Building an Insurance Policy for a Way of Life in Mongolia

Written by Lisa Hayden on . Posted in Learn

Mongolia is a largely undeveloped country of rolling steppes, abundant wildlife and people with a strong cultural connection to the land. With a small but dedicated staff from an office established only a few years ago, The Nature Conservancy has embarked on big goals here.

About 30 percent of Mongolia’s population is nomadic herders, moving their homes and their herds of horses, goats, camels or sheep three to four times a year. And yet, some of the round, white, tent-like homes called “gers” or yurts, are outfitted with satellite dishes and solar panels, epitomizing the great changes facing this land.

With a new democracy replacing Soviet influence since 1990, Mongolia is a nation with a big opportunity to pursue sound conservation policies. But vast mineral and energy resources lie beneath the grasslands, and mining and development plans are already proceeding. As the government moves ahead, the Conservancy has pledged to support planning for this economic development that will also protect the country’s priceless natural and cultural heritage.

The Conservancy’s work will be focused specifically in the Gobi Desert, where a large mine is planned, and the Eastern Steppe, where a railroad could disrupt the movement of thousands of gazelles. Decisions made now will have an enormous impact on the next two generations of Mongolians, and so it is a crucial time for the Conservancy to provide its expertise in sustainable infrastructure planning through our Development by Design initiative.

According to the Conservancy’s experts, many Mongolians who pursue the nomadic lifestyle want to retain their traditions, and are not desperate to leave the steppes for the cities. But these people are heavily dependent on the health of the grasslands that feed their livestock. And the grasslands – the least protected habitat type on Earth – face threats both from development and from a changing climate.

The Nature Conservancy’s senior climate scientist, Evan Girvetz, PhD, says that from 1951-2002, Mongolia was among the top 10 fastest-warming countries in the world (according to an analysis with Climate Wizard, a tool developed by the Conservancy and partners that can map past – and projected future – temperature and precipitation data for any place on the globe).

Meanwhile, precipitation rates have changed little in Mongolia, and Girvetz says that warmer temperatures without more rain is likely contributing to both the expansion of the Gobi Desert northward and the drying of rivers and lakes.

As Girvetz blogged in April 2010, Mongolia experienced a particularly bad “dzud,” their word for a dry summer followed by a very cold and snowy winter, with devastating effects on livestock last year.  The dieback of grasses used for forage in the drought, combined with a harsh winter, resulted in the loss of about 17-20% of the country’s livestock, leading to famine and the need for international food aid. Unfortunately, this weather pattern could become more frequent with climate change.

Other research about how plants are reacting to warmer temperatures is also ongoing in Mongolia.

The ecological plans the Conservancy has developed for Mongolia – which identify important and rare communities of plants and animals – have incorporated data from climate models, so projections for how the region’s climate is expected to change are embedded in the analysis.

The Conservancy is researching the potential for a nature-conservation project designed to benefit local people and help them adapt to climate change. Some strategies that might be pursued include sustainable grazing management and setting aside of “grass banks,” in essence, an insurance policy for grazing areas that can be used in tough years.

“It’s really about the people of Mongolia,” says Charles Bedford, Regional Managing Deputy Director for the Conservancy’s North Asia Region, “How can they keep what they have in the face of huge change globally?”

In partnership with the Mongolian people, this is a question the Conservancy is determined to answer.

See more photos of life on the Mongolian steppes at nature.org.

Lisa Hayden is a feature writer and blogger for The Nature Conservancy

Photo: © Chris Pague/TNC (A Mongolian herder family moving their camp and livestock to spring pasture on the grasslands of Mongolia).

Inset Photo 1: ©Chris Pague/TNC; (Ger camp near the Toson Hulstai Nature Reserve, a protected area in the Eastern Steppe).

Inset Photo 2: ©Chris Pague/TNC (A vehicle travels an unpaved main highway through the eastern steppe grasslands southwest of Choybalsan, Mongolia).

Inset Photo 3: © Chris Pague/TNC; (A young girl watches visitors to a Mongolian national park from the window of the guard house, situated on the broad grassland steppes of  Mongolia).

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