Private Farming vs. Cooperation in Mongolia

Jay Moore research at
Mon Feb 12 18:00:57 MST 2001

Mongolia's nomadic lifestyle is under threat
By Jeremy Page
Thursday, February 1, 2001

As he hacks at the lifeless carcass of a horse that fell and froze in its
tracks, herdsman Batbayar has more on his mind than his animals, starving in
one of the harshest winters ever in Mongolia.

Even if a few of his animals pull through, the winter has put a question
mark over a way of life that has defined this vast nation since before the
days of Genghis Khan.

"I wonder if any animals will survive," Batbayar, 56, said with a sigh,
stubbing out a cigarette on a crust of ice that has turned winter pastures
into a frozen desert littered with emaciated animal carcasses.

The big freeze is compounding what the United Nations was already calling
Mongolia's worst humanitarian crisis in half a century. Blizzards and
temperatures as low as minus 58 degrees have killed 500,000 livestock since
November in the second successive catastrophic winter to hit the country.

Last winter wiped out 3 million animals.

"I want to continue living the traditional way with my family," Batbayar
said. "I can't imagine living any way except how our ancestors lived for
thousands of years."

The question is whether that proud nomadic tradition, briefly interrupted by
Soviet-style collectivism only to be revived under democratic reforms a
decade ago, can survive.

The problem for Batbayar is that Mongolia is no longer the land of Genghis
Khan, the 12th century founder of an empire that once stretched from Beijing
to Budapest. The expectations of modern Mongolians like Batbayar have
changed as well.

Herds have been crossbred with more productive but less hardy foreign stock
and their numbers have soared. Overgrazing by cashmere goats, a lucrative
new source of income, has turned vast swathes of pasture into wasteland.

Where nomads on horseback once drove animals over grasslands that stretched
to the far horizon, now they jostle for grazing space for their large herds
and fight for agricultural inputs.

To survive, latter-day nomads need a more sophisticated support structure:
transport for winter fodder, veterinary care to avoid epidemics like foot
and mouth disease, livestock insurance, credit cooperatives, milking
stations and abattoirs.

In the days when Mongolia was a virtual Soviet satellite, herds were mainly
looked after by collective farms, which also offered a logistics base for
nomads who stuck to old ways. Generous aid from Moscow kept the system

A decade ago, when democracy swept away the Communist government, the herds
were privatized and Mongolians celebrated the renaissance of a traditional
nomadic culture.

Batbayar, a driver for 28 years at a state-run dairy cooperative in
Sergelen, joined hundreds of thousands of Mongolians who divided up
cooperative equipment and livestock and headed for the grasslands.

"Once herds were privatized there was a sense of euphoria," recalled Toemor,
governor of Sergelen and the former head of the dairy cooperative. "They all
believed they would be fine."

Two catastrophic winters in a row have brought tradition face-to-face with
harsh economic reality. Many of those who turned to herding after
privatization simply lacked the local lore and experience needed to survive
on the steppes after decades in cooperative farms.

While many cling to the ideal that defines Mongolia's cultural identity -
the self-sufficient family unit freely roaming the steppes - there is a
growing feeling the old cooperatives were not such a bad idea.

"The bad weather has led people to believe we need more cooperation - some
sort of joint farming system," Toemor said. "The old traditional way does
not fit today's situation."

So far, Batbayar has lost half his herd of 140 sheep, cattle, horses and
goats - his only source of shelter, fuel, food, transport and income. Few of
Mongolia's 700,000 herders, who make up one third of the population, are
faring any better.

Cyclical winter disasters known in Mongolian as the Zud have come and gone
over the centuries. But Carolyn McAskie, emergency relief coordinator for
the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, argues that a
modern nation cannot depend entirely on an agricultural sector so
susceptible to the vagaries of nature.

Even though livestock outnumber people by more than 10 to one, shops are
filled with imported meat and dairy products --butter from New Zealand,
processed cheese slices from Finland, canned beef from Germany.

"They have to make a choice as to whether or not they want to protect a
truly traditional way of life or to build some kind of a hybrid," McAskie
said. "This is a matter of intensely passionate debate at the moment."

Nobody is suggesting a return to the days when animals were owned by the
state. There will always be a nomadic tradition as livestock are moved
between winter and summer pastures. But many agricultural experts say a
pooling of resources for veterinary care, fodder and transport would improve
security and income.

"Strengthening the cooperative movement is part of the answer, but I'd be
cautious about saying the traditional nomadic form of herding is not
viable," said Barry Hitchcock, the Asian Development Bank's resident
representative in Mongolia. In livestock, he said, there was "a lot of
promise to establish a private sector operation with some support from the

Copyright 2001 - Reuters

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