Virginia Tech supports efforts to preserve Mongolian nomadic traditions

virginia tech mongolia

During his visits to Mongolia, David Notter has spent time getting to know herding families.

A yurt stands solitary, its presence signaling human habitation on an otherwise untouched plain. The home, called a ger in Mongolia, is surrounded by open rangeland in every direction, the panorama stretching for hundreds of acres until grassland greets the base of the Khangai Mountains. Cattle, yak, sheep, goats, and horses, often totaling 500 or more per family, graze the steppe, painting a tranquil picture of nomadic life in this fabled country with centuries of stories to tell — stories that began long before the rule of Genghis Khan in the 13th century.

David Notter and Shayan Ghajar are familiar with the country’s history, but now, after spending time in Mongolia they are more intimately acquainted with its rangelands and nomadic inhabitants. The Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty members and Virginia Cooperative Extension experts are also well-versed in animal husbandry and the grazing needs of livestock, which is why they were nominated by the college’s Global Programs Office to visit Mongolia for the Farmer-to-Farmer Program.

Notter, professor emeritus in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences, has made important global contributions to animal genetics through his work with organizations including the United Nations and World Bank.

“Herding families are losing ground,” said Notter, explaining that in recent years Mongolian rangelands, which comprise three-quarters of the country, are especially vulnerable. The country’s nomadic way of life is threatened by a fluctuating economic landscape coupled with climatic and environmental change.

For millennia, Mongolia’s pastoral herders grazed their livestock on lush grasslands. Today, due to ongoing drought, harsh winters, and chronic overgrazing, the once verdant steppes are disappearing. At the same time, the sheer number of number of livestock has doubled over the last decade, reaching an estimated 85 million in 2016. Consequently, herders are moving longer distances, and with greater frequency to secure sufficient grazing for their livestock.

The good news is that an increasing number of organizations, including Virginia Tech, are committed to preserving herding traditions and to safeguarding one of the world’s last remaining nomadic cultures.

“International service provides an opportunity to engage in different cultural contexts and to practice incorporating local knowledge when working to address complex problems,” said Ben Grove, assistant director for strategic partnerships and engagement for the college’s Global Programs Office and Virginia Cooperative Extension.

The Farmer-to-Farmer program, sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development, was established to provide technical assistance from U.S. volunteers to farmers, farm groups, and other agricultural institutions in developing and transitional countries. The goal of the Mongolia project, administered through Development Solutions International, a northern Virginia-based nonprofit organization dedicated to working with people in Mongolia, is to improve the productivity and profitability of herders through targeted technical assistance and training by volunteers from Virginia Cooperative Extension, the College, and other partnering organizations in the U.S. and Mongolia.

Shayan Ghajar is a first-year doctoral student in the Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences specializing in grazing and ecological stewardship of grasslands and livestock production. The former Virginia Cooperative Extension program coordinator worked for two years as an equine extension program associate at the Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension Center, located in Middleburg, Virginia. Ghajar, who earned his master’s at Colorado State University, studied under advisor Maria Fernández-Giménez, an authority on Mongolian grasslands and community-based natural resource management.

During his two-week visit, Ghajar was asked to offer solutions to overgrazing in central Mongolia’s Övörkhangai province – a geographically diverse region with mountains in the north, classic grasslands in the center, and desert in the south.

“The country has an ancient system of user rights,” said Ghajar. “Everyone knows their grazing lines. Defined boundaries are implicit and are based on a nomadic lifestyle. This approach is pragmatic and sensible given the environment.”

However, the difficulty according to Notter and Ghajar, is controlling how land is used. Nomadism means you cannot predict where people will be in the event of a drought or other catastrophe. During a drought, herders must gain permission to move their herds.

“They send people from their communities to a new area to request permission. Generally the request is granted,” he said. “There is an established system of reciprocity.”

The country of roughly three million people is positioned in north-central Asia between Russia and China. The national capital, Ulaanbaatar is in the north-central part of the country and is home to 45 percent of the population.

Overgrazing has plagued the country since the fall of Communism in the early 1990s. From 1921 until 1990, Mongolia was part of the Soviet Communist regime. The Soviets mandated pastures for livestock and instituted classic collective farming. When the superpower withdrew, the people were given animals, but not land. Many returned to a nomadic lifestyle, but were faced with competition for grazing space.

“Everyone raced for the last blade of grass,” said Notter. “More animals meant more wealth. But it’s getting harder and harder to make money off of agriculture. Everyone knows they are overgrazing the land,” he said. “There is a need to conserve forage for the winter.”

The country’s impaired grasslands are also critically important to wildlife, including the endangered Przewalski horse, argali sheep, antelope, red deer, and other globally important populations. Mongolia’s systems are sensitive to ecological change, and change can have dramatic impacts on the country’s herding families.

During their visits, Notter and Ghajar spent time getting to know, and learning from herding families. Both formed an abiding respect for the hospitality, ingenuity, and resilience of the Mongolian people.

“The products provided by livestock satisfy almost all the needs of each herding family,” said Notter. Beef and mutton are an important part of the Mongolian diet. Yak and cow milk is churned into butter, curd, and paneer, some of which may be sold at markets, along with cashmere fiber from goats. Fermented mare’s milk is consumed daily during family and public gatherings. Wool from sheep is transformed into felt and used to make clothes, bedding, and insulation for each ger. Horses, camels, and yaks provide transport. Each animal is integral to the nomadic way of life.

“The thing that surprised me is that everyone has a solar panel,” said Notter. “These folks are six hours from paved roads. They move their homes for better grazing. Yet, they have satellite phones and many modern conveniences.” In many gers, solar panels power a television, DVR, stove, refrigerator, and sometimes a washing machine.

Ghajar, whose family roots trace back to Iran and are steeped in nomadic tradition, was particularly taken with Mongolia.

“The people are wonderful,” he said. “They are everything you would expect in an environment that demands intelligence and fortitude. They are gracious and neighborly and they are aware of the importance of land stewardship. They understand overgrazing and want to fix it.”

While there is no easy solution to the country’s structural issues, there is reason for optimism, according to both experts. They believe that a form of community-based natural resource management holds the greatest promise.

“It brings them together and helps them make decisions and gain consensus,” said Ghajar. “Such a system would allow them to be nimble and adaptable in the face of climate change, harsh weather conditions, and economic set-backs.”

The country will still have to manage forage for the cold winter months. Ghajar is in favor of a community structure to address this as well.

“Herders could get together to elect a leader to help them make decisions and represent their group to the government,” he said. “They could then address their shared needs and concerns together — designating areas to make hay, renting equipment, providing shared water distribution and access, or simply planning the timing of migration between spring and fall.”

Given the isolation of many families and the current lack of formal collectives and herding organizations in many areas, Notter believes that extension-based trainings in the form of DVDs distributed to herding families may help Mongolians address certain types of livestock health and management issues. He has recommended this approach in the future.

During each of their trips, Notter and Ghajar met with officials at the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Light Industry to discuss their recommendations for the remediation of forage and overgrazing along with other issues confronted by herding families, such as foot and mouth disease and brucellosis, a common, but serious bacterial disease that impacts cattle and humans. Notter also met with veterinarians and animal breeding officers in 19 counties, and discussed issues such as genetic improvement strategies, the potential use of small milking machines, and how to extend the shelf life of meats. Both experts also expressed hope that the ministry may be able to partner with, and help coordinate the efforts of Mercy Corps and other organizations working on behalf of herders in the country.

As a next step, the two have recommended that veterinary expertise should be a priority. Once the country is able to address livestock disease, Notter feels it will be easier to safeguard herds and to build a stronger export market.