Reducing herders’ vulnerability to climate change through community-based pastureland management in Mongolia

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change1 asserts that herders with minimal assets in semiarid and arid regions are exposed to the greater risk of losing their household income and livelihoods due to climate-driven decline in agricultural productivity. The statement suggests the increased vulnerability of herders to climate change and the importance of taking urgent action to reduce their vulnerability. Actions should be robust in design that take the broad environmental and socio-economic development goals, multiple scales of operation and complex interactions between human well-being, and their environment into consideration.1 This is because people’s vulnerability context is defined not only by environmental factors but also by wider socio-economic factors, particularly institutional processes. It is, therefore, important not to rely on technical fixes, such as agricultural intensification, but to give emphasis on institutional and social measures. In particular, effective collaboration between institutions at different levels and the empowerment of local communities that function as safety nets for vulnerable people are crucial.1 Overall, to bring an effective and sustainable solution to people’s vulnerability to adverse impacts of climate change and achieve co-benefits at system’s level, researchers and policymakers need to look beyond climatic forces.

In Mongolia, almost half the country’s three million people sustain their livelihoods herding horses, camels, cattle, sheep, and goats on communal pastures. The viability of pastoral livelihoods is, however, under threat because of negative climatic impacts on pastoral animal husbandry.2 Importantly, recent studies show that Mongolian herders are becoming more and more vulnerable to climate change because of an existing socio-ecological system that is largely shaped by the country’s transition from socialism to capitalism. At the beginning of the transition, the government of Mongolia dismantled herder collectives and stopped all state supports.3 Left without any effective institution that helps herders share labour, access markets and pastureland, and pursue seasonal migrations in times of disasters, herder households bear all herding risks and responsibilities alone. Risk individualisation has expanded social differentiation of herder households and eroded reciprocal use of pastures.3 Rather than improving their livestock quality, herders focus on increasing their livestock numbers which in turn degrades pasturelands.4 This has created a situation in which changing climate conditions play a detrimental role in the productivity of animal husbandry and increases herders’ vulnerability levels.

What is needed is a policy that facilitates sustainable use of pastureland through enhanced collaboration between herders and improved state support. Accordingly, this paper argues that herders’ vulnerability to climate change can be reduced by establishing pasture-user groups on the design principles of common-pool resource management. The paper first analyses the problem and then explains the solution in detail.

Problem analysis
Mongolia is a country of highly arid and extremely variable continental climate, with a pastoral livestock sector whose productivity is dependent upon to healthy pastures and stable climate conditions. For centuries, flexible pastureland boundaries and reciprocal use of pastures that enable herders to pursue seasonal migrations have allowed them to use pastures sustainably and deal with climatic disasters effectively.2 The viability of this system is, however, greatly challenged by climate change. First, over the last fifty years, the country has experienced around 2ºC increase in its annual mean temperature and 7% decline in annual precipitation.2 Long-term meteorological records and herders’ observations reveal that the number of hot days with temperature above 26ºC has extended by 5-28 days, and days with convectional rainfall that cannot provide enough moisture to the soil have increased significantly.5 Furthermore, the occurrences of climate-induced disasters, particularly drought and dzud events, have doubled in the last decade.5 Dzud denotes mass livestock mortality due to unexpectedly harsh winter conditions that make pastures inaccessible to herds.4 Cumulatively, these changes have resulted in the insecurity of pastoral livelihoods, undermining livestock productivity.

Figure 1 shows the pasture health condition of Mongolia. Half the country’s pastureland is affected by moderate or severe degradation.5 While this poor grazing condition cannot supply enough nutrition to livestock, animals’ grazing on pastures has shortened by around half an hour due to the rising air temperatures.5 These imply low animal productivity due to insufficient nutrition intake and fat storage. Batima3 claims that in the last thirty years, the live-weight of cattle and goats has declined by around 13 and 2 kilograms respectively, undermining the food security and income of herder households. Moreover, dzud can wipe out the entire livestock of herders, leaving them with no source of income. The 2009-2010 dzud, for example, killed approximately 9 million animals and left 75,000 herder households with no animals.6,7, These facts indicate the increased vulnerability of herder populations of Mongolia to climate change impacts. However, this does not necessarily mean that climate change is the only factor putting pressure on pastoral livelihoods. This is because people usually deal with shocks like climate change, employing different strategies that can either increase their adaptive capacity or escalate their vulnerability.1 It is, therefore, important to examine the herder’s ability to deal with climate change to better understand why they are so vulnerable to climate change.

MEGD, 2014
Fig. 1 Pasture health condition of Mongolia, 2014.

To better understand herders’ ability to use different resources and adopt effective strategies to deal with negative impacts of climate change, the vulnerability analysis needs to concentrate on institutional setting of pastoral governance. As Agrawal2 explains, this is important because institutions can enhance or undermine people’s ability to respond to changes in three ways: by shaping climate change impacts on communities, determining the ways people respond to climate change, and mediating their access to external support. In the context of Mongolia, there are no effective, formal institutions that regulate pasture use and manage climate risks.7 This is largely a result of the country’s neoliberal reform of the 1990s. Key characteristics of the reform in the pastoral livestock sector were the dissolution of the Soviet-era pastoral collectives and privatisation of collective herds.3 Furthermore, in pursuit of the full realization of a market economy, the state stopped all support, including marketing centres of livestock products, pasture allocation, veterinary services, and emergency fodder and transportation.3 The key problem of this reform lies in the delegation of pastureland use and management responsibilities to herders, while leaving pastureland in public use. This has led herders to pursue individually rational but collectively catastrophic livelihood strategies.

First, the Mongolian government’s neoliberal reform, which emphasises individual agency and responsibility, has created tiny, independent pastoral producers who bear all herding risks and responsibilities.8 As Ahearn4 argues, this has effectively eroded traditional mutual help networks and safety nets in times of need, particularly during dzud, as herder households struggle to deal with damage to their livestock and find no time and resource to help other households. Alongside, there is an increasing tendency among government officials and donors to blame the affected people, claiming that herders neglect to prepare for disasters.8 In reality, herders do not just sit doing nothing in response to climate extremes. They usually employ various strategies, such as long-distance migrations, hay and fodder reserves, construction of warm animal shelters, and purchase of livestock insurance.4 However, these strategies are largely applicable for wealthy herders who possess more than 1000 animals and sufficient assets, particularly a motor vehicle, labour, and networks.3

Middle-and-low-income herder households with small numbers of animals cannot usually prepare sufficient hay and fodder for winter and conduct long-distance migrations to access available pasture during disasters.7 This is mainly because they do not have enough labour, transportation, and financial assets to do so.9 Consequently, herders with minimal assets tend to pursue high-risk yet environmentally unsustainable livelihood and risk mitigation strategies. The strategies include getting bank loans and increasing their goat numbers as a form of building livelihood capitals and enhancing individualised security.3 The main reason for increasing goat numbers is the high price of cashmere. However, goat rearing makes them more vulnerable in two ways. First, given the lack of transportation and physical distance from large markets, small herders cannot earn enough as they are dependent on middlemen to access markets.3 Second, as goats graze more intensively from top to the root of plants, increased goat numbers usually exacerbate pastureland degradation in combination with climatic forces.3

Overall, the problem analysis shows that Mongolian herders’ vulnerability to climate change is not only attributable to livestock productivity decline and massive livestock losses caused by poor grazing conditions and extreme weather events. Rather, it is largely shaped by the collapse of former herder collectives which has increased social differentiation between herder households. Wealthy and poorer herder households are affected by climate change impacts relatively differently, and risk mitigation strategies herders adopt are making them more vulnerable. Consequently, this creates a condition that empowers climate change to play a detrimental role in Mongolia’s pastoral livestock sector; hence pastoral livelihoods.3 What is needed to help herders better respond to climate change is, therefore, an effective institution that can secure herders’ access to pastureland, facilitate sustainable use of land, improve traditional mutual help networks, and link herders to major markets.

Solution: community-based resource management
Mongolian herders’ vulnerability to climate change can be reduced by the establishment of pasture-user groups (PUG) using the eight design principles of community-based resource management (CBRM). Recognising individuals’ ability to cooperate and change their behaviour in pursuit of achieving environmentally sustainable and collectively beneficial development goals, CBRM requires the state to address impacts of pressing development problems in partnership with individuals.10 This means rather than promoting a neoliberal emphasis on individual agency and responsibility, the state needs to create a favourable policy or institutional environment that encourages effective collaboration between resource users to manage their livelihood vulnerability and wicked environmental problems, particularly climate-induced shocks. CMRM, however, does not necessarily mean that forming individuals into a group can simply solve all the problems. To be effective and sustainable, the group formation needs to follow eight design principles, and resource users should be willing to cooperate.10 Resource users’ ability or willingness to cooperate fundamentally emerges from their heavy dependence on common resources, shared understanding of resource system, prior leadership and organisational experiences, reciprocity, and recognition and external support from the state.10

In rural Mongolia, there is a well-established foundation for applying CBRM. It is reasonable to claim so because pastureland becomes the cornerstone of pastoral livelihoods and nomadic herders hold a common understanding of the functioning of their environment.11 As Murphy11 argues, since the country’s neoliberal reform, senior male herders who were members of the former herder collectives have been playing a leading role in coordinating their kin-groups and making livelihood decisions. This means herders have some experience in working together. Moreover, CBRM is likely to be supported by local authorities. This is because, without sufficient financial and human resources, local authorities usually find it difficult to monitor and regulate vast, open pasturelands of the country.11 In their view, herders should regulate pasture relations and management by themselves collectively. With careful designing and support from the state, it is, therefore, possible to establish PUGs to reduce herders’ vulnerability to climate change and achieve some other co-benefits. Table 1 shows the eight design principles of CBRM and key elements that should be considered in the formation of PUGs in Mongolia.

Establishing pasture-user groups with clear resource boundaries can help herders overcome negative impacts of climate change collaboratively. This can be achieved through reduced pastureland degradation and increased household income.5 A pilot project that was implemented in Bayan-Ulgii province of minority group of Kazak herders, for instance, has shown that when herders collaborate, it becomes possible for them to engage in various livelihood activities other than pastoral animal husbandry, maintain their household animal numbers in accordance with pasture-carrying capacity, and prepare sufficient hay and fodder by sharing labour.12 This implies that by establishing pasture-user groups, the country can achieve three goals: improve pasture health conditions, increase herders’ income, and restore traditional support relations between herders. Importantly, CBRM can provide poor herder households with an opportunity to share risks and pursue more environmentally sustainable livelihood strategies compared to goat rearing.

Table 1 Elements of PUG formation in Mongolia
Principles Key elements and consideration10,11,4,13
Clear resource boundary – Rather than focusing on the mobile feature of pastoral animal husbandry, focus on herders’ traditional movement patterns. Secure property boundaries can motivate herders to pursue ecologically sustainable livelihood strategies.
Rules governing resource use – Crafting rules of PUGs can be facilitated by professionals, but final decisions should be made by group members themselves & rules should be modifiable;
– The main focus should be placed on maintaining herd sizes and composition in accordance with the group’s pasture carrying capacity. This can be defined with external support from professionals.
Active participation – Members of PUGs should have equal decision-making rights, so that fair and active participation can be achieved.
Monitoring of resource conditions – Pasture health conditions and herd quality improvements should be monitored regularly. This should be done not only by herders but also by land managers.
Sanction – Rule breakers need to be sanctioned and this should be included in PUG rules.
Conflict resolution mechanism – Conflicts between PUG members or PUGs and the state (or businesses) should be resolved using low-cost mechanisms. This means conflicts can be internally resolved and if necessary external actors should be involved.
Recognition and support from the government – Based on the experience of the pilot project implemented in Bayan-Ulgii province, local authorities need to establish a pasture-use agreement with PUGs to formally recognise herders’ right to pastures;
– If necessary, the state needs to provide herders with capacity-building opportunities, including business and vocational training & state procurement programs.
Multi-level organisation and cooperation – The state should not stay absent. Rather, whenever needed local authorities and land managers should help PUGs define or modify their rules, monitor pasture conditions, and resolve conflicts.


Forming and sustaining pasture-user groups can face two major challenges. First, defining resource boundaries of herder groups can be challenging due to the mobile characteristic of pastoral animal husbandry.12 Second, although reducing herd numbers by improving their quality is crucial for maintaining healthy pastures, herders can neglect to do so. This is because, since the transition, livestock numbers have started to define herders’ wealth, while the country’s market has not developed to the extent that values quality livestock product differently.9,14 Fortunately, these challenges can be addressed. As Cane and co-authors15 claim, Mongolian herders do not just move around the country, rather they have fixed four-season campsites. It is, therefore, possible to define the resource boundaries of pasture-user groups taking the traditional or fixed movement patterns. Meanwhile, herders’ addiction of low-quality herd accumulation can be transformed by community scenario planning. Aimed at facilitating discussion and developing a shared understanding of what needs to be done, scenario planning can motivate resource-users to change their behaviour in pursuit of sustainable development.16

In Mongolia, herders’ vulnerability to climate change is not only attributable to environmental degradation but also to the neoliberal reform that promoted individual agency and responsibility over herder collaboration. Due to the reform, social differentiation between herders has increased significantly. Owing to their access to different livelihood assets, such as labour and transportation, wealthy herders are less hit by climate extremes, while poorer herder households often fail to manage negative impacts of climate change. The situation often forces poorer herders to pursue environmentally unsustainable livelihood strategies, particularly goat rearing. In this context, establishing PUG is the most promising solution that can motivate and enable herders to overcome negative impacts of climate change collectively.


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