An Uncertain Future

An Uncertain Future

Goats, kept for cashmere, now outnumber sheep on Mongolia's steppes

Eight million animals, mostly goats, have died in recent months in Mongolia, as a particularly frigid winter followed last summer’s severe drought. This natural disaster, referred to as a zud, has devastated Mongolia’s pastoralist population, whose numbers total 800,000’nearly a third of the population.

The combination of a changing climate, increasingly colder winters and drier summers, with the persistent expansion of goat herds, has left Mongolia’s environment degraded, and its herders defeated. The growing global demand for cashmere has spurred on Mongolia’s steady acquisition of goats, who nibble on roots and destroy ground cover with their sharp hooves, hastening the soil erosion that is already a problem on the dry and windy terrain.

This scenario is repeated in pastoralist communities around the globe, as population pressures, changing weather patterns, and environmental strains are forcing herders out of their traditional livelihoods. In Kenya, increasingly frequent and severe droughts are wreaking havoc on the Maasai community, who rely on livestock as a source of income and nutrition. As in Mongolia, where some 20,000 herders are expected to flow into Ulan Bator in search of work, Maasai are leaving their traditional lands for larger towns, where lack of skills often prevent them from joining the workforce. According to an Oxfam field report, ex-pastoralists living on food aid and begging characterize Kenya’s Turkana district in the Rift Valley.

As aid organizations and foreign donors work to re-establish Mongolia’s herds, the immediate focus is on averting hunger rather than establishing the basis for alternative livelihoods. With the UNDP planning programs to diversify Mongolia’s livestock industry with value-added projects like wool processing and dairying, and USAID organizing loans for restocking, few seem to be asking whether pastoralism is still viable, and if it can be sustainable, and how.

Photo courtesy of Michael Chu