Sustainable resource use in the Mongolian Gobi Desert

Survival is hard in the Mongolian Little Gobi desert where thousands of nomadic herders live hand to mouth in the barren landscape, alongside many endangered species such as the Houbara Bustard, black vulture, the Argali wild sheep, ibex and snow leopard.

Until the collapse of socialism in 1990, all Mongolians were employed by the state; now people rely heavily on natural resources, utterly dependent on the environment and their livestock of goats and camels for all their basic needs. But despite the hardships, herders are determined to continue their unique way of life. In 1992, the Mongolian government announced plans to place 30% of its territory – an area one and a half times the size of France – under formal protection. It’s an ambitious project but the lack of central resources means it simply cannot succeed without the support and help of local people.

Jargal Jamsranjav, whose grandparents were herders themselves, is training herders scientific research skills so they can help monitor wildlife populations themselves. It’s the first time in Mongolia that local people have been trained as ecologists.

Jargal was 27 at the time of winning The Whitley Award for International Nature Conservation given in 2004. Since then she has spent her time helping people introduce important conservation measures, for example, how to avoid over-grazing, conserve water and manage waste more effectively.

The project centres around the village of Nomgom, focal point for some 600 nomadic families. She said: ‘People here want to improve their lives but they don’t know how. At the moment, the only cash they have is in Spring when they can sell wool and cashmere. We will be helping them augment their incomes by making souvenirs such as felt embroidery, improved dairy production and so on.

‘Most of these people have never seen a mobile phone, never seen a computer. Nomgom is their only link to the developed world – providing school, hospital, post office and – for a few hours a day – electricity. In other parts of Mongolia, which have been hit by very bad winters and drought, people have had to move to the city to survive. But the people here don’t want to do that.’

Unlike many environmentalists, for whom the hardest battle is convincing local people of the importance of conservation, Jargal is lucky in that the Mongolian herders are keen to get involved. She said: ‘These people interact with nature every day. They live on the land and know how important their environment is. They may be isolated, but Mongolians also like to feel they are part of a bigger picture. They like knowing they have an important role to play and are proud of their involvement.’

Since winning her Whitley Award in 2004, Jargal has successfully established seven community groups, each consisting of 8 to 15 Mongolian families, through which she is developing action plans for the conservation and management of the Little Gobi Desert. With these groups, Jargal has organised regular experience sharing meetings to dicuss recycling, pasture, and wildlife management, as well as other important issues such as law enforcement, eco-tourism, water resource protection, and fuel efficiency.

All of these issues relate directly to the way in which the local communities interact with and utlise the land, and their active discussion for the benefit of improved nature conservation marks a change from the protected areas management approach utilised elsewhere in Mongolia. By discussing environmental issues directly with the people, Jargal is gaining a deeper understanding of the needs of the communities living in the Little Gobi Desert, and how closley these relate to sound environmental practice. As a result, working with the local commnities, Jargal has helped to coordinate indigenous tree planting, the implementation of waste management, fencing of vulnerable wild plant bushes to protect them from grazing by domestic animals, and the training of local people in wildlife monitoring so they can assess their impact on the environment around them on which they depend.

Jargal’s work on the ground with the eco-herders, and efforts to raise awareness of the need to protect the Little Gobi Desert, has helped raise capacity amongst local people, and is beginning to make a difference. She has also helped to produce an flora and fauna identification manual for use in the protected areas, which is helping local people to develop a more scientific understanding of their wildlerness home.

In 2005, Jargal was awarded Continuation Funding from WFN to allow her to continue her innovative conservation work with the communities of the Mongolian Steppe.

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