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Steppe By Steppe

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DALANZADGAD, Mongolia — The fire went out at 3 a.m. The cold on the floor of the ger woke me up. It was mid-December and minus-7 degrees Fahrenheit on our scrap of the Gobi Desert. As I lay awake, on the other side of the ger from a family of three, I thought that of all the people in the world, Gobi nomads must be the toughest. Drought and cold and sandstorms and isolation confound the gathering of the materials that perpetuate life, and yet these people survive.

But for how long? The Gobi desert is losing its nomads — just over 1 percent of the total population — to the mining industry: Mongolia had the world’s fastest growing economy in 2011, thanks to mining activity and the foreign direct investment it attracted. Mongolia’s two largest untapped mines — Oyu Tolgoi (copper and gold) and Tavan Tolgoi (coal) — are also two of the most promising mines in the world.

A match illuminated the ger’s interior and then ignited desert brush in the stove. The morning’s first whispers concerned the tending of the camel herd grazing a few miles across the snow-patched sand. It would be another day of challenges and honest rewards. We sipped milk tea and broke off hardened dough with our back teeth. The old herder woman, Tsetsegma, said that of 300 traditionally nomadic families in the South Gobi, 80 remained.

According to a recently completed (not yet published) social impact study funded by the World Bank, Gobi nomads would largely prefer to maintain their traditional ways. The government has tried to move some nomads to other parts of the country, away from the advance of the mining life. But, the study shows, many of the relocated nomads complain that their herds have thinned because the new grounds offer inadequate animal housing and reduced access to pasture and water.

Erdenebolor Baast, one of the report’s authors, told me a few weeks ago in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia: “Pastoralism is not only an economic activity. It incorporates the whole culture of Mongols. So do we want to see a Gobi that is populated by expats and domestic migrants smelling of gasoline and oil, looking like a huge industrial complex, where some people make billions of dollars? Will it still be Mongolia?”


I asked if the country might indeed lose a way of life that has existed since the time of the great khans. “It’s more than real,” he said. “It’s going to happen, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Actually, there is.

The Mongolian government is rightly trying to translate the presence of international mining companies into economic development — higher salaries, investment in infrastructure, improvements in health and education. But it is stuck haggling with them over royalty payments and ownership stakes.

And its subsidy program is inadequate. According to Baast, it provides about $3.60 per kilogram of cashmere and $1.40 per kilo of wool. A herder who owns a combined 200 animals, which is average for a family, might get something like $500 per year in assistance. Even the new subsidies expected to take effect later this year — $11 for a hide of camel, cow or horse; $2 per skin of sheep or goat — can’t compete with salaries from the mining companies, some of which pay a truck driver up to $1,000 per month.

A better alternative is a new plan under discussion in academic and legislative circles in Ulan Bator. It calls for privatizing public lands so that they could be held and shared by a collective of nomads. To encourage this process, the government would increase subsidies to those nomads who agreed to collectivize.

This proposal isn’t a case for building a living museum. It’s a case for preserving the unique lifestyle of Mongolia’s nomads by offering them a diversity of financial and social choices.

That morning a few weeks ago, I laced up my boots, ducked through the door of the ger and walked out onto the Gobi. The sun was bursting orange on the prickled desert edge. It was cold. But it felt warmer for knowing that, sparse as the land was, it belonged to the people who had always been there.

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