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Driven from the land

As desertification and bitter winters increasingly destroy the livelihoods of Mongolia’s herders, hundreds of thousands are moving into Ulan Bator’s shantytowns from the dry, desolate countryside. Kit Gillet reports.

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It is a supreme irony in a country once known as the land without fences. Stretching north from the capital, Ulan Bator, an endless succession of dilapidated boundary markers criss-cross away into the distance. They demarcate a vast shantytown that sprawls for kilometres and is now estimated to be home to a quarter of the entire population of Mongolia.

More than 700,000 people have crowded into the area in the past two decades. Many are ex-herders and their families whose livelihoods have been destroyed by bitter winters that can last more than half the year; many more are victims of desertification caused by global warming and overgrazing; the United Nations Development Programme estimates that up to 90% of the country is now fragile dryland.

Yet with limited education, few transferable job skills and often no official documents, most inhabitants end up simply waiting, getting angry with the government and reminiscing about nomadic lives past. Many take to alcohol.

“More and more people arrive every year and there are so few jobs available,” said Davaasambuu after queuing for 30 minutes to collect his family’s daily drinking water from one of 500 water stations that dot the slum. “Nothing has changed in my neighbourhood since the last election [in May 2009]. There have been no new jobs or improvements. One little bridge has been added in the last four years -- that's it.”

The basic infrastructure is not in place to support such a large population, which expands by tens of thousands of people a year. Many of them still live in a gerthe traditional round, felt tent they arrived with from the countryside and which gives the districts their name and also their sense of impermanence.

Davaasambuu’s is not an easy life. The area around his home is falling into disrepair, with rubbish piling high. Nightly fights between drunks are getting worse. But at least he can take comfort in the fact that he now has a job with which to support his family, unlike many of his neighbours.

“Not everyone in the ger district is dirt poor – some are doing OK – but it is a hard life,” said Troy Tvrdik, whose educational- and vocational-training NGO, Flourishing Future, is based in the district. “Even when it is minus 40°, you still have to go out to get water.”

A World Bank report published last year highlighted the plight of ger district residents, most of whom have limited access to electricity and no running water, sewage or central heating. The report found that during the long winter, when temperatures plummet to below freezing for up to eight months, poorer residents are forced to spend up to 40% of their income on wood or coal for heating, which adds to their financial burden as well as to the heavy clouds of pollution that hang over the city.

Roads are simple, unpaved mud paths and streets have no signs, lights or even names, but are merely the gaps between rows of tents or shacks set up by newly arrived migrants, without any input from the government.

“The quality of the infrastructure is a major problem,” said Mesky Brhane, a senior urban specialist with the World Bank, who helped produce last year’s report. “[People] are clearly frustrated by the lack of infrastructural improvements by the government.”

Protesters, many from the ger districts, have repeatedly descended on the parliament over the past few years, including a large protest in April, demanding a better distribution of the country’s mining wealth. Despite the money pouring into the country from the mining of natural resources, little makes its way to the residents of the shantytown. Mongolia has a population of just 2.7 million yet has the world’s largest mining-exploration project and, in Tavan Tolgoi, the world’s second-largest coal deposit.

Even in the more central ger areas, where many residents have lived for over a decade and built more permanent wooden or brick houses, running water and central heating are unavailable and the streets remain dark, mud roads with open sewage streams and rubbish piled high.

Another big concern is the level of unemployment. While tens of thousands of rural migrants flood the city every year looking for work, setting up their tents at the point where last year’s migrants stopped, unemployment remains a critical issue, especially in the ger districts where the unemployment rate can be as high as 62%, compared with 21% in the more developed areas of the capital.

The Mongolian government has officially declared 2011 “employment support year” in an effort to create 70,000 new jobs, but so far few signs of improvement have been visible.

“One of the biggest problems is that there is very little economic activity within the ger districts due to inadequate infrastructure – everyone has to leave the area to work,” said Brhane. “One new project the World Bank is working on is looking at ways to generate local economic development so people can live and work there. It would make a tremendous difference to people’s lives.”

“We have 12 people in our family and only two have work,” said Dashkhord, aged 50. She and her family moved from the countryside five years ago after one harsh winter took away their entire herd of 100 animals. They arrived with next to nothing and simply pitched their tent on the outskirts of the sprawling shantytown.

“The first year was really difficult,” she said. “It took me over a year to find my first job – cleaning at a hotel. I spent the first few months simply collecting plastic bottles to sell.”

Today Dashkhord earns the equivalent of about US$100 a month as a cleaner at a supermarket, a far cry from her pastoral background, while her eldest daughter looks after children for a wealthier family.

“My other daughter is also looking for a job helping look after kids,” she said. “But it is hard since there are so few jobs and they are so far away. Also, all the job adverts now say you must be over 1.7 metres, beautiful and well educated.”

“For me, I wish we stayed in the village, but for my daughter and grandkids it is better here,” said Baasankhuu, aged 63, who moved to a ger district three years ago and whose roughly US$65-a-month pension is barely enough for her and her family to live on. “My grandchildren can get a better education in Ulan Bator and maybe have a chance at a real job and future.”


http://www.guardian.co.uk/

Copyright © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

Homepage image by Andy Hares of a poor ger district of Ulan Bator.

 

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zhouwei

被土地放逐的原因?

这篇文章介绍了蒙古国离开土地的人们的生活,但是他们为什么离开土地,为什么贫穷,好像没有介绍。很想知道。
国内的草原学者大多对蒙古国牧区社会抱有肯定的态度,作为另一面问题的报道好像比较少见,所以也希望未来报道蒙古国的文章能够在这方面给予探讨。

why driven from the land?

The article illustrates the life of mongolians who left their land but little information is given as to why they left their land and why they were poor,which i'd like to know badly.
The domestic experts on grassland typically take a positive attiude towars mongolia's pasturing areas.But then,reports about the other aspect of the problem has rarely been seen.So I hope there are more reports discussing this aspect in the future.

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shuny

怎么看待这篇文章?

首先说,乌兰巴托的贫民区我没有做过调研,所以并不对那里的情况发表太多看法,说一下牧区。
90%的土地脆弱干化,很笼统。实际情况是:第一,蒙古是个生态脆弱区本身如此,并不是近年造成的,第二,蒙古杭盖山区我刚刚去过,生态维护情况远远好于内蒙古,生态系统完整,生机勃勃,当然也有问题,比如中国商人收购鹿茸、鹿血、旱獭油导致当地野生动物种群在过去十年明显下降。第三,近年来快速恶化地区,比如南戈壁,明确的和中国这边的居延海干涸有直接关系。导致当地地下水位下降,小气候明显变化。总的来说乡间的牧民生活不错,生产经营和生活都很自由,没有人干涉他们必须做某些事,愿意致富的可以多努力,愿意享受生活的,也没有关系。
贫民区主要集中在首都乌兰巴托,下面的城市和苏木没看到这样明显的贫民区,这里面就我看,有以下几个问题:第一,蒙古国政府允许本国公民有自己的宅基地,和建设自己的住宅,无论是砖房、木头房、蒙古包都没有关系,不会作为违章建筑被拆除。第二,贫民问题集中暴露在首都,说明政府层面没有粉饰太平和掩盖社会矛盾。第三,基础设施差是蒙古国非常实际的问题,确实需要改善,但是也不容易,因为修筑道路、管线都需要国家有更好的工业基础。第四,医疗资源分布不均是个大问题,很多人有病知道到乌兰巴托就医,这就使他们无法返回牧场。教育是不是大问题,不太清楚,我在下面的苏木里遇到过很好的英语老师,当地教育条件还是不错的。

How should this article be interpreted?

I should say first that I have not myself conducted research into the slums of Ulan Bator, so I don’t have any particularly strong opinions on the situation there, but I’ll say something about pastoral regions.
90% of the soil is indeed fragile dryland, in very general terms. The real situation is as follows: First, Mongolia is an ecologically sensitive region, and this is not new. Second, I recently went to Mongolia Hanggai Mountain region recently, and the ecological protection situation is much better than that in Inner Mongolia, the ecosystems are more complete and dynamic. Of course there are problems there too, such as Chinese business people buying antler-velvet, deer blood and marmot oil, which has led to falling populations of wild animals over the last ten years. Third, the rapid deterioration in recent years years, in areas such as the South Gobi, are clearly related to the drying up of the Juyuan Sea on the Chinese side. The resulting falling water table has led to changes in the local climate. In general, rural life isn’t too bad for the locals. Economic and everyday life are very free, without anyone interfering in daily affairs. If you want to get rich you can work hard, if you want to relax and enjoy life, that’s fine too. Slums are concentrated in and around the capital, the smaller cities and townships do not have those kinds of slums, and this is where I can see the following issues: First, the Mongolian government allows its people to build their own houses and establish their own homesteads. Regardless of whether it’s a yurt, or built of brick or wood, doesn’t matter, it won’t be subject to demolition. Second, the problems of poverty are concentrated around the capital, suggesting the government doesn’t try to hide or window-dress the problems of poverty. Third, shortages in basic infrastructure are a very real problem in Mongolia, in clear need of improvement, but its not easy, because fixing roads, pipelines etc all needs the country having a better industrial base. Fourth, uneven access to medical resources is a problem, many sick people have to travel to hospital in Ulan Bator, and may be unable to return to rural areas. Whether education is a major problem isn’t very clear, in smaller towns I have found excellent English teachers, and the education conditions there were quite good.

Default thumb avatar
maobi

别相信这篇文章

既然我在蒙古国居住了七年。遗憾的是这篇文章只是老调重弹的陈词滥调,并不代表全部的真相。这里值得关注的是:

1.人们离开农村:这些人绝大多数不是牧民而是那些在社会主义经济体制下,生活在分配的老旧单元房里的人们(像她在文中引述的一样)。
2.荒漠化——过渡放牧:近年来,根据柏林的詹森教授与蒙古当地研究者合作的详尽的调查报告显示:只有靠近运输工具的那部分土地(中部及北部的10%)是过渡放牧的,同时至少有相同比重的土地未被充分使用。原因是国家的肉类购买系统崩溃。由于运输成本的消耗取决于你如何接近市场。过度放牧听起来有点危言耸听而有趣,但是它并没有导致该国中北部地区(高湿度),所谓过度放牧地区的荒漠化。
荒漠化:2005年,因韩国与日本抱怨境内有戈壁滩吹来的沙尘,联合国曾派遣事实调查团调查。明确的结果:蒙古不存在大规模的荒漠化,这些沙尘来自中国境内的戈壁滩。

Don´t trust this article

Since seven years I live in Mongolia. Unfortunately this article is just a rehash of clichés and half truths. Here on the most glaring ones:
1. People leaving the countryside: these mostly aren´t herders but people (like the person she cites) who lived in the old adminstrative units of the socialist economy.
2. Desertification - overgrazing: There´s a detailed investigation by Prof Jansen of Berlin with dozens of local investigators over several years: only the lands near to means of transport (10% in the middle and North) is overgrazed and at least the same amount is underutilized. Reason is the breakdown of the State meat buying system. Because of the transport cost the prize you get depends on how close you are to the markets. Overgrazing sounds somehow alarmist and interesting but it doesn´t lead to desertification in the North or the middle of the county (higher humidity) where the overgrazing takes place.
Desertification: there was a fact finding mission by the UN in 2005 to investigate Korean and Japanese complaints over dust from the Gobi. Unambiguous result: no large scale desertifiation in Mongolia. The dust must be from chinese part of the Gobi.

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maobi

更多关于蒙古荒漠化的信息

写了这个评论之后,我上网寻找了杰恩·贝内普斯在2005-2006年的研究报告,但是并没有任何详尽描写。
但是找到了下面这个链接,是2010年他与牛津大学博士特洛伊·斯特内伯共同撰写的结论性研究报告。
http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all?content=10.1080/17538940903506006
在此,我引用摘要部分:“尽管植被指数表明了土壤退化,但是每年持续的波动表明荒漠化——不可逆的土地覆盖面变化——并没有发生。此外,根据近水点附近较大的土地覆盖上实地记录的数据显示,牲畜的过渡放牧不会导致水源退化。”
我理解基特·吉勒特需要经费,而《卫报》的读者也喜欢这样的故事。这篇文章的确说明了部分真实的问题,但遗憾的是,它与真实又有很大的偏差。在这里就不再详细说明了。

More on desertification and Mongolia

After writing the comment, I looked for the result of Jayne Belnaps research in 2005/2006 on the internet, but couldn´t find any write up.
But here the link to a conclusive study from 2010 co-authored by Troy Sternber PHD of Oxford University: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all?content=10.1080/17538940903506006
I cite the abstract: "Decline in cover identified by NDVI suggests degradation; however, continued annual fluctuation indicates desertification - irreversible land cover change - has not occurred. Further, in situ data documenting greater cover near water points implies livestock overgrazing is not causing degradation at water sources."
I understand that Kit Gillet needs money and the readers of the Guardian like stories like that. There are very real problems here but unfortunately also very different.and there´s no space here to elobarote on them.