Herders of the Gobi Desert

Driving back into the busy city of Ulaanbaatar after 2 weeks in the Gobi was a little confronting in its unfamiliarity. The constant beeping of the jammed traffic, noise and billboards were a far cry from the open stillness of the desert steppe and quiet calm of a herder’s ger. It was a none too gentle reminder of the change overtaking this country.

A land-locked country caught between Russia and China, Mongolia is basically un-fenced, un-owned and slightly smaller than Queensland. It has the lowest population density of any country in the world with about 1.4 people/square kilometre but we travelled throughout the most sparsely populated areas and there were people everywhere compared to home. It was difficult for the people I met to understand how isolated my home was in comparison.

Mongolia has a growing population, now around 2.5 million with a 2009 growth rate of 1.9%. Around 35% of the total labour force are involved in agriculture with 44 million livestock heads counted in 2009. 21% of the GDP comes from agriculture, 83% of that from the livestock sector. Copper, gold and coal have now overtaken cashmere, wool and leather as the country’s leading export products. “Mining Mongolia” is underway despite a firm cultural belief against disturbing the earth in any way. We visited Khaan Bogd in Omnigov aimeg, soon to be the site of the world’s largest copper mine. We camped one night not far from Tsogtseggi and heard the rumble of machinery all night from the nearby coal mine. We visited herders who blamed the decrease in pasture growth on the dust created by mining and the increased traffic servicing the mines, and many who blamed the lack of rain on the cloud seeding being carried out in both Mongolia and China. These people have a simple reverence of their land, an inherited lifestyle of living within environmental restrictions that has been successful for over 1,000 years, it is easy to see why they are uncomfortable with the change sweeping over their landscape. Still, mining their resources creates jobs for the growing population and has increased the standard of living for those lucky enough to secure work in the mines. It will bring money into the country that could be used to improve infrastructure and services. Herders who have lost almost all their livestock in the hell that was last winter are moving closer to mines in the hope of securing an income or some of the free fodder provided by the mines to herding families, the benefit of which is a bit dubious.

serious-winter-camp1.jpg dead-livestock-from-winter1.jpg ger-in-the-gobi-21.jpg grandma11.jpg herding-family-on-their-way-to-town1.jpg

While I’m not anti-mining at all, I can’t help but wonder if this money will ever benefit Mongolians living in rural areas. If we draw some parallels between Australia and Mongolia, and it’s easy to do so, the wealth created from the country’s resources will most likely benefit urban Mongolians, not the people from the area the resource is taken, which can only lead to a continued flow of people out of the “countryside” and into the cities, leaving a dearth of youth and herding skills that are an intrinsic part of being Mongolian. Perhaps they will end up like Australians who drag out the image of the stockman as part of an identity far removed.

chimeg-at-the-tourist-camp1.jpg bike-ger1.jpg boys-and-ponies1.jpg  moving-camp1.jpg visitors-to-camp1.jpg

I’m still chewing over the grazing management/pasture issues, it’s incredibly complex and no amount of philosophising over Mongolian vodka is going to make it any clearer. The world’s rangelands are shaped by either fire or grazing, if we go back far enough in Australia’s history, our vegetation was most likely shaped by the grazing habits of megafauna, the sheer size of these animals is an indicator of the high nutritional quality of the vegetation. Years of management by burning changed the vegetative composition to be a landscape dominated by plants that had adapted to the fire regime and resulted in animal species that were far smaller than their ancestors. Now we have 200 years of grazing management under our belts we can see changes in the landscape again, if we look even closer we can observe changes on a species scale, landscapes moved to a certain state by the continual grazing of one species of animal. How does all this relate to what I saw on the Mongolian desert steppe? I guess it raised more questions than answers simply due to a lack of historical records. How much has the steppe changed under grazing is hard to know, historical pollen samples indicate a similar plant species composition 2000 years ago as what there is now, but I haven’t been able to find out how long this nomadic herding with these particular livestock species has been carried out. Perhaps what we’re seeing now are the least palatable vegetation species, perhaps their the same species that have been there since the climate has been relatively stable. Either way, all we can deal with is what we have now and the Mongolian climate is doing that by reducing livestock and herder numbers through tough seasons, hard as that is.

desert-steppe1.jpg camp-at-the-dunes1.jpg flowering-allium1.jpg goats-sheep1.jpg goats11.jpg mongolian-horses1.jpg 

In answer to some of Graham the Grazing Guru’s questions, I’m against supplying pumps for these wells without some sort of provision made to ensure that the well watered areas aren’t chewed out. We visited a couple of water points that had water piped in and troughs on floats, the loss in ground cover surrounding these points was fairly significant as obviously, herders were reluctant to move their stock from such a good thing, and who could blame them, I mean, how many of us would be prepared to make a bucket out of an old tyre tube, tie it to a stick and water a  couple of hundred animals every single day? The other factor to consider is that these wells aren’t privately owned, so who pays for the pump and is responsible for maintenance? During socialist times the wells were better maintained and there has been some attempts to use “herder groups” in areas to co-operatively maintain the wells but the success of this when it is essentially every person for themselves is a bit dubious. Surprisingly enough I have heaps more to say, will add to this later.

cattle-waiting-for-water1.jpg hand-made-well-pump2.jpg lever-action-well1.jpg washing-at-a-well1.jpg water-trough-and-well1.jpg watering-a-thirsty-goat1.jpg watering-livestock1.jpg well1.jpg 

One thought on “Herders of the Gobi Desert

  1. Hi Chris,

    It is very interesting to hear how watering livestock is so very arduous for the Mongolian herdsman. Your points about placing pumps or windmills seem very valid, even to a city slicker like me! What are the sorts of distances between watering points? I guess they would have to be about a days walk with stock.

    From your conversation I am getting the idea “Change” for better or worse is overtaking these people. I wonder how much control of this they could cease back by research into such things as the sustainability of current watering systems and further research into strategic placement of watering points with pumps – Could mining companies possibly form some sort of partnership to assist with funding agricultural research in Mongolia? Could mining companies possibly have contractual clauses to maintain pumping systems? Surely some sort of symbiotic relationship could be built by the owners of the land and the mining companies. Who owns the land the government or herders?

    I realise I have very little knowledge of either industry and apologise in advance if my questions seem naïve. Looking forward to hearing from you when you get home.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *