Interview with Enkhtuya Oidov

Mongolia is known as the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky, but Enkhtuya Oidov keeps her feet on the ground and her focus on protecting the country’s vast grassland.

You introduced the Conservancy to Mongolia’s president, and he and the organization are now working together to protect the country’s Eastern Steppe—the largest, most intact grassland in the world. How’d you get to know him?

Enkhtuya Oidov:

We were both activists in the democratic movement. We were demonstrating in 1990—on the street, unemployed, struggling for democracy.

I hear you were fearless even as a kid.

Enkhtuya Oidov:

I couldn’t stand when someone was showing their power to weaker people. My brother always laughed, saying the bully boys wouldn’t quarrel with me because they were afraid of me. I was not afraid. And I probably never would have given up.

Speaking of not giving up, your democratic party eventually beat the communists, and you served in parliament from 1996 to 2000. Why did you get involved in the movement in the first place?

Enkhtuya Oidov:

I just followed my heart. I was born in 1955. The government had total control of the mind; there was no freedom of expression. But I was always a troublemaker. My family wanted to shut me up. They said being courageous is stupid.

You also had a taste for reckless music as a youth. Do you still listen to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones?

Enkhtuya Oidov:

Of course. It’s my generation. It’s really good because it was prohibited.

But decades later you learned why your family had been so protective.

Enkhtuya Oidov:

Stalin’s purge influenced Mongolian politics and leaders. My grandmother was 11 when she saw the socialist revolution in 1921. She was from a rich family; she lost her parents and then her husband, and her second husband — they were enemies of the state.

But your grandmother survived. Is it true she gave you your love of nature?

Enkhtuya Oidov:

For sure. I grew up in Ulaanbaatar [the capital]. I’m a city girl. My grandmother was a kind of outdoors person who went alone into the forests and stayed for months picking blackberries. I would visit on weekends, sleeping in tents until the first snowfall.

In the nomadic tradition, most Mongolian families leave the city in the summer and camp, many on the Eastern Steppe. What’s it like?

Enkhtuya Oidov:

In my childhood I often played hide-and-seek there. You could disappear in the tall grasses. It’s very flat. There’s nothing between Earth and sky.

But now drilling and mining threaten to come between Mongolia’s nearly 3 million people and their grassland.

Enkhtuya Oidov:

Mongolia is the place to mine in Asia now. Everyone is looking for uranium, oil, copper, gold. [The Conservancy] can help identify best practices. We took Mongolian officials to Wyoming and Colorado to show them how the Conservancy worked with companies there to avoid [harming] biodiversity.

It’s hard to avoid the environmental problems in your capital.

Enkhtuya Oidov:

Ulaanbaatar is full of trash, cars and crime. It’s the coldest [capital] city in the world. Only 40 percent of the population lives in buildings with access to water. The rest live in gers [tents]. Ulaanbaatar was called the “princess of Asia”; you would not think that now.

Speaking of princesses, congratulations on your new granddaughter. But tell me, why are you calling her the ugliest baby in all of Mongolia?

Enkhtuya Oidov:

Ha. That’s custom. We’re not supposed to say she’s cute or lovely. It’s seen as bragging.

OK, looks aside, I’ve heard she’s caused you to think about your work differently.

Enkhtuya Oidov:

I want her to experience what I experienced as a child. I had a very peaceful, quiet and very clean environment. I grew up in a very poor country, but I never felt poor.

Do you think you’ll ever go camping with your granddaughter?

Enkhtuya Oidov:

I really would like to someday. I have a lot to share with her. I always feel guilty that I did not spend enough time with my sons.

Well, you were fighting for democracy.

Enkhtuya Oidov:

When my sons were young, I thought, you don’t understand what I am doing and why. Now they are grown up, and they really do understand me, and I know they are proud of me and support me. That gave me the courage to continue.

Interview by Courtney Leatherman


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