Mongolia’s Neoliberal Turn Has Been an Ecological Disaster

Mongolia is experiencing a disastrous winter with alarming consequences for its agricultural output. Reports have highlighted the negative impact of climate change, but the country’s neoliberal transformation since the 1990s is the biggest factor.

With a traditional herding style in Mongolia that relies on mobility rather than forage, it is even more difficult for herders to prepare adequately for an upcoming disaster. (Anand Tumurtogoo)

Mongolia just had another disastrous winter. By the end of April, the animal death toll had reached 7.1 million — more than 10 percent of the entire herd. It could increase further as during the “dzud” year of extreme cold and heavy snow, the most damage is done in the springtime when a combination of exhaustion and malnourishment reaches a critical point.

Yet dzud is not a new development. The ecological equilibrium has been playing out for centuries, and it has only become a recurring problem over the past two decades, due to climate change and other factors. In many ways, dzud is a continuous ecological problem rather than just a cold winter and excessive snowfall.

Often summer with little rainfall leads to winter with excessive snow, which is the case with this year’s dzud. Animals unable to store fat reserves during the summertime had to endure the winter, when heavy snow makes it impossible for grazing. Moreover, with a traditional herding style in Mongolia that relies on mobility rather than forage, it is even more difficult for herders to prepare adequately for an upcoming disaster.

This year, the problem was anticipated, as scholars, NGOs, and government officials have been communicating to the herders as early as last summer. The ongoing dzud has been the deadliest since 2009–10, when around ten million animals (23 percent of the herd) perished.

Many reports have picked up on this year’s dzud and rightfully addressed the issue as one of climate cataclysm. While the impact of climate change on Mongolia is very real, there is another side of the story that is more important — namely, the introduction of market forces when Mongolia transitioned from state socialism to free-market capitalism in the 1990s.

Mongolia’s Neoliberal Transformation

When one takes a long-term view, pastureland management in Mongolian steppes maintained a particular form of collective organization from feudal times to the socialist period. This model included factors of high mobility, collective organization, and the incorporation of new technologies to support the traditional herding economy, especially during socialist times, when the bulk of the activity was highly mechanized. This all contributed to the continuity of traditional forms of animal husbandry.

The 1991–93 privatization of livestock and dissolution of state farms was (and still is) characterized by its supporters as the return to a normal state of being after the state-socialist interregnum. It was in fact a radical break from traditional forms of animal tending, a critical juncture that led to the present problems.

The surge in the absolute numbers of livestock from twenty-five million before privatization to seventy million by 2023 is often hailed as one of the achievements of the 1990s transition. In fact, this increase was not the result of greater efficiency and productivity under the new market regime, but rather stemmed from the accumulation and overpopulation of animal head counts due to the loss of Mongolia’s processing industries. At its peak during the 1980s, close to 45 percent of Mongolia’s animal herd was processed in a single year to produce various agricultural products, with a significant portion exported.

In cultural terms, during the immediate postsocialist years, there was a romantic notion of the nomad as a figure curiously akin to the “noble savage,” with various forms of cultural revivalism happening in the background. In reality, many of those future roaming nomads were former employees of collectives and state farms who had to go out to the countryside for survival when the livestock and other state resources were privatized.

The number of herders peaked in 1998 at 414,000, three times greater than the 1989 figure of 135,000. Erik Reinert describes this process as ““primitivization of the economy,” with the whole agricultural economy atomized on a household basis and many such atomized households turning into primary production units. This meant abandoning what had previously been achieved during the socialist period, when there was high mobility through a combination of mechanized transportation and infrastructure as well as cooperative and managerial know-how.

Rural Society in Crisis

Many other demographic and social problems ensued, including challenges for education and health care. For the first time in many years, the problem of children dropping out from schools became rampant, in effect creating a generation of true nomads.

This massive yet curiously overlooked transformation shaped the lives of Mongolians today in multiple ways, both in the city and the countryside. In the capital Ulaanbaatar, every dzud has produced an influx of refugees into Mongolian-style “ger” districts, outnumbering those in apartments with heating and sewage systems by a ratio of three to one.

In the countryside, the degradation of pastureland and unsustainable economics for the herders has become the norm. Although the livestock population grew, the same patterns of inequality and precarity that were quickly established after the privatization in 1992 remain unchanged today. In 1998, by one estimate, two-thirds of all households had less than 150 animals, a bare minimum required to sustain a livelihood. By 2023, 86 percent of the herding households had less than two hundred animals.

These households are most prone to shocks like dzud and liable to become economic refugees in Ulaanbaatar. In addition, there has been further penetration of the market into the lifeworld of the herders, as they become accustomed to dependency on various consumer products, which might explain the massive debt generated over the years.

It is reported that around three-quarters of the herders have bank loans. With the chances of a dzud increasing every year, Mongolian herders are the most precarious and insecure group of all. This reality stands in curious contradiction with their symbolic prestige and representation in the “land of the nomads.”

A Tragic Myth

In 1968, the US ecologist Garrett Hardin wrote an influential essay titled “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Hardin presented a caricatural view of self-interested, irrational stakeholders in the form of herders exploiting the commons, rooted in the parables of game theory. The moral of the story was that the commons would prove to be unsustainable, leading to a Malthusian doom cycle as overpopulation and overgrazing end in tragedy.

There have been many rebuttals of the picture that Hardin painted, most notably by Elinor Ostrom, reminding us of various types of “community management” schemes that Hardin conveniently overlooked. Yet the idea of the “tragedy of the commons” still remains a potent one, serving as a justification for neoliberal policies of austerity and privatization.

Discussions about pasture degradation in Mongolia often invoke the local version of this parable: “niitiin umchiin emgenel,” which is sometimes translated as “tragedy of public property.” As far as Mongolia is concerned, the notion of the “tragedy of the commons” is alive and well. It has been ever present as a form of neoliberal apologetics since Mongolia took up a textbook form of shock therapy in the 1990s to transition to a market economy.

This process created the present-day oligarchy and its kleptocratic regime, often sanitized in the international media as an “oasis of democracy.” The dominant ideology condemns all forms of state and public ownership, often with reference to real cases of corruption and embezzlement, and presents market rationalization as an essential tool to deliver the best outcomes.

The reality that Mongolian herders currently face somehow resembles the pattern of enclosure in England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which is where Hardin originally drew inspiration for his parable. Ever since the privatization of livestock, market fundamentalists have argued that the process was incomplete since land should also be privatized. Land reform has been one of the most controversial issues in Mongolia, with pastureland remaining nominally public to this day.

In this context, we see the “tragedy of the commons” being invoked to condemn the supposedly unproductive and irrational herders. They are accused of striving for personal maximization by exploiting finite resources, resulting in the degradation of pastureland and the “tragedy” of the dzud crisis.

Yet as Mongolia has become more integrated into global capitalism, with greater exploitation of its mineral resources resulting in the label “Minegolia,” many former pasturelands have already been “enclosed” or are on the way toward it. As market forces encroach, what David Sneath calls a “proprietary regime” is being created.

While pastureland has not yet been formally privatized, it nevertheless functions as such in practice, with official certificates of ownership granted as herders slowly realize that they should claim the land as theirs before new encroachments and enclosures threaten their livelihood.

The End of Nomadism?

In 1999, Sneath and Caroline Humphrey asked if we were seeing “the end of nomadism,” looking at three different experiences of rural economy in Buryatia (Russia), Inner Mongolia (China), and Mongolia. At the time, it was evident that Mongolia’s pastureland ecology put it in a better position than the other two regions, in view of its distinctive organizational features and institutional history.

A quarter of a century later, this might no longer be the case. Since privatization, the composition and quantity of Mongolia’s livestock has changed, with many more goats being raised for cashmere while pastureland is left nominally public. As the current situation exposes the unsustainable nature of Mongolia’s reorganized pastoral economy, the country finds itself facing another critical juncture.

Cooperative and collective solutions persist to this day among conservative traditionalists, who at best propose to continue the current pastoral allocation by assigning an extra burden to the herders in order to preserve the “nomadic civilization.” However, it would be difficult if not impossible to reverse the encroachment of market forces.

The process of enclosures is continuing today in various forms endorsed by the current government, with the prioritization of mining and (most recently) tourism when it comes to land resources. With a shrinking habitat, the herders are under pressure to act as rationalized actors if they are going to survive under market conditions. Is the end of nomadism finally arriving in Mongolia?