Mongolia is a land-locked mountainous country located between the taiga forests of Russian Siberia to the north and the northern China deserts to the south. The country represents an ecological transition zone with three different biomes where annual rainfall greatly decreases from north to south. Each year, 250-400 mm of rainfall supports the northern taiga forest, 150-250 mm falls on the steppe, and a mere 50-150 mm or less occurs in the Gobi desert of the south. Due to global climate change, the country’s average warming over the last 65 years has been more than 2ºC. The rainfall is also changing with warming, and herders claim that the weather is more unpredictable.
Nomadic herders live in Mongolia, tending herds of sheep, goats, camels, yaks, and horses just as their ancestors have for more than 3,000 years. The herders understand the land and its environment from traditional ecological knowledge passed down through generations and from daily experience; they recognize when the climate changes.
Herder families live in canvas wool tents called a ger. To erect a ger, a canvas covering is draped over a frame of wooden supports, like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. The roof slants downward from the center, meeting a round wall of wooden lattice. Once in place, beds, dressers, and rugs are moved inside and a cooking stove is positioned with its pipe passing through the center of the roof. A ger can be set up within one hour.
When a herder family moves, the ger can be taken down, folded, and placed on the back of a camel or yak in similar time. In the north, herders move with the seasons to fresh grazing pastures near rivers or ponds for the spring and summer and move up to the mountains for the fall and winter in the north. In the south where water is scarce, herders will move at least 20 times a year.
The diet of Mongolian herders primarily consists of milk, yoghurt, cheese, and mutton. They sell dairy products and mutton at local markets, a major food source for town people. Herders need their animals to grow fat and strong on green summer pastures before the arrival of winter, when temperatures can fall to -40o C or colder. Knowledge of daily and seasonal weather patterns is critical for survival. This wisdom tells the herders when, where, and how fast to move their animals. If a summer drought continues into a cold snowy winter, termed a dzud, many animals will starve and die. This can be avoided if they collect winter hay but it is very difficult if they have several hundred animals.
In recent years, Mongolian winters have grown warmer, heavy storm events have increased, and familiar weather cycles have altered. Warmer winters are slowing the growth of sheep’s wool. Heavy winter snow and ice storms cover pasture grasses so animals are unable to eat and quickly starve and die in the cold winter. Summers now present hotter days followed by colder, rainy days. Herders say the daylong “silky” rains of the past have changed to short, intense, cold rains that often contain hailstones. Hypothermia is no longer a threat exclusive only to winter. Children and animals can now succumb to sudden late afternoon cold rains while tending the animals during the summer.
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These changed, unpredictable weather patterns have disrupted the herders’ traditional knowledge of when to move their animals to new pastures, where the best pastures may be, and when to shear their sheep and goats. Herders say summer pasture grasses no longer grow. If they move the herds to mountain pastures before winter snows begin, water will be too scarce for the animals. If the herders shear the animals and a snow or hailstorm occurs, animals will die of hypothermia. Because of global climate change, Mongol herders can no longer safely predict monthly--even daily--weather patterns.
Herders with smaller herds tend to lose more animals during a dzud than do herders with large herd sizes. As a result, the nomads want more livestock but increasing animals contributes in a small way to altered climate patterns by increasing methane production. Large-scale fossil fuel consumption by people in other parts of the world is far greater and has contributed more to this crisis. As such, the herders’ situation raises several moral questions. Has the herders’ right to life been violated by the actions of others? Does the world community have a moral obligation to assist the Mongolian herders, particularly when the herders are producing food for other people?
For the first time in Mongolian history, parents do not want their children to be herders. Climate change has made their traditional way of life too difficult. This has sent a shock through the herders’ personal and cultural identity. It has likewise shaken the peoples’ spiritual traditions, linked as these are to the rhythms of nature, the tasks of animal husbandry, and the role each family member plays in sustaining a nomadic lifestyle.
As one small example, the generations-old sacred Ovoo markers are becoming obsolete as traditional herding pathways are abandoned.
Mongolian herdsman have been staging protests across Inner Mongolia for over 20 years demanding better protection of their lands, rights, and traditions from the ruling Chinese Communist Party. In 2018, protests increased against the pollution of traditional grazing lands by a Chinese government-invested mining company.
This brief study of the Mongolian herdsmen places a human face on this chapter’s learning objectives.
- What is global climate change and how does it produce the effects experienced by the Mongolian herdsmen?
- Global climate change has created new moral problems not only for Mongolian herdsmen, but also for every human being on Earth. What are these moral problems?
- Who is responsible for these problems? What moral principles, goals, and virtues should guide our response to these problems?
- As seen with the Mongolian herdsmen, the impact of global climate change is felt in the very culture and spirituality of persons and groups. What impact might global climate change have on the spirits and life meanings of other people on Earth? How are the world's religions responding to global climate change?
- As the climate of Mongolia changes, the herdsmen must act to save their lives. How can we act in our communities to mitigate climate change and save lives?
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