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Nomads in Crisis

Mongolian culture has for thousands of years revolved around nomadic pastoralism, but nomadic ways of life are threatened.


Predatory capitalism has invaded Mongolia, the savage western hordes overrunning the land. But for the recent Hollywood-distributed movie spectacle “Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan” and colorful travel magazine articles no one in America hears much of anything about the place. Behind the bells and whistles promoting ‘democracy’, ‘conservation’, ‘human rights’, and a ‘free press’, Mongolia is under attack and the people suffering a world of hurt. The same companies destroying Mongolia are destroying Congo and Canada and everywhere else they appear. Meanwhile, three years after winning the Goldman Environmental Prize “the ‘Green Nobel’ “Mongol herder Tsetsegee Munkhbayarshot at foreign mining operations and thus he is denounced and shunned by the same foreigners who recognized him as a hero. This is a story about the killing of the earth, the killing of truth, the killing of hope — and the killing of the nomad’s way.

Mongolian culture has for thousands of years revolved around nomadic pastoralism, but nomadic ways of life are threatened. Nature is central to the nomad's way, and all things revolve around the five snouts: yak, sheep, goat, camel, horse. Mongols sing about land, their mothers, and their horses, and life on the steppe demands continuous adaptation to climate and pasture. Global climate mayhem, western mining, conservation and development displace nomads and force them to the margins of existence. This is genocide. Whole herds vanish overnight, and with them the livelihoods of whole families. Urban migration leads to a different kind of survival by any means necessary. This is genocide. Since 1990 the people have seen more than sixty years of communist propaganda mutate into capitalist propaganda. Now they see the reality of capitalism. Mining and logging have poisoned whole rivers and spawned resistance from herder communities that, in turn, has spawned paramilitary violence and state-sponsored repression. This is genocide.

Riders are everywhere on the steppe. Lone gunmen with small-caliber-one-shot rifles, gunning for wolf and marmot, driving herds of four-legged ungulates like plagues of locusts or clouds that blanket entire slopes of mountains. You see nomads seated cross-legged on the ground, rolling or snuffing tobacco, horse hanging ready, herd foraging off into the vast nothingness. You see them surveying the vastness through an old monocular, Russian-made, a pewter eyepiece with green patina, worn smooth from years of coddling, a cherished hand-me-down rolled up in an oily cloth, tucked inside their robes beside an old snuff bottle. Here, Gumbolt is watching for his brother, Dawachoo, to return from a day’s grazing with a herd of fresh horses driven before him.

It is late September in Arkhangay, and I am herding Gumbolt’s yaks. This is the altar namar–the golden autumn when vegetation withers and turns the lands a golden hue–and Arkhangay is the wild jewel of Central Mongolia. Gumbolt drives the yaks over the crest of the mountain, down a vertical slope of loose scree and across highway A1002–a paved road, rare in Mongolia. The yaks bellow complaints, look backwards, stampede ahead. Gumbolt gallops his horse down the steep slope and up the other side. Then he stops to watch me.

The folk taxonomy of Mongolia, as everywhere, is under attack from globalization and the economies of commodification, sound-bite advertising and permanent warfare. Languages in Mongolia are going extinct, and with them the vast knowledge and the universe of meaning of the small-scale herder culture. The taxonomy of the nomadic language allows nomads to talk easily but precisely about where they have been, where the herds are going, or where the neighbors are migrating. The naming of the landscape is based on spiritual and religious beliefs. Nomads believe that spirits inhabit the waters, the mountain peaks, the natural springs and ridges. One must not cross a mountain pass without leaving an offering. The folk taxonomy of the language and culture revolves around the subtlest of clues available to the high-plains horsemen in their daily quest for survival.