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Room to roam, pastures to feed, forests to breathe!
by Monika Šikulová

Mongolia is home to 42.2 million head of livestock, but nomadic herders are encountering severe environmental degradation problems. (UNV)Mongolia is home to 42.2 million head of livestock, but nomadic herders are encountering severe environmental degradation problems. (UNV)UNV volunteer intern Monika Šikulová is fully funded by the Government of the Czech Republic, and works in a project in Mongolia supported by GEF and the Government of the Netherlands. (UNV)UNV volunteer intern Monika Šikulová is fully funded by the Government of the Czech Republic, and works in a project in Mongolia supported by GEF and the Government of the Netherlands. (UNV)
06 January 2009

Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia: "Two very warm sleeping bags, an extra pair of camel-wool socks, a bag of apples, and many many spare batteries – both for our own use and also for sharing with herders in the high mountainous areas of western Mongolia. What else will we need for this monitoring mission in these harsh climatic conditions? Winter is so near and the weather so unpredictable.

"For the next few weeks we shall have no shower, no vegetables, no electricity, no lots of things. However, despite these hardships, during our regular monitoring trips to the project target areas I anticipate an intense and wonderful experience with the nomadic herder families…"

Among the temperate places of the northern hemisphere, just a few nations can compare to Mongolia in terms of the size, diversity, and health of its natural ecosystems. Yet, as the country experiences a massive socio-economic transformation, threats to these natural areas, flora and fauna are mounting swiftly. A significant portion of the land resources are threatened by overgrazing, deforestation, erosion and desertification.

Herding is a way of life entrenched in the country's long history. According to the preliminary conclusions of the livestock census (late 2008), Mongolian grasslands and steppes are home to 42.2 million head of livestock (and with a population of only 2.5 million people) which is the largest number ever in the history of the country. Nomadic livestock producers are the backbone of the economy, accounting for over a third of GDP and employing roughly half of the country's labour force.

Currently, however, nomadic herders are witnessing very severe and widespread grassland degradation problems. This aspect needs to be seen in context: in Mongolia the pastures are still used as common land, there are no fences, and most herders move four times a year.

Under the UNV internship scheme, I joined the Community-Based Biodiversity Conservation project team, which is supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Dutch Government.  The project’s community-led efforts aim at delivering sustainable natural resource management, biodiversity conservation, responsible mining, and wildlife management and livelihood enhancement interventions.

This means intensive patrolling of the focus areas to help prevent wildlife poaching and illegal forest clearing. Awareness-raising among the surrounding communities with an emphasis on the importance of biodiversity conservation is another priority.

The strategy also includes capacity building for the numerous stakeholders: community members, local authorities, park rangers, the forestry, and concerned government officials.

The project aims to establish efficient structures for managing natural resources and advocating for responsible mining through a participatory approach. This entails forming and empowering herder groups; the development and adoption of co-management plans by herder groups, local government and other stakeholders; and increasing people's ability to organize sustainable natural resource use.

Volunteerism is merged with our practice; it includes a Peace Corps volunteer and, through the project, ecological clubs are being created at the countryside schools. Here students trade their free time to help put biodiversity and natural resources issues an the agenda, and are encouraged to take part in environmental management.   

I have certainly experienced the joy of successfully implementing a project that plays a part in elevating rural communities. Through our project we document evidence on 'what works' in conserving biodiversity at the community level - what sorts of policies and programmes for rural development have had a proven impact on both people's livelihoods and natural resource management.

The approach we have taken for participatory action offers promising ideas for sustainable community development. What may be common to all herder groups and rural communities in general is the wish to shape the process of development, continuing to improve the situation with or without the assistance of us, the outsiders. While total community agreement is not always possible, our project approach encourages cooperation through focus groups, information sharing, and open negotiations.

Natural in the participatory approach to fieldwork is an appreciation for the immense challenges of a place, as well as a respect for the integrity of a different approach to life. Mongolian herders are well-known for offering an exceptionally warm welcome and hospitability.

Such interactions are changing the face of Mongolia’s development in profound ways. People are given opportunities to enter each other’s worlds and strive for mutual understanding.

During our field trip, sharing food with the nomadic herders in their traditional 'gers' every day put our conservation work into perspective. The strategic approach has evolved from solely wildlife protection to a goal of community-based conservation. In the past, projects used to be focused on snow leopards and falcons, and nomadic herders and villagers were seen as threats! However working with the local communities helps us understand the role that local people actually play.  

By developing alternative economic activities and finding ways that local people can engage in and even benefit from the conservation process, projects as ours are able to help make local people part of the solution instead of the problem.

The experience which I have gained as UNV volunteer intern in Mongolia is a very rich and enlightening one, an experience that I feel privileged to have had and which has enabled me to contribute to the Mongolian people and to nature. My assignment has given me the necessary skills, experience and, most importantly, the means to pursue my invigorating path in life. It has been truly challenging as it has pushed me to think and act in new ways.

It has shown me some of the remotest corners of this vast country, it has given me the chance to interact with local communities, to see the broad diversity among ethnic groups, among their customs and beliefs, to enter their dwellings, to share their sorrows, to listen to their expectations and hopes.

It gave me immense freedom and an opportunity to involve myself with development at a grassroots level.
UNV is administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)