LONG READ: The plight of Mongolia’s young herders

LONG READ: The plight of Mongolia’s young herders
Confronted by modernity, Mongolian herder families face many hard choices. / Munkhbat Norovjamts
By Antonio Graceffo & Munkhbat Norovjamts October 8, 2021

“In the rest of the world, the livestock follows the people. In Mongolia, the people follow the livestock.”  
Munkhbat Norovjamts 

In Mongolia, 40% of the population still live as herders, while the rest modernize at an incredible pace. Among those who engage in herding, “only a small percentage are true nomads, moving as many as eight times per year”. So explains Munkhbat Norovjamts, who teaches sociology at Ulaanbaatar State University.  

Born in Arkhangai, he grew up herding. When he was 18 years-old, he moved to Ulaanbaatar to attend university. Today, a PhD candidate, he has been researching Mongolian herders for most of his adult life.  

“The seasons are changing now.” said Munkhbat. “We used to move about eight times per year. Today, we only have summer and winter, and many families only move twice.” 

Only a small percentage of today's herders in Mongolia can be said to be true nomads (Images: All photos by Munkhbat Norovjamts).

A herder couple, originally from Uvs Province, recounts: “We move once per season, four times per year. There aren't that many places fit to move to. Otherwise, we would like to move every 10 days or so.” 

In winter, the herders tend to stay closer to the mountains, for the protection they afford, whereas, in warmer weather, they tend to follow the river. “That’s why we do not have neighbours anymore, like we used to,” reflects Munkhbat, adding that the herds are so spread out now that the herders are extremely far away from their neighbours. They will meet for holidays and celebrations, but in general, they do not provide each other the support system they did when he was young. “You have friends, but you do not have companions. And you do not see them every day.” he said. “They might call you on the phone and say, ‘Can you see my herd from where you are? Could you maybe start driving them back toward my house now?’” 

Munkhbat is a typical ex-herder in that he still loves animals and loves the countryside, although he needs to be in the city to earn a living. It seems that a core percentage of herders are reluctant to give up their traditional lifestyle, in spite of there being a pervasive trend of herders moving to the city. “Twenty years ago, you could move to the city and still maintain your herds. Today, it is impossible. The city is too big, and the herds too far away.”  

A herder from the 1980s would not recognise the herder of today, says Munkhbat. “Herders have cellphones. They have TV in their gers [yurts, or tent houses). Some of them don’t even ride horses anymore, they drive motorcycles or trucks.” 

The couple from Uvs confirmed how herding has changed. “When we were in Uvs, we used to load the kids and our ger and possessions on camels and move. We’d leave in early December, and return in February. But today, we use cars, and we move much less frequently.”  

Although still herding and migrating, the couple explains that several years ago, they moved to a circuit near a small city, so that they would be closer to markets, where they could sell their meat, milk and wool, and the children could have better educational opportunities. As for possessions, the couple recalls that they did not have a refrigerator, a garden, or a cellphone, but they did have a landline and solar electricity for their ger. They also had a TV. The couple have always of course gathered their own herbs for cooking, while picking berries for preserves. They make their own vodka and their own rope. They also make their own Mongolian deelor traditional clothing.  

According to Munkhbat, about 200 small animals, meaning goats or sheep, would be considered a subsistence level of animals. Richer families, those with 500-1,000 small animals or with large numbers of horses and camels, may be able to hire an assistant herder to care for their animals, while they move to the city.  

The couple from Uvs tell how they have over 40 horses, 50 cattle, 800 sheep and 200 goats. Plus, the father is 57-years old, so he receives a small pension from the government. “Our home situation is just so-so. We have a few animals, but then again we have seven children, nine people in our family, and some of them have gone independent and some are attending universities so... it’s difficult.” 

Right now, we’re selling a litre of milk directly from outside our home at 300 tughrik [about 10 US cents]. And when us herders walk into the store, what can we buy with 300 tughrik?" 

Generally speaking, herders do not have a lot of cash. This couple say that between the milk and meat from their animals, supplemented with flour they buy in town, their family has enough to eat. When asked if they have enough money, the father jokes: “Money is sometimes there when needed, and sometimes not there when needed.”  

He then broke down their annual cash income. They receive large sums of cash about twice a year when they sell animals. An adult sheep can fetch between 170,000 to 250,000 tughrik ($60 to $88) at retail. Out in the countryside, selling through a middleman, herders may only receive around 60,000 tughrik (about $20), for a completely skinned, gutted, and dressed out animal. If the couple sell 100 sheep each year, they will take in a maximum of about $2,000. Additionally, they say they earn about two million tughrik ($700) per year from wool. But they had to spend money to buy and raise the sheep and money from the sale has to be used to buy replacement animals. The pension they receive used to be 230,000 tughrik per month, but was recently increased to a monthly 250,000. So, all together, the family has an annual cash income of around $3,600, which, again, is not all profit and has to be stretched to support nine family members.  

For the herders, camels and horse have much higher earning potential than lambs and goats.

Enkhee, a former herder, now living as more of a stationary rancher, 70 kilometres from Ulaanbaatar, explains how camels and horses have much higher earning potential than lambs and goats, particularly for those, like himself, living near a city. Among other uses, camels and horses can be used to take tourists on trips, which can earn as much as $150 per day, per tourist. That means, he can earn from a horse in a single day what he can earn from raising and selling two or three sheep.  

As lucrative as tourism is, horseracing is by far the most profitable use of livestock. A horse, bred for racing, which has not even won a single race as yet, can be as valuable as a whole flock of sheep. Once a horse wins, it can be worth dramatically more.  

“Those horses cost more to keep than a human,” says Enkhee. “Between food, medical, training…they eat wheat, not grass, and they have to be kept in doors at night and in winter.” It is all but impossible for regular herders to raise racing horses. “They cannot be earning money unless the horse wins, and the horse cannot win unless all of this money is spent on their upkeep.”  

Munkhbat relates how wealthier herders buy an apartment in the city. Some family members stay behind, to care for the herd, while the others move to the city to work and go to school. If things turn out badly, out on the steppes, and the family has to quit herding, they have the security of knowing they own an apartment in the city. So, they have that to fall back on.  For small herders, however, the move to the city may be a one-way trip. It could cost them their entire herd to move to the city, get set up and begin looking for work. 

“The main reason herders come to the city is for economic opportunities.” Munkhbat says. Out on the steppes, large, commercial herds are getting larger, while small herders are being squeezed out. Also, herders face natural calamities, such as sandstorms or dzud, a cyclical disaster of extreme weather. Dzud kill millions of Mongolian livestock every few years. If a small herder loses all of their animals, they have no choice but to move to the city and find a job.   

The herder's income is seasonal.

“There is a lifestyle change occurring among young people.” said Munkhbat, describing why so many are leaving the steppes. “They are looking far more into the future, and want to be able to count and control their own financial conditions.” If they continue herding, their income will be extremely variable and uncertain.  

The herder’s income is seasonal. Families with a majority of male goats have consistent income from April to June, selling goat fur. If the majority are female goats, then from May 10 onwards they start selling the fur. During April to June, they are happy and have steady income. Then through June, July, and August, they have very little income. In September, they can start selling sheep fur.  

There is fresh meat available in the summer, but the price is high. During Mongolia’s largest holiday, Naadam, the price of meat skyrockets. Towards September, parents need money to pay school fees for young children and university tuition for their older children. So, the herders begin selling meat. But because so much meat hits the market at the same time, the price plummets, remaining low till about November.  

In November and December, city people begin purchasing whole, slaughtered animals, to have enough meat to last all winter. A baby lamb, born in the spring, sells for about 50,000 tughrik. If the herder cares for it, feeds it, and fattens it up, it could fetch 220,000 tughrik at slaughter time, in the autumn. In January, demand drops. It picks up again in February, when families celebrate Sagan Tsar, Mongolian New Year. Afterwards, the herders are poor again, until April.  

Herding families often send their girls to the city to attend education, but will keep one or more sons behind, to help the father.

Rather than endure the harsh lifestyle, hard work, and inconsistent income, “young herders easily give up, because there is another option, come to the city and work and receive a regular income,” says Munkhbat. “Most of their friends are in the city. Most of the things they want to do are in the city, and they cannot find a marriage partner in the countryside.”  

For others, the decision is made by the parents. It is common for herders to send their children to live with a relative in a town, so that they can attend school. If the parents are not far away, the kids will go home on weekends and help out with the herd. Herding families often send their girls to the city to attend education, but will keep one or more sons behind, to help the father. As a result, there is a gender imbalance on the steppes. The girls who graduate university do not wish to return to the steppes, and so the boys in the countryside cannot find a wife.  

From families Munkhbat interviewed, “there might be two or three boys of marriage age, but they don’t have wives. So, their best options might be a divorced woman who is left alone on the steppes. Most girls leave the steppes, get educated and do not return. So, they are not available for those boys to marry. So, there is a shortage of girls on the steppes. In the whole of Mongolia, there are also more girls in higher education than boys. Nationwide there is a difference in gender, but not that big a difference. But among herders, it is much larger. They want girls to get educated before they get pregnant, but the boys are going to stay behind and take over the herd from the dad.” 

Some boys come to the city for education as well. Others may come out of economic necessity, seeking work. “When boys come to the city, it depends on whether they are educated or not,” says Munkhbat. “There is an increasing number of educated herders with university degrees. If they don’t have education, they will be doing manual labour, but with education they can get white collar jobs.” The educated ones can even get a job in the small towns, be in the countryside during the day, and still see after their herds or, split the work with a partner who sees after the herds most of the time. 

Once the herders come to the city, they have to deal with money, something which they have a very unique relationship with. Sara, a Mongolian teacher who owned eight kindergartens in Ulaanbaatar, says that when she hired teachers from the countryside “they believed that they needed to have a baby before the age of 25, but did not necessarily believe they needed to get married”. She explains that often, after the baby came, the father just disappeared. “So, the girls would send the baby back to the countryside, to live with the grandparents and the girls would remain in the city working. When summer came, they would quit their job and disappear to the countryside.” To prevent them from leaving and not returning, Sara would have the teachers sign a one-year contract, and she would withhold a week’s salary. But even forfeiting their wages did not dissuade them from disappearing back to the countryside in summer.  

Other herder children, in her estimation, were spoiled. “They come to the city and live off of their parents’ money, while studying. After graduating, they continue to live off of the parents’ money, rejecting job offers, allegedly holding out for the best one.” Meanwhile, they were living a comfortable lifestyle that did not motivate them to find work. “From time to time, they would take jobs, for a while, then quit, then remain unemployed for a while, then find a job…They would fall into a cycle of working a few months, with a few months of unemployment in between.”  

Sara goes so far as to say: “Over a period of years, I have known people with five jobs and six periods of unemployment.” And of course, in summer, she says, these people did not even look for work. They just headed back to the steppes. “They really want to be in the countryside in summer, but want to be here in Ulaanbaatar in winter because it’s easier.” 

Munkhbat confirms that the herders’ relationship with money is difficult to understand. “Herders do not know much about economics or markets. So, they think only of increasing the number of animals in their herd. It is hard to get them to form a union together to import and export from the city to save money or to make higher profits. They don’t think like that.” So, they sell their cashmere, wool, milk, and meat to low-bidding middlemen, always believing the only way to increase their income is by increasing the number of animals.  

Debt is a problem in Mongolia, in general. There are multiple pawnshops on every block and roughly 80-90% of the population is living in some sort of debt. “Herders live debt to debt,” says Munkhbat. He remembers a typical herder family he interviewed. “The family had 100 sheep, 20 horses, 20 cows, thre school-age children and a grandmother who received a small pension, which went to support the animals. School fees had to be paid, school uniforms and winter clothing bought…” The family was constantly borrowing money to pay interest on previous loans.  

A European woman told me that she was opening a holiday camp in the countryside and had hired several herders to work for her,” says Munkhbat. “The moment they received their pay, they took off. Most did not come back until they needed money again, at which point, she told them that it was too late and their jobs were gone.”  

They don’t have bills, so they really have no idea about budgeting,” adds Munkhbat. “When we get paid in city, we need to pay rent and bills. We learn to budget. In the city, a family buys one or two lambs and eats for the whole winter. In the countryside, they will slaughter a lamb today, and feast on it, devouring the whole thing in one day, and have nothing to eat tomorrow.”  

When your correspondent stayed with a family in the countryside, they slaughtered an animal in the morning and we ate till we were sick. Then, that night, they said: “Sorry there is nothing for dinner.” 

When they come into the city to sell their stuff, they have very specific ideas about what to spend the money on,” says Munkhbat. “But, in the countryside, they have no idea. The father has a better understanding because he has to sell the animals and buy things for the family. But the sons need to learn. Young people don’t understand about money.”  

A report, prepared by a large, international non-governmental organisation, claimed that financial illiteracy was one of the leading threats to health in Mongolia, right after heart disease and cancer. “There are government programmes to teach economics and finance to the herders but they aren’t interested in that. They only care about their animals,” concludes Munkhbat. 

Faced with economic and lifestyle hardships, many herders are drawn to the city. Those who remain on the steppes typically find it hard to marry and continue their traditions. Meanwhile, a certain percentage of herders love the life, seeing it as an integral component of the Mongol identity. They will never give it up, no matter what happens. As the couple from Uvs said: “Herders don’t require anything from anyone. By raising our children as herders, we will make it so that they will be self-sufficient.” The couple felt that herders were the freest people, not beholden to anyone. They end by saying: “I think the herders are the real Mongolians.” 

Some herders that love the life will never give it up no matter what happens.