training and capacity building has been an important aspect of the UNDP-supported Land Degradation Offset project. Amankeldi Mektihani, who works as a mine engineer at Khotgor coal mines in Uvs Province, describes the benefit of the training provided through the project: “The main outcome of the training was not only increased awareness of and capacity for implementing land degradation offsets, but also improved cooperation between local government organizations, private mining companies and civil society groups. We have recently concluded the development of an offsets plan and our company has increased its budget for implementation of environmental management actions by 74 percent.”

 At ground level, mining companies are working alongside Pasture Users’ Groups to rehabilitate degraded land and support alternative income generating activities, such as sustainable wildlife management and use, and harvesting, sale and marketing of natural products such as sea-buckthorn (a wild berry used as food for people and animals in the dry eastern parts of Mongolia). Work has only recently begun, but, already, local communities, government and mining companies are seeing progress as Mongolia embarks on its green development pathway.

 ‘Gaaya’ Galsandondog, who is the Governor of Khovd Province, sums up the their ambitions: “We have set forward four objectives to reduce, offset and prevent land degradation. These include taking more land under state protection, rehabilitating degraded pastures and introducing sustainable livestock management plans, adopting best practices in the mining industry and implementing an offsets policy, and placing more land under afforestation. We are committed to achieving green development through multi-stakeholder collaboration and effective public-private partnerships. I have no doubt that if we meet these objectives, we will make great strides to achieving the SDG’s. “

This story was supported by the Global Environment Facility.

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