HISTORY OF ANIMAL HERDING IN MONGOLIA

NOMAD TRADITIONS OF THE MONGOLS

Despite increasing urbanization and industrialization, a large portion of the population lives either by the traditional methods of pastoral nomadism — moving their herds (sheep, horses, cattle, goats, and yaks) from one area of temporary sustenance to another — or in a close symbiotic relationship with the nomads. Despite its hardships, the nomadic life provides Mongols with national values and a sense of historical identity and pride. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Nomadic peoples of uncertain origins are recorded as living in what is now the Mongolian People's Republic in the third century B.C., and archaeological evidence takes human habitation in the Gobi back a hundred centuries or more earlier. Warfare was a way of life, against other nomadic peoples in competition for land, and in the south against the Chinese, whose high culture and fertile lands were always attractive to the Mongols. China responded with punitive expeditions, which pushed these pre- and proto-Mongol peoples farther north, west, and east and resulted in periods of Chinese hegemony over parts of Inner Asia. *

Until the twentieth century, most of the peoples who inhabited Mongolia were nomads, and even in the 1980s a substantial proportion of the rural population was essentially nomadic. Originally there were many warlike nomadic tribes living in Mongolia, and apparently most of these belonged to one or the other of two racially distinct and linguistically very different groupings.

Livestock Herding in Soviet-Era Mongolia

From prerevolutionary times until well into the 1970s, animal husbandry was the mainstay of the Mongolian economy. In the traditional economy, livestock provided foodstuffs and clothing; after the 1921 revolution, livestock supplied foodstuffs and raw materials for industries and for export. Mongolia had 9.6 million head of livestock in 1918 and 13.8 million head in 1924; arad ownership was estimated to be 50 to 80 percent of all livestock, and monastic and aristocratic ownership to be 50 to 20 percent. Policies designed to force collectivization in the early 1930s met with arad resistance, including the slaughter of their own animals. Reversal of these policies led to a growth in livestock numbers, which peaked in 1941 at 27.5 million head. World War II brought new commitments to provide food and raw materials for the Soviet war effort. With the levy of taxes in kind, livestock numbers fell to about 20 million in 1945, and they have hovered between 20 million and 24 million head since then. Collectivization and advances in veterinary science have failed to boost livestock production significantly since the late 1940s. In 1940 animal husbandry produced 99.6 percent of gross agricultural output. The share of animal husbandry in gross agricultural output declined after World War II, to 71.8 percent in 1960, 81.6 percent in 1970, 79.5 percent in 1980, and 70 percent in 1985. The rise in crop production since 1940 has accounted for animal husbandry's decline in gross agricultural output.* [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Nevertheless, in the late 1980s, animal husbandry continued to be an important component of the national economy, supplying foodstuffs and raw materials for domestic consumption, for processing by industry, and for export. In 1985 there were 22,485,500 head of livestock, of which 58.9 percent were sheep; 19.1 percent, goats; 10.7 percent, cattle; 8.8 percent, horses; and 2.5 percent, camels. In addition, pigs, poultry, and bees were raised. In 1985 there were 56,100 pigs and 271,300 head of poultry; no figures were available on apiculture. Livestock products included meat and fat from camels, cattle, chickens, horses, goats, pigs and sheep; eggs; honey; milk; wool from camels, cattle, goats, and sheep; and hides and skins from camels, cattle, goats, horses, and sheep. In 1986 exports of livestock products included 15,500 tons of wool, 121,000 large hides, 1,256,000 small hides, and 44,100 tons of meat and meat products.*

In the late 1980s, differences existed in ownership and productivity of livestock among state farms, agricultural cooperatives, and individual cooperative members. For example, in 1985 agricultural cooperatives owned 70.1 percent of the "five animals"--camels, cattle, goats, horses, and sheep; state farms, 6 percent, other state organizations, 1.7 percent; and individual cooperative members, 22.2 percent. State farms raised 81.4 percent of all poultry; other state organizations, 3.3 percent; cooperatives, 12.9 percent; and individual cooperative members, 2.4 percent. State farms accounted for 19.1 percent of pig raising; other state organizations, for 34.2 percent; agricultural cooperatives, for 12.5 percent; and individual cooperative members, for 34.2 percent. Survival rates of young livestock were higher in the cooperatives than on state farms; however, state farms produced higher yields of milk and wool. Fodder for livestock in the agricultural cooperatives was supplemented by production on state fodder supply farms and on state farms, which had higher output and yields.*

Brutal Collectivization in Mongolia

After leftist leaders came to power in Mongolia in the late 1920s they called for the immediate confiscation of feudal property, the development of a five-year plan, the collectivization of stockbreeders, the ouster of Chinese traders, and the implementation of the Soviet trade monopoly. These extreme measures followed standard Soviet economic policy. In less-sophisticated Mongolia, however, the economic situation seemed to defy such planning. The basically nomadic society was largely illiterate, and there was no industrial proletariat; the aristocracy and the religious establishment held a large share of the country's wealth; popular obedience to traditional authorities continued to be widespread; the party lacked grass-roots support; and the government had little organization or experience. Nevertheless, the party was receptive to Moscow's directives; and the Mongolian revolutionaries made mistakes similar to those of the Soviets through an excess of zeal, intolerance, and inexperience. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

The first harsh repression of opposition came in 1929. Under the direction of Choybalsan, more than 600 feudal estates (herds and fixed property) were confiscated and were given to members of the laity and to monks who left their monasteries. In 1931 and 1932, the property of more than 800 religious and secular leaders was seized, and more than 700 heads of households were killed or imprisoned. The antireligious campaign was three-pronged: ordinary monks were forced to leave the monasteries and enter the army or the economy; monks of middle status were put in prison camps; and those of highest rank were killed. Collectivization followed expropriation, and by 1931 more than one-third of the stock-raising households had been forcibly communized. *

The brutal collectivization of herdsmen was rapid, and it caused bloody uprisings. Although the Eighth Party Congress from February to April 1930 had recognized that the country was unprepared for total socialization, the party reaction to opposition was to reenforce its measures nevertheless. The massive shift from private property to collectivization and communization was accelerated. The party then attacked the entire monastic class, the nobility, the nomads, and the nationalists, while purging its own ranks. The government imposed high and indiscriminate taxes, confiscated private property, banned private industry, forced craft workers to join mutual aid cooperatives, and nationalized foreign and domestic trade and transportation. *

Rescinding Mongolia’s Disastrous Collectivization

Extremism produced near-disaster. The power of the monks and the feudal nobles finally was broken, Chinese traders and other foreign capitalists were ousted, and still greater dependence on Soviet aid was required (see Suppression of Buddhism). The mechanical imposition of communes on an unprepared nomadic sheep-herding and cattle-herding society, however, resulted in the slaughter of 7 million animals in three years by angry and frightened herders. Mongolia's economy, which rested entirely on animal husbandry, was severely affected. The failure of communes, the hasty destruction of private trade, and inadequate Soviet supplies contributed to spreading famine. By 1931 to 1932, thousands were suffering severe food shortages, which, together with the people's reaction to terror, had brought the nation to the verge of civil war. Finally the government was forced to call in troops and tanks; with Soviet assistance, it suppressed the spreading anticommunist rebellion in western Mongolia. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

In May 1932, a month after anticommunist uprisings in western Mongolia, the Comintern and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union directed the Mongolian party to end its extremism. The next month, the party Central Committee rejected its prior policy as "leftist deviation" and expelled several top leaders as "leftwing adventurers." Choybalsan announced that "the overall development of our country has not yet entered the stage of socialism, and also it is wrong to copy Soviet experience in every single thing." The entire socioeconomic pattern was swiftly changed. The collective farm experiment was dropped, worker cooperatives were abandoned, the cattle tax was reduced, and herders and peasants again were allowed to hold private property. Foreign trade, still channeled exclusively to the Soviet Union, continued to be controlled by the state, however. Under continuing Soviet protection and domination, Mongolia now settled down to a period of gradual social change. *

Organization of Animal Husbandry in Soviet Era Mongolia

Mongolian animal husbandry developed slowly. An abortive attempt to collectivize all arads (animal herders) occurred in the early 1930s; efforts to encourage voluntary cooperatives and arad producers' associations followed. In the 1930s, the government also began developing state farms, and by 1940 there were ten state farms and ninety-one agricultural cooperatives. In 1937 the Soviet Union provided ten hay-making machine stations to prepare fodder for livestock. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

In the 1950s, agriculture began to adopt its present structure and modern techniques, based in part on material and technical assistance from the Soviet Union and East European countries. In the 1950s, the hay-making machine stations were reorganized as livestock machine stations. In 1955 negdels replaced the arad producers' associations. By 1959 the state had accomplished the collectivization of agriculture. In ten years, agricultural cooperatives had more than doubled, from 139 in 1950 to 354 by 1960. Ownership of livestock changed dramatically as a result of collectivization. In 1950, according to Mongolian government statistics, state farms and other state organizations owned approximately 0.9 percent of livestock; negdels had about 0.5 percent of livestock; and private owners held 98.3 percent of livestock. In 1960 state farms and other state organizations owned 2.7 percent of livestock; negdels, 73.8 percent; and individual negdel members, 23.5 percent. *

Negdel is the common term for the agricultural cooperatives in Mongolia. In the Soviet era, negdels, which concentrated on livestock production, were organized into brigad (brigades) and then into suuri (bases), composed of several households. Each suuri had its own equipment and production tasks. Negdels adopted the Soviet system of herding, in which arad households lived in permanent settlements rather than traveling with their herds, as in the pastoral tradition. In 1985 the average negdel had 61,500 head of livestock, 438,500 hectares of land--of which 1,200 hectares was plowable land, 43 tractors, 2 grain harvesters, and 18 motor vehicles; it harvested 500 tons of grain. Individual negdel members were permitted to own livestock. In mountain steppe pasture areas, ten head of livestock per person, up to fifty head per household, were allowed. In desert regions, fifteen head per person, up to seventy-five head per household, were permitted. Private plots also were allowed for negdel farmers. *

State farms, compared with negdels, had more capital invested, were more highly mechanized, and generally were located in the most productive regions, or close to major mining and industrial complexes. State farms engaged primarily in crop production. After 1960 the number of state farms increased, state fodder supply farms were established, the number of negdels decreased through consolidation, and interagricultural cooperative associations were organized to facilitate negdel specialization and cooperation. *

Problems with Soviet-Era Animal Husbandry

Despite its economic importance, in the late 1980s animal husbandry faced many problems: labor shortages, stagnant production and yields, inclement weather, poor management, diseases, and the necessity to use breeding stock to meet high export quotas. The Eighth Plan attempted to address some of these problems. To alleviate labor shortages, the plan called for higher income, increased mechanization, and improved working and cultural conditions in rural areas to retain animal husbandry workers, particularly those with technical training. Measures to raise productivity included increased mechanization; improved breeding techniques to boost meat, milk, and wool yields and to cut losses from barrenness and miscarriages; and strengthened veterinary services to reduce illness. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Additional livestock facilities were to be built to provide shelter from harsh winter weather and to fatten livestock. More efficient use of fodder was sought through expanding production; improving varieties; and decreasing losses in procurement, shipping, processing, and storage. Pastureland was to be improved by expanding irrigation and by combating pests.*

Overcoming poor management was more difficult. Local party, state, and cooperative organizations were admonished to manage animal husbandry more efficiently, and cooperative members were requested to care for collectively owned livestock as if it were their own. In addition, more concrete measures to improve the management and the productivity of animal husbandry were adopted in the late 1980s. The individual livestock holdings of workers, employees, and citizens were increased to eight head per household in major towns, sixteen head in smaller towns, and twenty-five head in rural areas; households were allowed to dispose of surplus produce through the cooperative trade network and through the state procurement system. Auxiliary farms run by factories, offices, and schools were established to raise additional pigs, poultry, and rabbits, as well as to grow some vegetables. Family contracts concluded on a voluntary basis with cooperatives or with state farms were reported by the government to increase high-quality output, to lower production expenses, and to enhance production efficiency. *

Nomadic Life in Mongolia During the Soviet Era

Before the arrival of Communism, most Mongolians were nomadic serfs in a hierarchal feudal society. When the Communists came this hierarchal system was adapted easily into the hierarchal state farm system. What changed was mobility. The nomads were no longer able to roam freely over a large area, they were relegated to provinces drawn up by the Soviets.

Under Communism, nomads were organized into government-controlled cooperatives, animals were nationalized and became property of the state, and gers were sometimes transported on trucks rather than pack animals. Nomads were called breeders and they were regarded as the richest people in Mongolia. They were told by the government how many sheep, goats, yaks, camels and horses to raise, and sometimes told where to graze their animals and how long to stay there. Children attended boarding schools.

The state bought animals at a stable, guaranteed price or they were paid a wage. Sheep were taken to the cities by the state. Incomes were secure. The government made all the decisions.

The individual ownership of animals was forbidden. People were allocated a certain number of animals. If any of the animals died the nomads were punished. If nomads didn't meet their quotas or their animals were underweight they didn't receive full payment.

Traditional communities were broken down and traditional skills were lost. Families were encouraged to specialize. Some produced camel hair. Some produced wool. Other raised horses. Instead of being jacks of all trades and taking care of themselves traditionally nomadic people began to rely on the state for things like helping sick animals or fixing the felt on their gers.

The Moost collective in the Altai Mountains covered 1,500 square miles and was home to 4,000 nomads, Cynthia Beall and Melvyn Goldstein wrote in National Geographic: "The communist collective, or negdel, was little more than the classic Mongol pastoralism overlaid with centralize planning. each herdsman still made the everyday decision—where to graze, when to move camp...while he government handled marketing and set product targets." One nomad told National Geographic, "The collective was good to us. We had enough food, free health care for our children, free education." They enjoyed luxuries such as Russian sugar cubes, East German strawberries and dumplings made with wheat flour.

Collectivized Herding in Soviet-Era Mongolia

Mongolian agriculturalists, most of whom were actually herders of animals, worked either for state-owned farms or for herding cooperatives. State farm workers were on the state payroll, just as were those who worked in state factories or for the national railroad. Influenced by the Soviet Union, stateowned farms represented a more creative adaptation of Soviet models to the Mongolian environment than did factories or government offices. In practice, membership was compulsory, and the collectives owned the means of production in the form of both the livestock herds and the rights to use pastures and winter campsites. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Member families carried on a modified form of traditional herding by dispersed small herding camps of several households. Households were permitted to own a limited number of private livestock--analogous to the private plot allocated to collective farmers--about 20 percent of the total herd. Households received much of their income in kind, and they earned a share of the collective's profit from the sale of animals and animal products to state purchasing agencies. Their total income, in kind and in cash, varied, from year to year and from collective to collective, along with the condition of the herds and the weather.*

The average herding cooperative had about 300 households. The cooperative employed some people as administrators, truck drivers, and the like, but most work consisted of the traditional tasks of herding and milking animals, and of producing butter, cheese, and wool products. As in the past, herding was done by herding camps of two to six households. The herding cooperatives in most cases had the same boundaries as the somon, the third-level administrative units into which Mongolia's eighteen aymags were divided, and the administration of the somon and the herding cooperative appeared to be in the same hands.

Work Collectives in Soviet-Era Mongolia

For modern Mongolians, the primary social units were based on occupation rather than locality. Employers, such as state-owned factories or government departments, commonly provided housing, meals in unit cafeterias, day-care facilities for workers' children, and sports and recreational activities. Trade unions in enterprises offered group holidays or week-long stays at special resorts or spas. Much emphasis was placed on the mutual ties and family-like relations among members of the collective. In cities fellow workers were guests and providers of gifts at weddings, and older members of work collectives often were described as taking a paternal or maternal interest in the performance of newly hired young workers. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

The process by which workers secured, or were assigned to, jobs was not clearly spelled out in Mongolian sources, but it evidently combined administrative direction with some degree of personal choice. The general shortage of labor meant that individuals had no problems finding jobs. However, the jobs they obtained may not have been those they most wanted. Although it was possible to change jobs or to be reassigned by the government, such changes were not common, and individuals usually expected to spend many years, if not their entire working lives, in one enterprise and one housing collective.*

The organization of work units reflected Soviet models, and if there was a distinctively Mongolian character to such units, it was not captured in official accounts. As in the Soviet Union, there was a strong emphasis on the solidarity of the collective and its priority in the lives of the workers, as well as on the use of such managerial techniques as the designation of heroes of labor, the use of socialist emulation and socialist competition to spur production, and the promotion of "shock battalions" and "shock days" to meet or surpass quotas. These techniques were attempts to motivate a work force through the use of non-material incentives and through manipulation of group pressures.*

Nomads in the Post Soviet Era

The collectives were privatized in 1996. Many people were given livestock and the rights to use some grazing land. Herders could buy and sell their animals. Some people took up herding who had never herded before.

Some collectives became shareholding companies. Herders used government vouchers to buy animals that belonged to cooperatives and state farms. Many families took ownership of more than a hundred animals. Some nomads set up systems called horshoo, in which individual families took care of their own animals but joined together to transport them to market. By this time much of the herding was done on motorcycle rather than on horseback.

In the early 1990s many herders didn’t want to sell their meat products because the prices were too low. This resulted in food shortages in the cities. One nomad told National Geographic. "Unless the price is right, we don't want to sell animals. So meat and milk in the cities are getting scarcer and more expensive."

Some herders did very well financially. In the early 1990s a family with 600 animals was considered rich. By the mid 1990s, many families had 400 animals and families with 1,300 animals were not uncommon. The cashmere trade was particularly lucrative.

Impact of Mining on Mongolian Herders

Sam Knight wrote in the Times of London, “The spread of mining – its thirst for Mongolia’s slender water resources and hunger for land – has environmental consequences for nomadic herding, the mainstay of the country’s traditional life and economy....Lhagvasuren, a 76-year-old with a herd of more than 1,500 animals, has had to move more than 30 times this year, rather than an average two or three, to find grazing. “There is no more grass. There are too many holes,” he said. With the Gobi Desert creeping further north into Mongolia, Lhagvasuren said he planned to reduce his herd to focus on high quality goats. Other herders are giving up nomadism altogether and setting up settled farms and cooperatives. The result, according to Peter Morrow, a banker from Arizona, who is the CEO of Khan Bank, the former state agricultural bank, could be the end of traditional herding in Mongolia. “This is the last horse-based nomadic culture in the world,” he said. “But given development, given globalisation, given cellphones and MTV, maybe it just doesn’t survive.” [Source: Sam Knight, Times of London, July 21, 2007]

Michael Kohn and William Mellor wrote in the Washington Post: “Out in the Gobi Desert, near where Rio Tinto’s miners are digging for copper in shafts 4,300 feet underground, Aimtan Ulam-Badrakh, 54, stands stoically beside his isolated yurt watching his 300 sheep and 10 camels graze on tufts of brown grass.At first glance, it’s a way of life unchanged since the days of Genghis Khan. Step inside the yurt, however, and a different story unfolds. The stocky herdsman can afford a leather couch, a television and a computer. An iPhone 4 lies on a bed — one of three mobile devices his family shares. His wife works part time at the airport built for the miners. His daughter teaches English at a local school, having learned the language while on a scholarship in Malaysia sponsored by Rio Tinto’s local unit. Along with other desert dwellers, the family has been further enriched by as much as $11,000 in compensation paid by the mining company for the disruption its project has caused. Ulam-Badrakh says that he is glad Oyu Tolgoi is being developed but that he also has reservations. “Foreigners cannot just dig up the land, take away our wealth and leave us with a big hole in the ground.” [Source: Michael Kohn and William Mellor, Washington Post, May 4, 2013]

Frank Langfitt of NPR reported: “ The Gobi cashmere company in Ulaanbaatar is already feeling the side effects” of the mining boom. “The firm turns raw cashmere from Mongolian goats into sweaters, jackets and shawls, and exports them to more than 40 countries. Mongolia's new mineral wealth drove inflation to more than 12 percent last year, forcing Gobi to raise workers' wages by one-third. Naranbaatar Davva, the company's 30-year-old chief operating officer, says raw material prices are up, too. "Three years ago, we used to buy 3 kilograms of raw cashmere for $20," he says. "Today, this figure is $60." [Source: Frank Langfitt, NPR, May 21, 2012 <=>]

“Higher prices are good for Mongolian herders, but they cut into Gobi's profits. Naranbaatar says a special government policy is also undermining herders' incentive to work. This year — an election year — the government is giving citizens up to $770 each in one-time cash payments. It's essentially a mining dividend and, for many Mongolians, a lot of money. "Livestock herding is almost a 16-hour-a-day job. It's a hard job, so you don't see many young herders anymore," he says. "Plus, the government gives out free cash." <=>

“Naranbaatar says mining brings many benefits to Mongolia. He just hopes people don't lose sight of an old, reliable industry like his."Mining resources are not renewable. Depending on the reserves, it may last 20, 50 or 100 years," he says. "If we use the right policies and preserve our nomadic herding traditions, many people will be employed in the Mongolian cashmere industry for hundreds and thousands of years." <=>

Impact of Mining and Government Policy on Gobi Nomads

According to the U.S. Department of State: Semi-nomadic herders in the Gobi provinces reported that some private and government-owned mining interests, many of which involved international companies or foreign parastatals, interfered with their access to some traditional pasturelands. The NHRC reported that herders viewed their winter, spring, and autumn camps as property inherited from their ancestors, although they generally lacked documentation. As a result, herders were at a disadvantage when seeking compensation from mining companies. The NHRC also reported that some mining companies provided voluntary resettlement and financial compensation, although the adequacy of these programs is unclear. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2015: Mongolia,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State /*/]

Brett Forrest wrote in the New York Times, “The Gobi desert is losing its nomads — just over 1 percent of the total population — to the mining industry: Mongolia had the world’s fastest growing economy in 2011, thanks to mining activity and the foreign direct investment it attracted. Mongolia’s two largest untapped mines — Oyu Tolgoi (copper and gold) and Tavan Tolgoi (coal) — are also two of the most promising mines in the world. [Source: Brett Forrest, New York Times, January 14, 2013 ^^^]

“According to a impact study funded by the World Bank, Gobi nomads would largely prefer to maintain their traditional ways. The government has tried to move some nomads to other parts of the country, away from the advance of the mining life. But, the study shows, many of the relocated nomads complain that their herds have thinned because the new grounds offer inadequate animal housing and reduced access to pasture and water. ^^^

“Erdenebolor Baast, one of the report’s authors, told me a few weeks ago in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia: “Pastoralism is not only an economic activity. It incorporates the whole culture of Mongols. So do we want to see a Gobi that is populated by expats and domestic migrants smelling of gasoline and oil, looking like a huge industrial complex, where some people make billions of dollars? Will it still be Mongolia?” I asked if the country might indeed lose a way of life that has existed since the time of the great khans. “It’s more than real,” he said. “It’s going to happen, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” ^^^

“The Mongolian government is rightly trying to translate the presence of international mining companies into economic development — higher salaries, investment in infrastructure, improvements in health and education. But it is stuck haggling with them over royalty payments and ownership stakes. And its subsidy program is inadequate. According to Baast, it provides about $3.60 per kilogram of cashmere and $1.40 per kilo of wool. A herder who owns a combined 200 animals, which is average for a family, might get something like $500 per year in assistance. Even the new subsidies expected to take effect later this year — $11 for a hide of camel, cow or horse; $2 per skin of sheep or goat — can’t compete with salaries from the mining companies, some of which pay a truck driver up to $1,000 per month. ^^^

“A better alternative is a new plan under discussion in academic and legislative circles in Ulaanbaatar. It calls for privatizing public lands so that they could be held and shared by a collective of nomads. To encourage this process, the government would increase subsidies to those nomads who agreed to collectivize.This proposal isn’t a case for building a living museum. It’s a case for preserving the unique lifestyle of Mongolia’s nomads by offering them a diversity of financial and social choices.” ^^^

Impact of Coal Mining Angers Gobi Nomads

Bill Donahue wrote in the Washington Post, “Tserenbazar, 60, is a herder whose family has for 200 years lived on the patch of Gobi striped by a road that Energy Resources built to connect its plant to China, 150 miles away. He says that the road isn’t working. “The coal trucks are supposed to drive on it,” he says, “but Energy Resources charges the other mining companies a toll. So their drivers travel beside the road, right over the soil. There is dust. The animals cannot breathe. The grass is dirty. If the animals eat it, they get sick — cut open their innards, and they are black. And I am sick, too...Nothing, nothing can save the real Mongolia. I feel like I want to die.”[Source: Bill Donahue, Washington Post, September 20, 2013 |::|]

“Tserenbazar is sitting cross-legged on the floor of a friend’s ger. He has a long gray and white beard, and his skin is weathered and red, and so chapped it’s almost a hide. “My lungs,” he says. “The doctor told me I should not smoke.” Tserenbazar grins now, devilishly, for he is savoring a long loose cigarette rolled in old newsprint. “I should just die,” he says. “I should die now.” He is still smiling even as he says this, and five of his neighbors sit by him in the tent, laughing. Tserenbazar is their mordant old salt comedian. He taps the ash off the tip of his cigarette, slowly, milking dramatic tension out of the pause. “I am already dead now,” he cracks. |::|

“Global climate change has dried up the desert. The coal trucks have come rumbling along over the loose soil, and now there are more cars, too, driven by newly moneyed Mongolian coal miners. The South Gobi is suddenly a world of swirling dust. In January 2012, Tserenbazar, along with 30 other herders, tried to put the brakes on the change. For eight hours, they stood, arms locked, carrying sticks, in a chill 30 degrees below zero Celsius by the side of the road, blocking about 300 coal trucks from traveling over the dirt. The herders wanted local officials to force all truck drivers to stay on the asphalt — and by day’s end the politicians promised that everything would soon be fixed. |::|

“What happened?” I ask. Tserenbazar shrugs, with comic exaggeration. “Nothing.” He says: “And now I am grazing in a new place 15 kilometers from the road. A very small herd, and the animals are not used to the grasses there. I have to watch them all the time” — he jabs at his eye — “or they wander too far. I cannot do it. I am old. I am done.” Even as he says this, Tserenbazar is still smirking.” |::|

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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