Responsible tourism in Mongolia
Rural herders are now struggling to survive as their nomadic way of life dissolves. Urbanisation is high, but given their lack of relevant skills, new arrivals in the city are finding themselves with few opportunities in the formal job sector. Similarly, the fast pace of change throughout the country is seeing an increasing amount of land being leased to development interests, but this activity could leave the landscape fragmented, severing vital passageways for animal migration as well as monopolising freshwater sources on which people and animals depend.
Mongolia needs to develop and to build infrastructure for the future stability of its people, but equally important is the safeguarding of its pristine habitats, so it doesn’t lose the wild frontier spirit that makes it Mongolia. To do that a development model must be found that gives equal weight to the needs of conservation, herders and developers alike.
Our Mongolia Vacations
People & culture in Mongolia
The poverty trapPoverty in Mongolia is a relatively recent reality and is a direct consequence of the country’s transition to a market economy in the 1990s. While economic growth initially helped to reduce poverty, the privatisation of industry and introduction of state farming brought with it high levels of unemployment, so incomes shrank and inflation ate away at purchasing power. As of 2016, three out of ten were Mongolians living in poverty with herders among the poorest of the poor. Sadly, this is a number which seems to be on the rise, in 2014 the World Bank classed just 21.6 percent of Mongolians as living in poverty. Up until that point, the number had been in decline.
Poverty is higher in rural Mongolia than in urban areas, as the traditional herders are increasingly struggling to survive. However, urban migration is high and is moving the problem closer to the country’s capital, where new residents are finding themselves ill equipped for city life. Faced with few opportunities in the formal job sector - including mining – the new arrivals remain unemployed, or are forced to work in informal jobs where wages are low. This is incompatible with high inflation rates in UB, which have seen living costs prices - food, transport, housing, and services such as electricity – rise significantly. Interestingly, it is the women who have been picking up the slack; as the men struggle to adapt to the city after a semi nomadic life with their livestock, and feel a loss of identity when they are no longer able to provide for their families, the women have been taking the opportunity to find work, get an education and support their husbands and children.
If the growth of UB continues at such a dramatic rate, there’s no question that Mongolia will grow, both in size and economic status, but the issue of poverty must be addressed. Protecting the poor from the impact of high inflation, and enabling their full participation in economic development through greater employment and access to basic public services, are essential issues that Mongolia’s government will need to consider as part of its efforts to diversify the economy and ensure the sustainability of growth.
What you can do
Make sure your money stays in local hands: stay in ger camps, homestays in small towns and in locally owned guesthouses. Use local guides, and ask your guide where you can eat locally – they’re often more than happy to swerve an itinerary item in favour of this if you ask politely.
Shop in local food markets, buy genuine handicrafts, and ask your guide about worthwhile tourism projects that you can visit and get involved in. A recommended project of interest is Asral, a charity supported by the Dalai Lama that works with impoverished families in the ger districts of UB and further afield so that children do not end up on the street.
Jess Brooks, from our supplier, Eternal Landscapes shares her opinion on the issue of poverty in Mongolia:
“The political liberation of Mongolia in 1990 came as an economic disaster for the country. As the decades of communism ended so did the heavy subsidies that Soviet Russia had paid to keep Mongolia as a buffer state between itself and China. Known as the ‘dark years’, many families were plunged into poverty and, with the shutting of most state industries, unemployment. These are issues that still affect Mongolia today, but there are many great local projects in Mongolia that between them provide greater opportunities and benefits for local people and the communities. One of my favourites is the New Way Life Mongolian Quilting Centre. Set up by Selenge Tserendash to teach unemployed and vulnerable women in Ulaanbaatar and rural Mongolia in the traditional skills of quilting and embroidery and offer a safe workplace for them.”
Modernity vs traditionUlaanbaatar's ger district, named after the circular nomadic dwellings favoured by traditional Mongolians, is a sprawling and ramshackle development that is growing row upon row onto the edge of the capital as a product of its rapid expansion.
Many residents of the ger district - which isn’t connected to the capital’s piped heating system and lacks access to drinking water and proper sewerage - are former herders. Some of them have been lured into the city by the promise of a new life, but have found themselves lacking the skills needed to fulfill it, while others have been pushed off their rural pastureland by the extreme winter weather Mongolia is renowned for. In 2010 alone, some 10 million animals were left dead after a dzud, an extreme weather occurrence known as ‘white death’, and tens of thousands of herders had no option other than to head to the ger district. An estimated 40,000 people now arrive annually and the population stands at over 1.4 million - or around 45 percent of Mongolians.
The likelihood is that it can be bridged though. Although UB's track record for planning isn’t brilliant (the city is lodged in a dip between four hills, its infrastructure is poor, and it is the coldest capital in the world), the city has ambitious plans to transform the ger district. The government has already introduced micro-finance schemes and begun building schools and paved roads as an introduction to a different way of life to the nomadic purists that live there.
It’s likely that disagreements between officials and the residents of the ger district will run and run, with many reluctant to leave behind their unique and traditional way of life. However, Mongolia is a young country with half of its citizens under the age of 25, and it has a democratic system of government that at least wants to listen. The chances are they’ll thank their lucky stars they’re not being forcibly removed as they would be by their not so distant neighbours, and slowly but surely have to accept the advancing modern world.
“It is important for any traveler to Mongolia to accept that Mongolians wish to develop economically and gain access to material possessions that we take for granted. A majority of herding families now use mobile phones and have televisions in the ger. This does not mean their way of life is dying out – they are adapting to the 21st century and they have every right to do so – Mongolia is a tough country, from its infrastructure to its climate and having access to a mobile phone also makes their way of life safer.”
Wildlife & environment in Mongolia
Mining vs conservation
Building an economy on minerals is to build an economy on commodity prices, which fluctuate - a drawback already experienced by Mongolia in 2008 when the price of copper crashed and the government had to make a plea to the International Monetary Fund for help. And then there’s mining’s broader environmental impact: the use of land for mining is not compatible with the Mongolian culture of cherishing their environment. In some areas dust from poorly executed dirt roads is compromising the health of local people as well as their livestock, and many herders who tend mineral-rich land are already struggling with water supply because the mines require such huge amounts to operate.
That said, the Mongolian government have repealed hundreds of exploration and exploitation licenses from mining companies who have operated within 200 metres of forest and water sources and protective laws, such as 2009’s incredibly long winded ‘Law of the Prohibition of Mining Operations in the Headwaters of Rivers, Protected Zones of Water Reservoirs and Forested Areas’ have been passed, though question marks do linger over whether these rules an regulations are being fully enforced.
For centuries, Mongolia’s massive expanse of wild grassland habitat has supported the country’s nomadic cultures that have, in turn, worked in harmony with the land to sustain it and that relationship has been the fundamental underpinning of local life. If the Mongolian government are stringent about whom they partner up with and these companies continuously monitor their environmental impact then it’s hopeful that mining in Mongolia can be compatible with conservation. What remains to be seen is to what extent the country’s new riches will be used to improve the tough lives that many Mongolians face.
“You can’t really talk about Mongolia without talking about the country’s current mining boom, which is changing things very fast. There is incredible amounts of mineral wealth in Mongolia, apparently there is enough wealth in the ground to give each person in the country a million dollars. Foreign multinational companies are moving in thick and fast to develop the mining industry, which is starting to produce wealth, but the issue lies in how the country will best spread that wealth, so that it can benefit the poor people living in the slums and alleviate the growing problems there. It’s normal for 33% of the wealth generated from mining to stay in the country, but there are rumours of corruption and the danger is that the profit will end up in back pockets instead of filtering out to the Mongolian people. The government does have agreements in place with external companies who have a responsibility to train up a certain number of unskilled locals to become employable within the industry though, but mining is never going to employ enough people to spread wealth that way – the government will have to find other ways to spread the benefits to its people.”