Understanding Human and Climatic Drivers of Ecosystem Change in Mongolia

William Ralston Murl Gardner, Thomas James, Kendra Mack

The traditional pastoral economies of Mongolia, based on livestock and related goods and products, were largely sustainable for thousands of years. However, this balanced relationship between humans and their environment has started to break down in the past few decades. Some research points to climate change as the major force behind the declines in both the health of the steppe ecosystem and the pastoral lifestyle that depends on it (Zhang, Borjigin, and Zhang 2007). However, we argue that the problem of a degrading landscape cannot be solved by addressing the ecological issues alone – an interdisciplinary approach is required, one which considers the social and ecological factors in concert.

Mongolian herders have lived in a sustainable relationship with the grasslands for millennia, using a system of pasture management characterized by herd diversification, mobility and traditional knowledge of geo-ecological processes (Humphrey and Sneath 1999). This successful socio-ecological system persisted through Mongolia’s Soviet-backed socialist period, supported by rural collectives that institutionalized the traditional structure that was already in place (Schmidt 2007). Gaining momentum from the breakdown of the Communist bloc in the late 1980s, Mongolian reformers began to call for a multi-party system, free press, and respect for human rights. Beginning in December of 1989, a three-month long demonstration culminated in dramatic concessions on the part of the ruling communist party, leading to the first democratic elections held in July of 1990 (Mearns. 2004; Rossabi 2005). An intense period of socio-economic transformation ensued: public assets were privatized, and the planned economy rapidly became market-oriented.

The effects of this transition on the pastoral way of life are becoming clear. One result of the transition was the dismantling of grazing collectives that had formerly limited the growth of livestock herds. Once these limits were lifted, herd sizes increased through the 1990s to double their traditional sizes (Mearns 2004; Honeychurch 2010). Livestock now outnumber people in Mongolia by approximately 20 to 1. Not only do such large herds place an immense strain on the grassland through overgrazing, but they are also vulnerable to huge die-offs during unusually harsh winters. This has occurred several times in the past decade, costing millions of herders their very livelihood (Fernández-Giménez, Batkhishig, and Batbuyan 2012).

Another result of the country opening to the west has been international speculation in mining, and consequently a huge influx of wealth. Although herding is still seen by Mongolians as an icon of their cultural heritage, few young Mongolians choose this lifestyle over the lures of rapidly urbanizing towns. Development aid aimed at improving the livelihoods of herders has often gone astray due to arbitrary distributions of aid that emphasize the importance developing economic activity within the urban setting while neglecting the mobile pastoralist of the ‘country-side’ (Honeychurch 2010; pp. 413). This is largely due to subjective judgments by aid organizations that praise the historical role of mobile pastoralist yet at the same time ignored them as a viable economic sector in the modern market economy (Bruun 2006).

Coincident with these land-use changes has been a period of rapid climate change (Batima et al. 2005; Nandintsetseg, Greene, and Goulden 2007). Over the past 60 years winter temperatures have risen by more than 3C, and changes in ecosystem processes have been detected (Bohannon 2008). However, the desire among international organizations to promote successful adaptation to climate change (Smithson 2002; Adger, Arnell, and Tompkins 2005; Neil Adger, Arnell, and Tompkins 2005; Adger et al. 2003) has resulted in too narrow a focus on the environmental causes of grassland degradation. We cannot let climate change adaptation become the hammer to many more complicated nails. Least-developed nations such as Mongolia are expected to face the greatest conservation risk in the coming century due to land-use change (Lee and Jetz 2008), and we must determine how much of that land-use change is necessitated by climatic conditions as opposed to poor land-use policy or the lack of policies altogether.

In Mongolia, socio-political transformations coincident with climate change have potentially confounded the decision-making process by obscuring important drivers of change and, consequently, the relevant targets for reform. The situation is vulnerable to reductionist approaches that see issues of energy, biodiversity or conservation as primarily environmental problems, albeit with a social component. Such a stance implicitly assumes that addressing the environmental issue will concurrently address the true underlying social issue. How Mongolia responds to the socio-ecological issues facing its people and lands will be an important test case for other least-developed nations. The interdisciplinary projects we have underway in the region aim to support a holistic response by examining these dynamic forces over multiple time scales and seeking insights that a long-term view can bring. If we can better understand what causes human and ecological drivers to be sustainably integrated at times - and less sustainably integrated at others, we can contribute to a steppe culture in which modernization enhances rather than degrades this centuries-old relationship between humans and their environment.

By William Gardner, Thomas James, and Kendra Mack


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