By Marissa J. Smith and Andrei Marin
In the United States, “goat herder” is a stock phrase of sorts denoting the poorest, most marginalized people on the planet. Goats and goat herders are very often blamed unfairly for pastureland degradation in many parts of Africa and Asia, where herders in these areas often refer to goats as “poor man’s cattle”. So goats do hold a central place both in pastoral systems’ functioning and in our stereotypes about them. As Mongolia’s economic situation remained dire this winter, we have been dismayed to see Mongolia’s poorer and more marginalized people positioned increasingly as scapegoats. In conversations about air pollution and economic reform, accusations against herders and people connected with the Mongolian countryside have stepped up.
When the ban on new registrations in Ulaanbaatar was announced in January, we were surprised (and again dismayed) to hear and read support for the measure (thankfully not in The UB Post, however, but pieces printed here are discussed below). Much of this was in line with stories about rural to urban migration that have been carried by Western English-language media such as The Guardian, which forward the story that herders are migrating in order to access new economic opportunities, in some connection with having lost their animals. We know from numerous studies of people who migrate from rural to urban areas that this decision is based on a complex mesh of push – and pull – factors that vary greatly with age, gender, or economy. In our studies of Mongolian herders during the past ten years, the motives for migrating to “the City” are equally complex as they are fluctuating.
Nevertheless, media accounts simplify these stories and propose, in turn, a simple story; one in which herders are openly accused of mismanaging their animals and coming to the capital for “handouts”. In this simplified story, there are too many animals for the pastureland available, therefore, herders do not manage to save their weak herds during dzuds and droughts and will increasingly be bound to do so as they are overgrazing and destroying the rangelands that “belong to the nation”. This narrative has been used for portraying pastoralists for centuries. The Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldūn mentioned it about the Berbers in the 14th century. In Mongolia, this narrative ignores the fact that the available scientific evidence about pasture degradation is based on data that cannot separate the effects of grazing from those of climate on these ecosystems, and the fact that even these data show just as much improvement or no change as they do deterioration. What these stories also do not discuss is the how the poor quality of basic infrastructure in the countryside, particularly schooling, healthcare, and veterinary services act as push-factors for the herders. These are, of course, the very valuables that an Ulaanbaatar-based registration is required to access. The recent measure to stop access of new rural migrants to these services may stop some, but will likely not end the trend. Migrants will continue to stay in the city and work, most likely in badly substandard housing and labor conditions, often to the benefit of other urbanites. If we look at the demography of UB, the official numbers (National Statistical Office 2015) show an increase in resident population of nine percent between 2012-2015, which might be considered high but definitely not unique (during 2002-2005 the corresponding increase was 14 percent). So, one obvious question is why has the rhetoric against herders in UB increased recently? Winter has, of course, brought the return of some of the world’s worst air pollution, but the deepening economic crisis faced by all Mongolians is also in play.
With the bust of the mining economy, Mongolia has been looking to increase exports of meat and other livestock products. As issues with the quantity of demand for these products in other countries and international and national regulatory frameworks over which Mongolians have little control are little discussed, blame is again often cast upon herders and others in the countryside. If there are so many animals, why is the nation not benefiting? Logics include that Mongolian meat is not good enough because herders use too much, not enough, or the wrong medications (see this piece published by The UB Post in January). Like the stories about migration to Ulaanbaatar, these again downplay the lack and loss of infrastructure – veterinary services, means of transport.
While conducting field research in the Mongolian countryside, Ulaanbaatar, and Erdenet this past summer, one of the coauthors, Marissa Smith, heard assertions by urban-based Mongolians that herders should be taxed, even while she encountered and spent time with the most impoverished herders she has ever met over a decade of working in Mongolia. With the announcement of the recent IMF package, a key type of anxiety that has emerged has been the introduction of graduated income taxes in Mongolia. Most lately, The UB Post printed a piece bemoaning that herders are being exempted from such measures and the recipients of disproportionate benefits from the state, while castigating pastoral production “industry” as “the least economically productive”. This piece again misses that herders, even the wealthiest herders, do not enjoy access to much of the infrastructure that many residents of Ulaanbaatar do, and pastoral production is not the product of herders’ efforts alone, including infrastructures that urban residents find it difficult to imagine and take into account. As the Mongolian state has retreated from involvement in pastoral governance, herders also have been the target of numerous reforms of questionable benefit for herders spearheaded by international financial institutions and development agencies.
All these recent developments can also be seen in a context of changing cultural markers and identity. As Mongolians in UB are increasingly signaling their modernity, the newly arrived herder is increasingly seen as a “traditional” misfit. Surely the long-standing rhetoric of “nomads” and “nomadic culture” and its essentialist reduction of modern-day rural residents (many with bank accounts, mobile phones, and Facebook accounts) to timeless postcard-versions of themselves is showing its effects.
The problems faced by urban residents and workers are indeed serious. However, before casting blame on an “other”, we urge us all to consider shared challenges and solutions. We may find out that the troubles of urban residents are intimately bound to the reasons why some herders are sometimes forced to migrate to the city. The solution then may be a broader gaze at the reasons why herders leave their homelands, and a “country project” for reforming the social and economic realities in the countryside. We suggest that we review and support continued research and inclusive work on these very complicated social issues.