Contextualization -in situ

Sand and stones. Plateaus, depression zones and foothills, passes and mountains take on a ghostly appearance. The landscape is desert. The vegetation cover has disappeared. The arid region of Bayankhongor suffers a drought that affects 60% of its territory. Everything is dry. The sun is overwhelming. The corpses of shrubs litter the ground. The herders leave their usual grazing areas and go on internal migration, otor. Such is the current disastrous situation of this summer in the region, visible by criss-crossing the departments of Jinst and Bumbugur.

In Jinst, the depression area between the Ikh Bogd mountain and the Khonog pass is symbolic of the state of affairs. Formerly a green basin thanks to water runoff from melting ice, this former forage area during the kolkhoz period is now an unworkable swamp. “Usually, 50% of the breeders of the cooperative live here during the summer season”, says Bayar-Ulzii, the president of the Jinst cooperative. Today in this month of September, the ground is bare, the only perceptible well padlocked is left to abandon. Only the trace of some ghostly yurts marks the print of an old human activity. The ecosystem is entirely a desert: of soil and human. While in the north of the department, place called Sariin Gezeg, is strangely a low concentration of population, while the vegetation cover is desert. Only sand and pebbles litter the ground. Why is this so? Enkhdalai clarifies this incomprehension, “it rained on July 20 here. At that time an influx of people took place. It is now September 5, there is no more pasture for 3-4 days, half of the families have left to exploit another land. In 10 days this area will be deserted again. We are leaving tomorrow” leaving in this hilly landscape padlocked yurts scattered here and there.

In Bumbugur the situation seems less dramatic from a general point of view. As Batnasan testifies, “The situation here is less catastrophic than in other places, we manage to find pastures. In fact, in the entire territory occupied by the members of the cooperative, which corresponds to the northern half of this department, the herders have access to pasture in the extreme northwest, where the borders meet. On these high plateaus, the melting snow provides sufficient water for the Ölziit River. In September, according to Enkhtaivan, the president of the cooperative, “70% of the territory remains suitable, currently 10% of the breeders have left for the otor”. However, it is important to add that a large part of the department is exploited by the mining industry, in search of yellow gold for lack of being able to let the white gold flourish. The erosion, due to heavy rainfall caused by an accumulation of violent storms -during the summer period- and also combined with the intensification of mining operations. These phenomena destroy the surrounding ecosystem forcing the breeders to move to forage areas, which already leads to overgrazing in these new areas of preference. The current drought is aggravating this phenomenon of ecological fragility, causing tensions between herders.

Loss of vegetation cover, overgrazing and school fees

Herders can tell the plants in their ecosystem by their naked eyes. In Jinst, in 20 years, the vegetation cover, which was used as animal feed, has irreversibly decreased by two. Where there used to be 4 varieties of plants, there are now only 2. According to Bayar Ulzii it is possible to list “agi sharilj -artemisia frigida-” very nutritious plant, it is collected and used for fodder. It is also used for weak animals during the spring. As well as the “taana -allium polyrrhizum-“, xerophyte plant, consumed by the 5 snouts. It is also collected autonomously to constitute fodder and to answer, by a tiny part, to the food consumption.

Other farmers are more pessimistic in their analysis, stating that “80% of the vegetation cover has disappeared since 2000“, like Oyunbileg who says this with tears in his eyes, adding “it hurts my heart not to see any grass, nothing grows. It doesn’t rain anymore, the sun is more powerful every year”. For Batnasan from Bumbugur “there is less rain and therefore less vegetation growing compared to other years. In my opinion, this phenomenon is driven by two major problems: mining, which destroys the landscape by digging everywhere. It is coupled with climate change which is causing desertification.” In his description Batnasan omits an essential factor, relayed by many herders, that of “overgrazing via too many animals, the herders must take individual responsibility“, a point that Enkhpurev insists on. Erdenetuya reinforces this point: “The degradation of the pastures is visual, and it is increasing from year to year. I am aware of the fact that this degradation is directly linked to overgrazing in correlation with the too great number of animals held by stockbreeder and that since the years 2000”. She deplores this fact, which is why she and her husband try to keep the total number of animals to no more than 500.

The other problem related to the possession of an excess number of animals, not appropriate to the burden of grazing, is in the access to schooling, education for children. As Sumyabazar and his wife Gereltuya testify, “we know that we have to reduce the herd, but we also have to pay for the children’s education. This year the premium, because of the Covid-19, is not enough. Sometimes when you look at the herd you see the school fees”. This is one of the major problems faced by the breeders. Making ends meet. It is also a motivating factor for some in making the choice to join cooperatives, in order to obtain a compensatory premium for the implementation of sustainable practices.

The herders sadly agree that the drought situation this year is dramatic. That this situation over time is becoming more and more present and violent leading to the irreversible disappearance of all local flora and calling into question their traditional way of life.

The inevitable situation of “otor” – in search of water and pastures –

This internal environmental migration is also accentuated by political, economic – the democratic transition has resulted in a collapse of the agricultural organization – social and climatic factors. To cope with this extreme drought, the herders resort to intensive displacement, otor, over distances of varying length and time, from a few months to several years, in order to access pasture to provide sufficient food for the livestock to prepare them for harsh winter.

The herders who carry out this otor move only with cattles, goats and sheeps. These are so-called “accordion” animals. They are fattened in summer and autumn to be able to pass the winter and spring while waiting for the new vegetation cover. The more fortunate herders can afford to try to save their livestock by migrating to neighboring regions. The logistics associated with this move are not without cost. Some people go on foot with their livestock, others by car and/or van. For the latter, the monthly gasoline budget represents about “80% of their total budget,” as Garavdorj and Erdenetuya state. The rest is used for basic food needs: flour, rice and some industrial cakes. Some of them have the sole purpose of finding substantial pastures. Others have a fixed idea in mind: to bring their cattles on foot to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, in order to sell at the meat markets.

This migratory phenomenon is not without constraint for the stockherders installed in the regions affected by these new flows. An influx of people and animals disrupts the carrying capacity of the pasture. The use of land that is not effectively regulated often leads to overgrazing in these new areas and provokes altercations, even physical violence, between herders. Those who have networks and influence are not or hardly confronted with this kind of conflict situation, as “territorial cohabitation, after verbal agreement, is envisaged“, as Garavdorj points out. Lump-sum fines can be applied by those responsible for the grazing area. In these times of crisis, agreements between regional governors have been made to allow individuals to move around more freely with fewer administrative constraints, except for updating livestock vaccinations. In order to avoid the spread of possible infectious diseases.

Access to water, essential for the survival of both humans and animals, is also a major problem on a daily basis. As Oyunbileg and her husband Batireedui explain, “during the summer it is difficult to find a drinking water source. Sometimes the pasture is suitable but the well is locked, forcing us to continue our journey. There are not many rivers are and existing ones are dried up.” When the access to the well is possible, it is necessary to devote oneself due to the ardous physical work which requires to pull up water with help of a rope (or a stick) and a (5-20 liters) rubber bag. Usual depth is between 3 and 10 meters. The luckiest ones have a mechanical pump to perform this laborious physical activity, under an overwhelming heat of 30°C at its peak.

Market saturated, purchase of fodder essential

The herders who were able to leave in otor have their cattle fatter, in better health than the others. However, compared to previous years, the livestock -goats and sheep- remain underfed. As Bayar-Ulzii explains, “some goats are frail and have damaged coats due to lack of food, but we are lucky compared to other herders”. The goats are underfed and poorly hydrated. Buyankhishig mentions that “Goats prefer water from the river, sometimes they don’t want to hydrate because they don’t find the water to their liking”. They could only provide a little milk. Milking normally takes place from July to October. For the majority of the herders we met, the women were only able to perform this task for a short period of time. Between 15 and 20 days. They harvested once a day instead of twice. Collecting 20L/d instead of 80L/d for a hundred goats. For the lucky ones, since some had to put aside this task. Batnasan, 59 years old, says “we limiting the damage for the moment but I am dreading the winter“. The lactation period also corresponds to the production of vital by-products for the families, such as milk (suu), fresh cheese (byaslag), yoghurt (tarag), milk skin (urum), cream (shartoss), dried cheese (eetsgi & aaruul) and even distilled vodka. This year, in view of the low yield, this production will be reserved for later usage, no sale will be considered, which means lsot financial opportunity for the household.

The drought that threatens the ecosystem affects the stock of fodder and grazing land, making the animals thin and weak. According to the local authorities of Bayankhongor and various institutions, this winter 2 million animals out of 5.9 million in the region are expected to be lost, impacting more than 11,550 herder families. The latter fear a future black dzud that would decimate part or all of their livestock. To mitigate this, they adopt the strategy of selling their animals prematurely. To sell, animals on legs, the oldest and the weakest. In September, the current rate for goats is 90,000₮ /30$/for a male while it is only 50,000₮ /15$/for a female. Oyunbileg and Batireedui have a herd of 770 head, “we plan to sell between September and October 500 cattles in poor condition to buy fodder for the rest of the herd and try to get through the winter with as little loss as possible.” They are not an isolated case. Throughout the country, herders are planning to sell between 50 and 70% of their livestock. However, local and national markets are already saturated at this time; export sales are not possible for reasons of international standards.

The most considerable loss of livestock occurs from January to April, during the cold season. If the herd size is reduced too much, it will be impossible for some to rebuild a viable herd. The survival threshold per household is 200 animals. According to the local authorities in Bayankhongor, 50 to 60% of the herders will be left with less than 250 cattles. This will make it difficult for them to access bank credit, as their animals are their collateral.

The importance of community, cooperation

In 2019, 90% of the herders in the Bayankhongor region subsist on the sale of cashmere. 80% of their income comes from this textile sector. Due to the freezing of prices at the international level, this year the herders have seen the price of cashmere decrease by 55%. This lack of financial contribution strongly impacts the families who counted on this money to repay their existing credit. To meet their expenses during the winter and/or to buy fodder, some herders have taken out an additional bank loan, placing them in the inevitable loop of overindebtedness.

Within the network of cooperatives of the Union, like the cooperative of Bumbugur, some donations are made. Between 5 and 10 packages of fodder per household will be distributed in October. Enkhbold and Sainbileg will have, after sale, a herd of 400 animals. For one month of subsistence, that of November, they plan to buy from the center of the province 110 packages of fodder (1 package = 10,000₮) for a total of 1,100,000₮. Unanimously, the herders are going to be obliged to buy fodder, from the eastern regions of the country (Dornod, Khentii), which they will store in the khoroo of their winter camp. Before buying, they wait for the sale of their ruminants to know how much they will need. Enkhbold and Sainbileg will “first give emergency food to the weakest goats and then we will restock later, if necessary. As for Bayarmaa she explains “I will buy what I need, I will do as I can, according to my financial means”. At the same time, the president of the Union, Badraa, is organizing to sell livestock on the Mongolian market. He plans to sell 10,000 of them.

In addition to this extreme situation, there is the annual separation during the winter. The beginning of the school year arrives, in spite of the restrictions linked to Covid-19, the children can again take the way of the school. The women go to their homes in the regional centers to be able to send their children to the public schools, while their husbands remain in the countryside to look after the herd. Altantuya calls it “divorce.” From a social standpoint, this separation is often difficult to live with, adding a stress factor to the current anxious situation. Fortunately, thanks to the tools of the 21st century and especially cell phones they can stay in touch on a regular basis. Some will go back and forth during the weekends in order to be reunited. Others like Munkhbayar mention that “it’s a habit, this is how our life as herders goes.”

Herders look back on difficult times in the past. Among these stories is that of the 2010 dzud when, nationwide, the loss of livestock amounted to 1⁄4 of the total number of animals. Inciting 75,000 people to migrate to the ger districts of the capital, Ulaanbaatar. This extreme phenomenon leads to often irreversible consequences on their lives. The regulation of livestock by these climatic disasters such as the current drought amplified by interference at the political and economic level weakens a little more the most vulnerable herders. To crown it all, the inhabitants of UB, being similar to a middle and well-to-do class, tend to despise the herders who arrive directly from the steppes. The latter are therefore left to their own devices by their peers and national government policies.