Icons, Ore and Designs on Development

As the author’s caravan travels across the Gobi desert, they witness herds of domesticated Bactrian camels, which depend on desert grasslands that are critical to supporting herders as well as desert wildlife.

by Scott Anderson

Against the backdrop of Ulaanbaatar’s rising skyline, a bronze statue of Vladimir Lenin was recently removed from the pedestal where it had stood for nearly 60 years overlooking the capitol, and placed on the auction block where bidding for the icon of Mongolia’s communist past started at just $300.

A few blocks away in U.B.’s Sukhbaatar Square sits a much larger bronze statue of Chinggis Khaan flanked by Mongol horsemen dressed for battle.  Unlike Lenin, this cultural touchstone is immovable as it gazes over this city’s crane-filled horizon and a new era of expansion; one grounded in the far reaches of the Eastern Steppe and Gobi Desert

Mongolia is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, fueled by global demand for the nation’s enormous mineral wealth.  The flood of foreign investment has helped coin the term “Mine-golia” -- the Wild West of the Far East.  The pace of development is unprecedented in this nation of 3-million people, many less than a generation removed from the traditional life of nomadic herders. 

Working against time and the inevitable pressure of politics and global commerce, the Mongolian government, assisted by The Nature Conservancy’s Development by Design (DbD) framework, is taking stock of its natural resources in order to shape and implement a long-term vision of development that does not sacrifice Mongolia’s natural or cultural heritage.
Conservation Director for The Nature Conservancy’s Mongolia program, Gala Davaa, who grew up in a herding community in western Mongolia, explains what’s at stake, “Mongolians have a long history of protecting the natural environment. There is no need to convince Mongolians to protect nature, but we need to tell them how to protect it in the face of the large-scale development, which the country has never experienced.”

I had the opportunity to travel with Gala and members of the Conservancy’s Mongolia Program and Global DbD team on a three-day field survey in the eastern Gobi Desert.  The team’s task was to ‘ground-truth’ the accuracy of sophisticated satellite imagery that had been used to map the Gobi desert -- painting it with subtle shades of color representing different types of vegetation cover. 

Remote, But Not Removed

Dornogovi province in the eastern Gobi Desert is remote, but not removed from development.  The landscape is in fact filled with mining leases, and cut by an increasing number of roads required to move copper, gold and coal to market.  Deserts are not the wastelands they often appear to be to the casual observer.  Look more closely with the trained eyes of a botanist, and you see the diversity of life across a varied landscape -- not merely worthy of conservation, but critical to Mongolia’s designs on development.  In its final form, the new mapping tool will speak volumes about the health of transitional grasslands that support herders and their livestock, not to mention desert wildlife ranging from birds of prey circling above to herds of rare Khoulan that migrate across the Gobi.  It’s hoped the results of this field survey will help the Mongolian government build a more complete baseline environmental inventory and a better tool for conservation and land use planning in years to come.

Knowing what you have is the first step in understanding its value. “The big picture here is that we’re not trying to think about next year, we’re trying to think about the next 20-years,” said DbD Strategy Lead Bruce McKenney, standing under the noonday sun in a dry riverbed where our team had stopped for lunch.  “We’re trying to help the government be in a position to plan going forward as opposed to reacting to big projects that come along that may be in conflict with conservation goals.”  If all goes according to plan, the Conservancy will deliver its latest DbD planning tool to the Mongolian government in 2013.

Magical Mystery Tour in the Gobi Garden

Just two things -- ‘botanizing’ and wildlife sightings  -- interrupt our GPS-guided meandering through the Gobi.  ‘Botanizing,’ or getting out of the car to collect photos of plants, and note their location, health and distribution, offers an eyes-on confirmation that the plants found here match those types indicated by those satellite images.  Conservancy scientist Mike Heiner carries a camera and a voice recorder around his neck as he works with a Mongolian botanist to sample hundreds of GPS points in the Gobi garden. “A big challenge is just lack of information about distribution of habitat,” said Heiner, “What are the most sensitive or imperiled habitat types that need to be protected.” 

It doesn’t take long for a novice like me to see subtle changes in the ground cover.  Slowly, out of the washed out, monochrome landscape, sprout small wisps of color -- sage, purple and yellow, amid blazes of orange and tufts of low grasses and shrubs.   These stubborn plants vary across terrain and elevation, and our GIS map is so good that Heiner is able to accurately predict which type of vegetation we’re likely to see not far ahead on the sandy track.   As we drive, The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour blasts from the speakers of my SUV, “Roll up, roll up for the mystery tour,” as our modern day caravan rolls on.  Gambaa, who drives the SUV that I ride in, has wide-ranging taste in music, and along the way, the Fab Four give over to the low twang of traditional Mongolian throat singing and the two-stringed Morin Khuur or Horse Head Fiddle.  Whatever the music, it seems to compliment the desert scenery.

As intently as our team studies the ground in front of us, the real action is just as often on the horizon where frequent sightings of wildlife bring our caravan to a quick stop.  A paparazzi-like frenzy of clicking camera shutters erupts at the sight of herds of domesticated Bactrian camels and rarely seen Khulan (Mongolian Wild Asses).  Over the course of two days, we cross paths with several large groups of Khulan, which seem to move with the speed and urgency of a riderless cavalry, raising dust clouds across the plains and low ridge lines of the Gobi.  Roads and railroad tracks – especially those that are fenced off -- pose unique challenges to Khulan and other migratory wildlife here.  Taking the night train from a remote railway station back to Ulaanbaatar, it’s easy to see why.

The Trans-Mongolian Railway

As the sun rises, so does the profile of fence lines that parallel parts of the Trans-Mongolian Railway to prevent livestock loss.  The fencing combined with the alternating deep cuts and raised embankments through Mongolia’s hills and valleys make for a level track bed and relatively smooth train ride. However, too often they amount to an earthen and steel barrier that fragments the landscape, impeding the natural movement of Khoulan and other wildlife, which must range so widely across the arid land to find pasture.

As we move north toward Ulaanbaatar, the vast open view of the Gobi shrinks, giving way to timbered hillsides and lush grassland under the October frost.  Closer to the city there are more fences, tall transmission towers, the framework of rising apartment buildings.  Pockets of traditional Ger dwellings compete for space among the construction sites that crowd the capitol’s outlying neighborhoods.

Ours is no Silk Road expedition, but the ever-widening dirt tracks we followed across the Gobi Desert overlay a wilderness appearing much as it did eight centuries ago when Chinggis Khaan rode in the vanguard of an expanding Mongol empire.  Now as then, exploration and trade will have long lasting impacts on culture, development and the land itself.

There is no doubt that the rush of expansion is here in Mongolia, said Davaa  “The results of our work will help the government to protect important habitats for wildlife as well as pasture and water for herders.  Our analysis is important for decisions about where development should go.” So too are the tools and the will to manage it.


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