This article was originally written by Shayan Ghajar and published by Development Solutions International here.
Name: Shayan Ghajar
Current title/profession: Doctoral Student at the Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, Virginia Tech
Current hometown: Middleburg, Virginia
Areas of expertise: Grassland ecosystems and forages, agricultural research and extension
Name of project: Sustainable Animal Herding in Mongolia
Location of the project: Mongolia
Organization that sent the volunteer: Development Solutions International (DSI) under Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance (VEGA)'s Special Program Support Project (SPSP)
Mongolia's rangelands are an unfenced expanse of undulating hills covered in grasses, livestock, and the spangled shadows of clouds gently drifting overhead. For a rangeland ecosystem scientist, its heaven. For a nomadic herder, its home. And for the Mongolian government, it's an economic boon. However, all three of these groups recognize that the steppes of Mongolia are facing a profound challenge: overgrazing.
Recent rangeland assessments conducted by combined teams of American & Mongolian rangeland scientists found widespread overgrazing impacts on the grassland including Uvurkhangai Aimag where Development Solutions International's Farmer to Farmer program helps herders to increase their productivity and profitability by transferring their business and livestock processing skills that will yield sustainable economic results. Volunteers from Virginia Tech share their expertise on livestock, pasture land and animal health management and engage formal and informal training on innovative livestock methods and technologies for government officials, university students, cooperatives and individual herders in Uvurkhangai aimag. I have a Masters in Rangeland Ecosystem Science from Colorado State University, and my research focuses on livestock production on native grasslands with the Department of Crop & Soil Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech.
The overgrazing in Ovorkhangai has recently been compounded by a drought. One can imagine the challenges herders face when precipitation is less regular, temperature extremes more common and state of grasslands is deteriorating. When herders organize themselves formally into community-based rangeland management organizations, their knowledge, persistence, and resources can all be pooled to effectively buffer them from many extreme events. That seems to be one of the major missing ingredients in modern Mongolian rangeland management. In a Mongolian context, that's involved everything from pooling resources to dig new wells or cut hay, to coordinating the movement of animals regionally to prevent overgrazing. I recommended the Department of Food and Agriculture in Uvurkhangai aimag that they learn more about community groups with the herders they interact with on a daily basis. This spirit of cooperation and resilience is not new in Mongolia, and that's because it works.
Overgrazing will not be solved by community groups alone. There are structural and economic causes that must be addressed as well. Mongolia will need to secure large and reliable export markets for meat and milk products to facilitate fair prices for livestock. This will incentivize herders to sell animals more regularly, destocking the steppes and reducing grazing pressure. Additionally, the emphasis must be placed on the quality of production animals rather than the quantity. More work will need to be done by veterinarians and geneticists. Veterinarian assistance is needed to mitigate the abundance of zoonotic diseases such as rabies and brucellosis in Mongolia. Livestock geneticists may be able to help develop animals with more marketable meat characteristics, but will need to do so without compromising the animals' ability to survive in Mongolia's incredibly challenging environment.
The future, I believe, will be bright in Mongolia in spite of these challenges. The people I had the privilege of meeting there were an amazing combination of toughness, generosity, intelligence, and wisdom, and with these characteristics, its easy to imagine them creating a better future for their children and the grasslands. I am grateful to DSI, Dem Ololt, my host family in Arvaikheer, and the herders I met (especially Tumuruu) for their hospitality. I very much hope to return someday, to ride herd with Tumuruu and his family again, to learn from some of the best herders in the world, and to contribute whatever I can to preserving their way of life and the grasslands of beautiful Mongolia.