Where tradition and traceable products meet
The Responsible Nomads project in Mongolia works on innovations in grazing management across the Mongolian rangelands.
Over the centuries, nomadic herders in Mongolia have developed wealth of knowledge in their endeavour to maintain a harmonious co-existence with the fragile and sensitive rangeland ecosystems. However, in the last decades the herders have struggled to increase their income by enlarging their number of livestock, which has led to dramatic landscape degradation.
To combat ecosystem degradation across the Mongolian rangelands, the Responsible Nomads’ project reaches 80 administrative districts (soums) in Mongolia, covering an area of approximately 16 million hectares. The project encourages herders to implement sustainable grazing management across the Mongolian rangelands. By promoting sustainable grazing management techniques, that are more in harmony with the wildlife and nature, most of the degraded landscapes can be recovered naturally and the Mongolians’ traditional way of life and the basis of the nomadic herding lifestyle in Mongolia can be sustained.
Located in Central- and East Asia, between Russia and China, Mongolia covers a total land area of approximately 150 million hectares. Mongolia’s wide variety of ecosystems include high mountains, mountain forests, mountain forest steppe, steppe, desert steppe and deserts, of which around 70% is utilized as grazing lands. The Mongolian plateau is characterized by continental climate, where the average temperature can range from +30°C during the summer down to -25°C during the winter. These harsh environmental conditions shape the dry and semi-dry steppe rangelands making the ecosystems particularly vulnerable to disturbances.
Nomadic herding husbandry has a long history in Mongolia. For generations, nomadic herders have accumulated wealth of knowledge, tradition and experience to co-exist in harmony with nature and the wildlife. Since the vast grasslands of Mongolia are fragile ecosystems, the herders have maintained a nomadic herding lifestyle where they move between four seasonal rangelands 4 – 12 times a year in order to find lush pastures for their livestock to feed on.
Over the years, the absence of policy to control the livestock numbers combined with the herders struggle to increase their income has led to huge increases in herd sizes. Over the past two decades, the number of livestock has tripled and currently there are around 68,000,000 heads of livestock in Mongolia.
Although livestock husbandry in Mongolia is the economic backbone of the country, contributing to 40% of the country’s employment and 70% of the income for the rural population, the current large number of livestock is contributing to severe rangeland degradation. Due to overgrazing, around 60% of the country’s vegetation is degraded and the soils are losing their fertility at an alarming rate. The good news is that these degraded landscapes can be recovered naturally if sustainable grazing management is implemented. If not, the Mongolians’ traditional way of life is at risk and the basis of the nomadic herding lifestyle in Mongolia will be destroyed.
What they do
The demand for sustainably produced and traceable products on the global market is increasing. The nomadic herder families together with the Responsible Nomads project in Mongolia, are directly engaging with stakeholders to source products that are traceable and sustainably produced. The project is working towards improving the herders’ access to markets by providing a platform that verifies the source of origin for raw materials and follows their associated history along the supply chain, both downstream and upstream. Through this project, nomadic herder families can collaborate directly with larger buyers to distribute and sell their livestock products.
A good example of how the project is working with nomadic herders to improve the rangeland condition is the production of the unique and high-quality fibres from yak and camel wool which has sparked attention around the globe. Mongolia is the largest supplier of cashmere wool worldwide on which thousands of nomadic herder families rely on for a living. The high demand for cashmere on the international market has led to a huge increase in the number of goats in Mongolia. This increase of goats has dramatically altered the rangeland conditions since the goat’s destructive eating habits of ripping up plants by the roots and their sharp hooves that cut through the soil surface when trampled, ultimately leaves the land more vulnerable for degradation.
In order to reduce the environmental damage of the cashmere goats, herders across Mongolia are encouraged to manage rangelands in sustainable manner while increasing the productivity per head and produce high-quality fibres. The Responsible Nomads project also encourage herders to harvest yak down and camel wool, which is of similar quality as the goat cashmere. This is because yaks and camels are easier on the environment, as they eat the grass – not the roots – and they have softer pads which don’t damage the ground as severely as the goats do.
Thousands of herders are being trained in combing the yaks and camels to obtain wool that is as soft as cashmere and warmer than merino-wool. There is now an increased global demand for this precious wool material that once was thrown away as it was not valued as high quality product. The Mongolian NGO, National Federation of Pasture User Groups (NFPUG) of herders, implement the Responsible Nomads’ project and are promoting this trend to be an opportunity for the herders to increase their income, and at the same time protect the rangelands on which their way of life depends upon.
The main source of funding for the Responsible Nomads project comes from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) with a budget of 300,000 CHF in three years. These funds go to NFPUG as they implement the project. It is therefore a development cooperation funded project with the aim to support the establishment of sustainable livelihood income for the herders, while simultaneously improving rangeland condition. In the coming years, it is envisioned that the herders’ revenue from the livestock products will make this financially, environmentally and socially sustainable business.
4 returns lens
This landscape has the potential to turn the losses from degradation into 4 Returns. The ENABLE team identified potential 4 return outcomes for the Responsible Nomads project at a landscape level over period of at least 20 years.
Return of Inspiration
- Nomadic herder families preserve their traditional way of living.
- Shared values among Mongolian citizens and national institutions, stakeholders and international partners is encouraged to maintain and preserve the well-being of rangeland based livestock herding in Mongolia.
- Herders feel a sense of belonging and pride by maintaining the traditional nomadic lifestyle which has persisted for centuries in Mongolia.
Return of Social Capital
- Empower, enable and support the herder communities in Mongolia in their endeavour to eliminate poverty and achieve sustainable development through creating sustainable income that can provide security to herders’ families.
- Increased environmental awareness
- Healthier environment, resulting in better living conditions
- Promote and lobby conducive legal and policy environment for sustainable management of rangelands in Mongolia and secure livelihood of herder households.
Return of Natural Capital
- Rangeland conservation with improved biodiversity and water quality
- Preserve natural vegetation through good grazing management practices
- Reduced soil disturbance and improved soil quality (e.g. by decreasing the number of goats and adjusting livestock grazing to the carrying capacity of the land)
- Improved ecosystem resilience to natural disturbances and reduced vulnerability to land degradation
Return of Financial Capital
- Herder households’ income is increased through collective marketing and the improved quality of livestock products.
- Reduced costs of damage mitigation after harsh winters that commonly cause much livestock loss
- Balancing the herders’ income and the environment in the business model.
- Generating positive cash flow through the sustainable land use which allows marketing of sustainable wool products
- Improved market access and income of herder households by providing a platform to verify the source of origin for raw materials and follow their associated history along the supply chain, both downstream and upstream
How they inspire and collaborate
A participatory rangeland health monitoring and assessment system called ‘Responsible Nomads Traceability System’ was introduced and developed by the SDC and the NFPUG. They also developed a national rangeland health assessment report backed up with research trials in order to identify rehabilitation pathways for how to recover pastures from degradation.
The report revealed that around 60% of rangelands were degraded, although 90% of which still maintained the capacity to regenerate itself if sustainable grazing management practices are implemented. Rehabilitation of degraded rangelands can be both difficult and costly. Therefore, the best method identified was to return to traditional rotational grazing practices and pasture-resting supported by the legal framework for secured land-user rights.
An increasing number of herders across Mongolia accept the conditions of the rangeland use agreements, which are based on the rangeland assessment report findings. As of 2018, with the support of the SDC and NFPUG, at least 830 Pasture Users Groups (PUGs) in 11 administrative sub-divisions (aimgs) have established a rangeland use agreement that is signed by the local governor and herders. More than 20,000 herder families work to fulfil the conditions of the agreement in order to sustain and improve the rangeland condition.
An important component of the Responsible Nomads Code of Practices is the incorporation of animal health and animal welfare indicators. These indicators are identified together with herders, local specialists and researchers, based on the context of nomadic herding and best practices. Animal health and welfare is an integral part of Responsible Nomads as the quality of livestock products is directly dependant it. According to the herders, if the animals are unhealthy, the quality of the livestock products such as the wool will be reduced.
For generations, the nomadic herders have accumulated knowledge on animal welfare and the importance of proper shelter, warm and dry bedding in winter and access to seasonal rangelands and clean water for the animals. That is why the Responsible Nomads standards for animal health and welfare are developed in participation and consultation with the nomadic herders and is based on their indigenous knowledge of the issue.
The holistic restoration approach that connects and combines three different landscape zones was not applied to the Responsible Nomads project from the beginning. The project, however, fits well into a larger landscape restoration approach where the three zones are interconnected.
Natural zone: The rangelands of Mongolia have become degraded ecosystems in recent decades. They require sustainable grazing management practices to reverse that trend. This is being implemented across Mongolian rangelands to conserve the natural ecosystems of Mongolia.
Combined zone: The nomadic herder families live in a combined zone where they tend to and manage their livestock.
Economic zone: The nomadic herder families rely on their livestock product for a living. The herders produce wool and meat both for the local community but also for the international market. Mongolia is the biggest supplier of cashmere wool worldwide. This requires large company productions that work in direct collaboration with the herder families to distribute and sell the products.