Sustaining the Steppes: A Geographical History of Pastoral Land Use in Mongolia [*]

By Fernandez-Gimenez, Maria E. | The Geographical Review, July 1999 | Go to article overview

Sustaining the Steppes: A Geographical History of Pastoral Land Use in Mongolia [*]


Fernandez-Gimenez, Maria E., The Geographical Review


MAR[acute{I}]A E. FERN[acute{A}]NDEZ-GIM[acute{E}]NEZ

ABSTRACT. Recent shifts in Mongolia's politics and economy have changed pastoral land-use patterns and charged debate over how pasturelands are allocated and regulated in a market economy. Absent has been any detailed understanding of the historical geography of pastoral tenure and land-use patterns in Mongolia prior to the socialist era and the collectivization of livestock husbandry. An overview and case study of changing tenures and land-use patterns suggests that in prerevolutionary Mongolia wealth and poverty determined herders' mobility and access to pasture resources; no less is true today. Historical data also reveal dual formal and informal regulatory institutions extant in the past that coordinated patterns of seasonal movement. This amounted to an unofficial tenure system and has contributed to Mongolia's legacy of ecologically and socially sustainable pastoralism. Keywords: land tenure, land use, Mongolia, nomads, pastoralism.

In 1990, after seventy years of Soviet Union -- influenced communist rule, Mongolia (formerly the Mongolian People's Republic) held its first democratic elections. By 1992 liberalization of the economy was under way, and virtually all state-owned livestock had been privatized, dismantling herding collectives. For herders, privatization resulted in loss of the formal institutions that regulated pasture use, in reduced social services, in declining trade and access to markets, in increased numbers of herding households, and in greater poverty and differentiation in wealth. These changes in herders' livelihoods altered patterns of pastoral land use and led to high rates of out-of-season and year-round grazing of key resources, to trespassing on customary winter and spring reserve pastures, and to declines in the distance and frequency of seasonal nomadic moves (Fern[acute{a}]ndez-Gim[acute{e}]nez 1997).

Since privatization, Mongolian policymakers and foreign advisers have debated appropriate ways to regulate pasture use in this nation of nomads as Mongolia enters, by fits and starts, the market economy (PALD 1993; Swift 1995; Agriteam Canada 1997). Missing from this debate is the historical context from which the present situation emerged. What formal and customary institutions governed pasture use in the collective era and before? How did patterns of pastoral land use and institutions regulating pasture use change in the centuries preceding

communism and democracy? These questions resonate beyond the borders of this sparsely populated steppe nation. In an era when many people question the future of pastoralism around the globe, Mongolia stands out as a nation in which pastoralism has thrived and where -- if anywhere-it may be expected to persist as an ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable way of life. The lessons to be learned from Mongolia's past are therefore important to the prospects of pa storal livelihoods and rangeland ecosystems the world over.

I examine how the state, formal institutions such as monasteries, and herders' customary institutions influenced pastoral land-use patterns in Mongolia from the emergence of the Qing Dynasty, following the decline of the Mongol Empire, until the breakup of the collective system in 1990. My focus is historical, because descriptions of the current situation can be found elsewhere and because what other work universally lacks is the context provided by a detailed historical-geographical analysis (Mearns 1993, 1996; Potkanski and Szynkiewicz 1993; Swift 1995; Bruun and Odgaard 1996; Humphrey and Sneath 1996).

In showing how past administrative organization and social institutions structured land-use patterns, a number of themes emerge that are still relevant. With each overt shift in the political economy of Mongolia, the territories of nomadic groups shrank in size, controls over animal movements became more rigid, allocation of pasture was more closely controlled, tenure became more individuated, and the gap between formal and informal regulation of resource use widened. …

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