Naranbek Ristan slings his binoculars and notebook around his neck and mounts his horse with graceful ease. He is setting off on a monthly patrol of 6,000 hectares of community land to check on wildlife.
The country he will cover is harsh, magnificent and daunting. But for Ristan, most importantly, it is home.
Ristan comes from the Kazakh ethnic group and lives in the community of Akhbastau (literally “White Springs”) in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia’s extreme west. People here are herders and horsemen living in gers (yurts) decorated with colourful floor and wall carpets.
The Altai Mountains, which harbour endangered species such as the snow leopard and Argali sheep, are a critical area for global conservation. Life here is tough, with long and brutal winters. Fierce gales combined with drought create a catastrophic phenomenon called the dzud. The 2009 dzud killed one in five domestic animals in the country. Wildlife numbers are declining as a result of overhunting and overfishing, and livestock pasture lands are deteriorating.
Overgrazing is one of the main causes of environmental degradation in the range, worsened by climate change, and many herders have stopped traditional rotational grazing methods.
But over the past six years, the Altai Sayan Project has worked with communities to manage natural resources, while improving and expanding livelihood opportunities for herders. The project was supported by UNDP, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the Netherlands and several other partners.
Training herders in new trades
Through project support, more than 7,000 herders received training in new trades, including weaving and felt-making; dairy processing and marketing; tourism; and wildlife management. The project provided small loans and grants to community groups in the region for this training.
Diversification of livelihoods makes the herders more resilient to external shocks and reduces pressure on pasture land.
The initiative instituted 20 environment units within the local government office to support community groups. The project also helped create eco-clubs to foster environmental education in 20 local primary schools, each equipped with a club room and library materials.
Once these herders began managing their own natural resources, they started to support each other in additional ways, coming together to shear sheep, rotate their livestock and make hay ahead of winter. Many communities even decided to decrease the number of livestock to only what the grasslands could support.
They also established a hospitality ger for tourists, with 15 percent of income put into the community fund, and the rest divided among the households.
“We now have more options and different income sources,” Ristan says. “And we are better prepared for harsh winters. The dzud impact in this community was minimal last year, which I believe is owing to our organization.”
In 2011, the initiative culminated in important, nationwide changes. Mongolia’s Environmental Protection Law was amended to include clear legal provision for community-based natural resource management. The government designated nationally-protected areas, and official community groups managed natural resources on some of those areas.
After the project ended, the local government environmental units took over to support the community groups and their conservation efforts.
Midori Paxton is a Regional Technical Adviser on Biodiversity and Ecosystems, based in the Asia-Pacific Regional Centre in Bangkok.