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  • Writer's pictureNick Keppel-Palmer

Goats, wind and dust.

"The future is desperate"

Glimpse into the Gobi to see the degradation of the rangeland.

In the far south of Mongolia there is an area called Bayan Ovoo. In this desert landscape there is a group of 20 or so families herding across 50,000 hectares. As in many parts of Mongolia there is a grotesque mismatch between animal numbers - especially goats - and the amount of vegetation. Uncapped production, and insatiable consumption, of cashmere is turning vast swathes of grassland into desert.

If you want to see how our growth obsessed economic system is wreaking havoc on nature this is a good place to come. The landscape is under assault from the commodification of cashmere, unpredictable weather and mining.

30 years ago the pastures were healthy, animal numbers were in synch with nature, and all the natural materials were valued equally. Now there is desert.

So what happened?

Gobi, dust, goats, wind. April 2023.

Good Growth is working with these herders to reverse degradation and find ways to prosper within natural constraints. Enkthur, the president of the group, and his wife Otgonbayar gave us an insight into what's changed over the past 30 years.

The past.

We know that animal numbers were carefully controlled during the Soviet era:

"At the socialist time, we did everything together: shearing sheep wool, combing goats, and cashmere. All herders were organised into the collectives, not apart like today. Nothing was lost at that time from raw materials, not like nowadays. In average one family had only 75 heads, and if you had more, it would be taken by collective."

"Those days, the pastures were very good. Almost never had drought or dzud (winter crisis). At time of collectives, all families moved to pastures for summer/autumn. So, there was no overload of pastures, winter pastures were protected very well. On instructions, all families moved to designated pastures, it was very well organised."


Since the 90s animal numbers have shot up:

Herders are in an economic trap. Whereas before all the animals were valued, since the 90s cashmere has come to dominate. More and more demand for cheap cashmere drives up goat numbers, and in the meantime camels and sheep are ignored or undervalued.

The result is a lot more animals.

The natural balance is pushed further out of whack. All biodiversity suffers.

"Nowadays, because of cashmere, each family has in average 400-500 goats and 20-30 camels. Firstly there is problem of pasture overload and degradation. There is mining, so less pasture lands. Secondly, there is shortage of water. There is much more animals comparing to previous time. Too many herds without quality. Vegetation is lesser, pastures impacted by mining and reduced. It became very difficult to be a herder."

In the Gobi the rains are intermittent and sparse. There is never enough grass. Overgrazing accelerates the degradation. The rangelands become much more fragile and harsh winters (Dzuds) become much more commonplace.

"In old times dzud happened every 10-12 years but now every 2-3 years. The pastures are changing a lot. 20-30 years ago the vegetation was growing well, now the density is very low. Secondly, the rains are seldom but when it rains it’s very severe and creates canals and edges where vegetation can’t grow. Weather is getting drier. No rain, only sun and in spring there are a lot of dust storms. The soil became very dry and whitish. And there are much more traffic, the gobi soil is very fragile. It gets loose and taken out by wind."

For a pretty deserted place there is a *lot* of traffic emanating from the mine. The trucks on the road create clouds of dust which settles on the few plants left and frustrate their ability to grow (dust and photosynthesis are not friends).

Nomadic practices helped - moving the herds to different pastures was normal. But nowadays bigger herds and fewer family members mean there is a lot less movement.

"The herder families before protected the pastures by moving to another place when needed. Now, the families are weaker because the young left to work at mining. Remaining at the same place makes pastures worse."

The future

The future does not look good unless the amount of extractive activity reduces:

"The future of herders is very desperate if it continues like this."

"The herders are afraid to lose their pastures in future. But the future of the pastures is very uncertain if the number of animals continue to grow. Therefore, families should reduce the number but get quality animals. The number of animals should meet the capacity of the pastures."

And if Enkthur had just one wish?

"I would make rain come again and again. It’s the most important."

I don't believe that this systematic destruction of nature is intended. In the four years we've been pursuing Good Growth I have become more convinced that we humans are just blithely unaware of how our economic systems exploit and deplete landscapes and nature.

The bits of our supply chains that impact places like the South Gobi are out of sight and out of mind for us as buyers of products, and for the companies that make those products.

As a species we have become fundamentally disconnected from nature. It is no surprise that the systems we have developed and grown to love (fast fashion anyone) can wreak so much havoc.

Ultimately the only way we can reverse the degradation is for humans to reconnect. We need to remember that we are part of, not different from or superior to, nature.

And that is a fundamental shift in attitude.

Enkhtur and family are growing vegetables in greenhouses - utilising the natural fertiliser and trying to encourage a bit of growth back into a place that has very little vegetation.

But even in Mongolia attitudes to the environment are troubling:

"I’m growing trees, I argue with young people who throw their garbage in nature. I see garbage everywhere and it breaks my heart."
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