For centuries, Mongolia’s natural wealth has supported nomadic cultures—and they, in turn, have sustained the region’s animals and resources. That relationship has been a fundamental tenet of Mongolian life, even into the 21st century.
But now, that way of life is in danger.
Mongolia’s rich oil and mineral deposits are rapidly attracting the interest of developers. Resource extraction could benefit the country’s burgeoning economy, but it could also irreparably harm Mongolia’s irreplaceable habitats, from the Eastern Steppe's grasslands to the Gobi Desert's aridlands.
The country's need to develop and build infrastructure makes it urgent to protect Mongolia's pristine habitats. But The Nature Conservancy’s Development by Design (DbD) approach is helping to guide a compromise.
“In Mongolia, we need to find a way to collaborate with industry and government so we can create a balance between conservation and development,” Gala Davaa, the director of conservation for the Conservancy’s Mongolia program, says. “Development by Design gives us a solution to this dilemma.”
Taming the New Wild West
Roughly 16 percent of Mongolia’s 600,000 square miles have been leased to development interests for exploration. (Another 26 percent of that land is available for lease.) This could lead to a level of resource extraction that leaves the landscape fragmented and severs vital passageways for animal migration. Such activity could fragment the landscape, severing vital passageways for animal migration. Development could also monopolize freshwater sources on which people and wildlife alike depend.
For now, though, Mongolia is still one of the world's last and best opportunities to conserve massive expanses of wild grassland habitat and the nomadic traditions they have supported for millennia.
“It’s like the Wild West was in the United States,” Gala says.
The Conservancy has a limited window to help direct Mongolia’s frontier spirit toward sustainable goals. “There is a tremendous opportunity right now to change the trajectory—currently a rush for resource extraction that has blanketed the country with leases—to a future in which mitigation and conservation planning inform this development so that Mongolia’s remarkably intact landscape can be enjoyed by future generations,” Conservancy scientist and co-lead of the Conservancy's DbD program Bruce McKenney says.
When Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj indicated his support for the Conservancy in a meeting with CEO Mark Tercek several years ago, the country’s undeveloped land got a break. By allowing the Conservancy to try out the DbD process in Mongolia, the government signaled their interest in finding a model that gives equal weight to the needs of conservationists, herders and developers.
Impacts into Offsets
To jump-start the DbD analysis, a team of Conservancy and Mongolian scientists began a scientific survey that compiled a significant amount of environmental data across over 150,000 square miles of eastern Mongolia. It determined the areas of greatest importance for Mongolia’s people and wildlife, creating a map of high-priority sites to conserve and suggesting how intelligent development can best mesh with the long-term health of these areas.
In 2012, when the Mongolian government decided to protect 3.7 million acres, our map played a crucial guiding role. Of those acres, 865,000 were on the Eastern Steppe—a previously under-protected region that the Conservancy showed was in need of preservation.
Now that a second survey—this time of the massive Gobi region spanning the southern third of the country—has been launched, Mongolia’s scientific community is gaining a fuller picture of where their most ecologically vital lands lie and how threats like development, climate change and unsustainable herding are affecting them. This information is supporting decision-makers in steering development away from biodiversity hotspots and devising smart mitigation opportunities that maximize the ecological return on investment.
“We can turn impacts in places that aren’t conservation priorities into offsets in places that are,” Joe Kiesecker, a Development by Design co-lead, says.
To achieve those offsets, the Conservancy must work with a diverse spectrum of partners.
Parliament’s 2012 passage of the environmental impacts mitigation act signaled Mongolia’s acceptance of the DbD philosophy. And at the government’s invitation, the Conservancy is providing technical input on the design of regulations and guidelines that will enable the law to be implemented.
“Requiring offsets is a critical step in balancing the need for development with the need to protect nature in Mongolia,” Bayar Yunden, director of the Conservancy’s project in the Gobi, says. “That’s the heart of our DbD work. The Conservancy has invested in four years of learning exchanges to build capacity among our local partners and is facilitating several working groups related to DbD. With this new law, we see that work is paying off.”
The Conservancy is also putting the results of the scientific analysis in the hands of provincial leaders who seek land-use planning data. Sustainable outcomes are now possible in places that previously lacked sophisticated environmental information. Promoting the conservation culture that has guided life in Mongolia for eons is now easier than ever.
“Development by Design is a pretty new concept,” Gala says. “But from large-scale meetings with the government and scientists and talking to partners about what they want, people are getting it.”
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