A glimpse at our pilot ecosystem in western Mongolia
About 36 very bumpy hours in a Land Cruiser from Ulaan Bataar will take you west to the valley of Chigertei in the very far west of Mongolia. Or you can fly if you have no sense of irony.
This is a place which is extreme. It can be astonishingly cold. And breathtakingly beautiful.
It's ethnic Kazakh, so the people who live here are not really Mongolian, they have their own sense of identity which is very connected to the place they live. The whole area is designated as a protected area - because it's under threat.
Barry Rosenbaum and the Altai Institute have been working in Chigertei, and the wider Deluun area, for the past ten years. He has seen first hand the degradation of the natural environment and its consequences.
A perfect storm of factors is degrading Mongolia’s grasslands. From 1940 to 2014, annual mean temperatures have increased by more than 2.0°C, while rainfall has decreased and seasonal weather patterns have shifted. In the 1990s, Mongolia abandoned its communist system of government and with it, strict quotas on the number of grazing animals allowed. Since then, the country has gone from 20 million grazing livestock to 61.5 million.
Mongolia's herders raise camels, horses, cows, and sheep, but the fastest-growing herds are goats, thanks mostly to the swift rise in global demand for cashmere. Mongolia is now the world's second-largest cashmere producer, after China, producing a third of the global supply, and cashmere makes up 40 percent of the country's non-mineral exports. Thirty years ago, cashmere goats made up 19 percent of all livestock in Mongolia. Today, their numbers make up 60 percent. Goats can be more lucrative than other livestock, but they're also much more destructive than the sheep they've replaced. As a result, overgrazing has caused 80% of the recent decline in vegetation on the grasslands.
Most species of wildlife suffer from overgrazed grasslands. The consequences of increasing livestock numbers and change in herd structure with the resulting over-exploitation of land and plant resources, coupled with effects of climate change, has become the main contributing factor to the increase of species being categorized as endangered in Mongolia. For example, populations of Altai argali have coexisted with nomadic herders and their livestock for centuries, but today the impact of overgrazing by livestock on the habitats of this species is very high and have pushed Argali into marginal habitats. Argali are a primary prey species of snow leopards. When the numbers of prey species decline, the decline of rare predators is not far behind.
Degraded rangelands can be recovered naturally within 10 years if existing rangeland management can be changed. Without change, it will be too late after five to 10 years. By then, Mongolia's grasslands will be transformed into an ecosystem that will be unusable, bringing an end to Mongolians' traditional way of life.
Ecosystem out - the Good Growth operating system
So how can we help reverse the degradation? We work with Barry and other scientists to build a system that restores the natural balance - that regenerates the ecosystem. We make it our business to put back what has been extracted.
What we've come to is an operating system that is not driven from the market in, but from the ecosystem out. Everything is governed first and foremost by what's needed to regenerate the ecosystem. This changes pretty much everything.
It's this shift that is the only innovation we've made. Instead of fixing on a product and then making as much of it as possible, we fix on a place and make what we can from the natural balance of resources in that place. We're working with the natural capital not extracting it. That's why we have a range of brands making lots of different things.
This gives us a new operating context and so we need a north star to help us make these decisions. And that's where clarity on principles and priorities come in.
The carrying capacity
Right now economic incentives - especially cheap cashmere - are driving up goat numbers. No amount of "sustainable cashmere" initiatives will change that. If we're going to change the dynamic we have to start thinking about what's good for the place, not how much of one particular product we can make.
In Chigertei Valley there are 180 families looking after just over 41,000 animals.
Of these 18,000 are goats, 18,000 are sheep, about 3,000 are yaks, 2,000 are horses and there are 26 camels.
If only the fine hair from the goats is perceived to be valuable then all that will happen is increases in goat numbers.
So our job comes in 3 steps:
First to work with Barry and other scientists to work out what the most helpful mix of animals should be. Inevitably this will mean fewer goats.
Second to work out how to ensure that the families get enough money and security to be able to look after the regeneration in the valley. Much of the time they are under financial pressure - getting the kids to school, paying taxes, repaying loans - so giving them some kind of security will help them to work on longer term issues.
And third put value into the rest of what's in the valley. This means creating value from the coarse hair of the goats (and also from the milk), in a "whole goat" approach, alongside creating value from the yaks, the sheep wool, the horse hair and - yes - from the camels.
This means that we are working with what we have, with what nature gives us. We are putting a value on making a healthy ecosystem and on the regenerative work that goes into that.
The aim is to create as much value as possible in the regenerative mix, by getting as creative as we can with the materials to hand. If of the 41,000 animals currently there, only the goats (and of them only a fraction of the goat), are being commercialised then we have - before we have even started - a whole host of materials that are currently being ignored.
We may blend some of the fibres in a special "Chigertei" mix - we need to do more testing but if we can I would love that.
And beyond fibre we can also do more to realise more value from the milk. Mongolian Artisan Cheese may be niche now.......you heard it here first.
Exciting stuff. Lots of hard work. More soon.