Credit: UNDP Mongolia - ABS project

Published on 30th October, 2020

by UNDP-GEF Global ABS Project: 



The Darkhad Depression in northern Mongolia is a beautiful remote area where high-altitude alpine mountains surround a depression that bears freshwater rivers, small lakes, and meadows. The land offers a pleasant home for the Darkhad community and herds during summer, while it turns to the coldest spot of the country during winter.

The rich biodiversity of this land, an important source of valuable genetic resources of plants, animals, and microorganisms, has been safeguarded by the Darkhad for centuries.

With a population around 25 thousand people, this nomad Mongol tribe raise their own animal breeds and live in harmony with nature, according to their customary laws and spiritual beliefs, and effectively contributing to sustainable utilization of the biological resources of the region.

The biodiversity that surrounds them as well as the knowledge they hold over the local natural resources, is of great curiosity to researchers, specially their traditional medicinal plants. “Scientists from the capital or even foreign countries are interested in plants, dairy products, soils, and mineral waters. They used to take samples to examine and we usually didn´t hear back what they have been searching for and have revealed from their study”, says Munkhzaya Batjargal, a young herder of the Darkhad community.


Munkhzaya was born in Renchinlkhumbe soum, Khuvsgul province, in 1996. He was raised by his father´s aunt and has herded sheep, camels, cows, and horses - the family business, since he can recall. From his early life, he watched closely and learnt the culture, way of live, customary laws, and traditional practices of his community. “Traditional knowledge is one of the most important cultural heritages of our community, which corresponds to the daily life. It is how to properly process and use what the nature presents to you. I learnt a lot of it when I grew up with my aunt; young people should listen more and learn from the elders”, he says.As respectful as he is of the tradition and of the community elders, as well as being a responsible husband and father of his little daughter, Munkhzaya was very much involved in the development of the Darkhads´ Biocultural Protocol, one of the tools provided by the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) that acknowledges, recognizes and protects biodiversity and traditional knowledge as an entry point to science developments for the wellbeing of human kind.  

Although they have strong spiritual beliefs, customary laws that effectively help to protect nature, from ancient times, those norms haven´t prepared them to acknowledge the value of their traditional knowledge and stewardship of local biodiversity in the present time.

“Before, we did not know well the importance of our traditional knowledge. Learning from the elderly usually happens if we face some health problems or difficulties. It was incredible, whenever we asked the elders, there was always a good solution that they offered. Before the Biocultural Community Protocol, I did not know that these solutions were our great assets”.

“The most important feature of the Biocultural Community Protocol is to ensure the rights of the local community over their resources. If any party is willing to examine or use the resources and our traditional knowledge, we want them to respect our tradition and rituals and ask our permission. If they succeed with the resources, they should contribute some of their benefits for the wellbeing of our local community. This is very important for locals to promote their conservation efforts”, says Munkhzaya.

“The Biocultural Community Protocol helped us to define and identify key resources, community values, specific customary laws, traditional knowledge, potential terms, and conditions, in case any outsiders want access to our genetic resources as well as our traditional knowledge”, explains Munkhzaya. Now, any researcher or other potential user of genetic resources should contact the community, respecting local knowledge and special rituals, according to the protocol.



The Darkhads still keep the original nomadic culture, characterized by long-distance migration in late autumn out of the Depression with an early spring return. They raise their own animal breeds, the Darkhad white horse, Khogorog cattle, and Darkhad sheep, which resulted from their own traditional knowledge of animal breeding and selection methods.

Their most sacred and famous plant is Vansemberuu (Saussurea dorogostaiskii Palib). It is well known for the healing effects on lung illnesses. Sul Mountain located in the Darkhadour Khodon bagh has this plant. It takes a whole day horse riding to reach the plant at the top of the mountain.

Local people believe, as a ritual inherited from the elders, that Vansemberuu actually belongs to the sky. “Gods and demons enjoy when it flowers and nurture this plant because it grows under chilly wind, in between stones instead of in fertile soil. No ordinary man should take the plant without any good reason and without asking from the Gods. Someone who really needs it should not let the blue sky watch the cutting. There must be a tent to hide the plant. Even so, after taking the plant, it always rains heavily. It means tears from the sky, showing sorrow for the Vansemberuu”, says Munkhzaya. Therefore, people mostly hesitate to harvest the plant.

He is aware that this plant might be of interest for outsiders and contribute to people´s health. Then, why not safeguard it properly, according to the local beliefs, and ensure its utilization is sustainable and fair for the community that cares for it?

“After the elaboration of the protocol, I realized that modern medicinal products are developed because of using genetic materials from biological resources. Biodiversity is not only plants and animals we see every day. There are small living creatures essential to our lives too. And all these plants, animals and microbes are do not just live beside us; they can serve as genetic resources with the help of modern research and development”, emphasizes Munkhzaya.

In 2018, the Global ABS Project in Mongolia supported the development of the Biocultural Community Protocol of the local Darkhad community. Mongolia has been a Party to the Nagoya Protocol since its entry into force in October 2014. Once the local law on genetic resources is adopted, this Biocultural Community Protocol will provide further collaboration opportunities between communities and researchers, sharing traditional knowledge and delivering nature-based solutions for humanity.

FOOTNOTES Text: Tserennyam Lundaa, Lead Expert of ABS Project and María Agustina Rato, UNDP GEF Global ABS Project. Photos: ABS Project, Zayajargal Batjargal and Tumursukh Jal

These photos were taken in the Darkhad Depression, northern Mongolia.

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