Mongolia at Crossroads
Global market pressures and climate change are endangering the traditional life of Mongolian nomads
The lives of Mongolia’s nomadic people, who make up about a third of this landlocked country’s small population of 3 million, has been shaped by climate for over millennia. These pastoral herders, who live on the country’s vast steppes, grazing their livestock on the lush grasslands in summer and living off their meat and milk during the long, cold winters, have developed an intricate taboo-system that helps them remain in balance with nature’s cycles.
Mongolia’s pastoral herders graze their livestock on the the country’s vast steppes in summer and live off their meat and milk during the long, cold winters. But as their pasturelands get degraded, many of them are being forced to migrate to urban centers and join the ranks of the urban poor.
Most taboos are connected to food scarcity and rough natural conditions. All natural phenomena, places, and wild animals have protectors, the “Lord Spirits”. There is a multi-layered taboo-system concerning fire, which, observed from a nature preservation point of view, has to do with preventing the outbreak of fires in the dry continental climate, especially in arid areas. The Lord Spirits of fire are thought to be especially sensitive, and there are rules on where and how to place embers, how to camouflage fireplaces, as well as bury embers.
Central Asia’s dry climate and water scarcity, combined with soil largely unfit for agriculture and its barely three-months-long growing season, forced the people living here to take care of their environment, intimately understand the local ecosystem, and adopt a dynamic harmony with it. Nature can’t be exploited carelessly in the steppes because regeneration of this fragile ecosystem in the area takes a long time.
But today, due to the economic imperatives of a globalized market and climate change, which are both rapidly degrading Mongolia’s grazing lands, the herders of Inner Asia can no longer quickly adapt to the extreme changes they are exposed to. In the past three decades, more than 600,000 former herders, about 20 percent of the country’s population, have given up their nomadic lifestyle and moved to Mongolia’s capital city…