Let’s Decide The Pasture Issue This Way


Article published in the national daily newspaper Zuunii Medee No 30, 18 December 2007

In the recent past the most debated issue of livestock sector development in Mongolia was whether pastureland should be possessed or not. The issue has not been resolved so far because of the following 2 key reasons.

First, as the pastureland use was regulated by informal customary arrangements for centuries most policymakers still think that the issue still does not need state regulation. Furthermore, those who really understand the nature of the problem are minority at the State Great Hural and Government levels.

Second. Both among policymakers and herders the pastureland possession was commonly misunderstood and looked at from the negative sides that often made it something unsuitable to Mongolian conditions. 

The author analyzes these 2 reasons and proposes ways for creating the legal environment for the pastureland possession and its implementation.

First. Why traditional customary arrangements have become unable  

          to prevent the pastureland degradation?

Keystone of nomadic pastoralism in Mongolia was availability and rotational use of seasonal pastures and access to reserve areas in emergencies. For centuries this was regulated by customary arrangements and was effective in ensuring ecological sustainability and minimizing animal losses during natural disasters.

For the past 10 and more years of transition the following situation emerged in which the keystone for traditional pastoralism much violated:

First. The end of XX century that witnessed the livestock privatization and shifting to a market economy was incomparable to the several thousand years of nomadic history when the national demand was met by a limited number of animals. Private interest of individuals to meet their enormously increased demand and resulting competition for pastures reached the level to actually kill’ the effectiveness of customary arrangements that kept ecological balance for centuries.

Second. Since the beginning of transition in 1990 the number of herders families has grown from around 90 thousand to 180 thousand tremendously increasing the number of seasonal camp sites and virtually destroying the possibility of rotating pastures and keeping emergency reserves. The majority of new herders came from non-herding families who suffered decline and unemployment in the other industries meant that they seriously lacked the knowledge and conscience to keep the customary arraignments. One example is that herders became reluctant to migrate simply because trespassers came in to use pastures left for rest.

Third. Rapidly increasing urbanization and rural infrastructure development has changed the livestock distribution that was relatively even across the territory and increased localized overstocking and degradation. 

As a result of the above mentioned situation the number of herders who migrate consciously to rotate pastures is shrinking to zero leaving a few places where pastures are rotated only because of unavoidable natural factors such as no water, no pastures, too cold or too much flies and mosquitoes. An example is long migrations between high mountains and the basin of Great Lakes in the Uvs lake region with clear cut natural boundaries between seasonal pastures. One hopes that pastureland can be preserved relatively well only in a few places with such geography.  

However, in the entire steppe region and most of Gobi and mountain-steppe regions with relatively uniform landscape characterized by a lack of clear cut boundaries separating seasonal pastures very short migrations unable to rotate pastures has become commonplace leading to year around use and degradation. Given the weak seasonal boundaries herders tend to overgrow animal numbers as they make orientation to the entire area instead of the seasonal pastures. The steppe and Gobi regions are also more exposed to natural degraders such as wind erosion and sand movements. As a result of these factors the frequency of natural risks has increased causing severe losses to the livelihood of herders. This year 9 m animals from 15 provinces mostly in the steppe and Gobi regions are forced to migrate to the territory of other provinces and districts.


Second. What we loose by having no regulation

One. Pastureland degradation resulted from violation of traditional arrangements and a lack of effective state regulation became a key reason for not only undiminishing rural poverty by making the livestock sector extremely vulnerable to drought and dzud and the herders livelihood non-sustainable, but increasing desertification that lead to widespread ecological disaster. Decision makers who naively think that land producing green mass is intact have to see the danger of a drastic change in the green mass composition to less nutritional grasses and more weeds- a key feature of pastureland degradation.

Second. Uncontrolled and chaotic use of pastureland patronizes increasing animal numbers without due consideration of carrying capacity. The national livestock population has reached 40.3 m in 2007. It looks good in terms of today’s livelihood for herders, however, there is nothing to boast from the long-term sustainable development viewpoint. Because, this number is illusional or non-sustainable relative to the pasture carrying capacity and detrimental to future generations of herders as it causes serious overgrazing and degradation. One should not forget that boasting over record animal numbers of 32 m in 1999 was replaced with sad experiences of losing 11 m animals making 12 thousand families totally stock-less in the following 2-3 years of severe drought and dzud – natural ‘regulators’ of animal numbers.

Any policy supportive of increasing animal numbers without due consideration of pasture carrying capacity is inhuman and myopic. It is inhuman in that instead of being consciously managed the destiny of several hundred thousand herders’ families is left to the reign of volatile natural shocks – dzuds and droughts.

It is myopic as it nourishes the existing stagnant position of the extensive livestock industry which has ‘absorbed’ too many households far beyond its ‘feeding’ capacity only to keep in poor subsistence but does not allow them to either ‘die’ or develop, thwarts the herders’ willingness to strive for innovation and more productive jobs, devitalizes the policy to resolve herders’ poverty by actively addressing the excess labor problem to enable the remaining households to keep the herd size enough for sustaining their livelihood and as a whole confines 40% of the population in chains of underdevelopment.


Third. Need for the state to initiate and guide the pastureland


It is difficult to blame herders’ behavior to maximize animal numbers given the lack of accountability mechanisms to link herders’ interest to overgrazing leading to land degradation.  Competing to maximize own benefits given the existing incentive structures is dictated by a market economy. Given the absence of right incentive structures efforts of a few good herders to keep the traditional best practices alive become fruitless. The situation where today’s private interest of individuals dominates over the society’s interest to keep the natural resource base intact for the benefit of future generations is called ‘tragedy of commons’. Tragedy of commons leads to under-provision of long-term use and benefits relative to the social optimum, excessive costs relative to the social optimum and under-investment in conservation and management that eventually destroy the resource base.

According to resource economics the total costs of livestock herding consist internal and external costs. At present costs of using and damaging pastures are not paid by herders, therefore they are called external.   As herders do not bear these costs they are not interested in them. The question is how to make these costs internal or make herders interested in saving them and the solution lies with the pastureland possession.

Thus, the answer to the question why the pastureland possession is not actively initiated by herders lies with the existing incentive mechanisms. In addition, lack of legal environment and local implementation capacities contribute to the slowness of the situation. Therefore, the state needs to play a lead role to initiate and implement this work and herders of present and future generations will directly benefit from it.

The pastureland possession with effective incentives to regulate stocking density will not only save the pastures but also provide essential incentives to improve the livestock quality and the industry productivity by freeing excess labor.

It is entirely wrong to understand the pastureland possession as something forced by the state on herders regardless of their interest. There are an increasing number of innovative herders in any ecological zone who respond to diminished effectiveness of migration – traditional risk management strategy by improving the productivity of a small area of pasture or hay land through fencing and protecting thus saving their animals in the harsh seasons. The pastureland possession will encourage such bottom-up initiatives and best practices. Moreover, engaged people often claim that delaying the pastureland possession makes a major barrier to development of emerging intensive and semi-intensive farming in peri-urban areas.


Fourth. Misunderstanding and right concept about the pastureland

           possession in Mongolia

The notion that the pastureland possession means dividing pastures into allotments, fencing and seeing whether herders can survive or not on one place is being said either intentionally or accidentally fearing people as a monster. This notion is totally unsuitable to Mongolian conditions.

The right concept about the pastureland possession consists of the following points:

  1. It is not possible to implement the pastureland possession at once using blanket approach. Pastureland use traditions, the effective demand in a given district are key to deciding when and how to implement it.
  2. Pastureland possession cannot be decided by outsiders. The key issues of possess or not, where and when need to be decided by district and bag people in open discussions.
  3. One needs to acknowledge that the state regulation of pastureland use should co-exist but not totally replace the traditional customary arrangements. 
  4. Bag, district, provincial and national reserve areas should not be possessed but controlled by respective governments and access to them in emergencies is regulated in accordance with the carrying capacity to prevent hoof dzud (migration of too many animals into one place resulting in severe overstocking and losses of both in-migrated and local animals).
  5. In case of extensive livestock herding the pastureland possession should be based on the traditional informal ‘possession’ or user rights of winter, spring camps and hand wells at the khot ail (group of 1-5 households camping together) level and seasonal pastures at the neighborhood group level such as neg usniihan (people from one water source), neg jalgiinhan (people from one valley).  Making herders’ group as a legal body to formally possess pastureland resources is a practical way to avoid conflicts not raising the sensitive issues of identifying and marking boundaries across households or khot ails. However, within group boundaries members will have individual user rights to or possession of small-scale resources such as seasonal camps and hand wells but with no boundaries and carrying capacity shall be regulated only at the entire group boundary level. The pastureland possession goal is to end the existing chaotic use of pastures by recovering the traditional rotational use and reserve pastures and enforcing it through formal agreements. It means to formally acknowledge and enforce each herder’s right to possess seasonal pastures in likely different locations and access to reserve areas in emergencies, thus ensure sustainable use of pastures and prevent land degradation. The possessors shall be obliged to link the animal numbers to the carrying capacity of pastures that are variable across years and regions.
  6. In case of intensive and semi-intensive farming the pastureland can be possessed by households year-around regardless of the season to promote the growth of this emerging industry.


Five. From concept to action

The action to introduce the pastureland possession consists of creating the relevant legal environment and actions for the implementation.

The simple and easy way of creating the legal environment is to add one clause to the existing land law Citizens of Mongolia can possess pastureland either by individual households or groups of housheolds”. Because it is practically impossible and fruitless to regulate by the law many detailed issues and the urgency for introduction, implementation ways, timing and scope of the pastureland possession highly vary across regions, provinces and districts. These issues can be effectively discussed and resolved only at bag and district levels. Many details like reciprocal grazing rights between possessors in emergencies, rules for crossing others pastures can be managed through possession agreements. The pastureland possession agreement can be administered by the existing land law. Furthermore, there are issues such as potential grazing conflicts within the group that can be effectively resolved only through informal customary mechanisms. The consultation and agreement on boundaries with neighboring herders groups before making the possession decision is highly desirable to avoid grazing conflicts. 

The implementation of the pastureland possession at localities is very challenging job that requires in depth professional skills combined with broad local participation. The main principle is to practice well prepared, phased implementation under competent monitoring.

In some places conditions for the pastureland possession are already apt, but some places still have relatively abundant pastures, therefore local people may not readily accept the idea. Moreover, some wealthy herders tend to oppose the idea as they take advantage of the existing chaotic use for their own benefit by expanding their influence over pasture resources often to the detriment to the poor. However, the results of the 2007 workshops organized nation-wide show that 60% of herders support the idea.  

As pastureland management involves more art than science both the local knowledge and common management experiences are valuable. In Mongolia combining the participation of local governments and herders with experiences and capacities brought by international donor programs carried out in the last 10 years seems to be a practical solution in this regard.

As soon as the legal environment is in place the pastureland possession needs to be implemented in the following scheme:

  1. Organize a structure responsible for strategic management of the implementation process involving the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, the Agency for Land Relations, Geodesy and Cartography and other relevant government and non-government organizations and professionals
  2. Build capacities for district governors, agricultural  and land officers, bag governors to adequately assess the need and timing for the pastureland possession and implement  it with participation of herders in a way phased in accordance with the urgency of conditions in localities using training, demonstration models and exchange of best practices. A capable team selected through fair and competitive procedures is essential in undertaking local capacity building activities.
  3. Finance the implementation mobilizing funds from relevant international programs and projects through consultation with donors and the national resources such as the newly established development fund.



Centre for Policy Research

Think Tank NGO