Helping nomadic families prepare for a complex future in Mongolia

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Helping nomadic families prepare for a complex future in Mongolia

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©IFAD/Susan Beccio

ltanshagai, 34, with his herd in Motont Soum, Mongolia.

Mongolia’s punishing climate and short growing season limit the variety in people’s diets and require families to work hard during the brief summer. An IFAD-supported programme has introduced herders to sustainable land management practices and has helped people grow vegetables during the summer, providing both nutrients and an opportunity to earn by selling the surplus. The programme has also established mobile kindergartens, which serve as a day-care service for busy parents while giving the youngsters a head start on learning.

Parents wait quietly in a circle of blue plastic chairs on the newly green grass. Preschool children in blue jeans and sneakers, their faces a mixture of excitement and uncertainty, sit in front of them on a blanket. The opening ceremony is about to start: welcome to the first day of mobile kindergarten on Mongolia’s northern steppe.

The brief summer kindergarten is a welcome respite from the long and frigid winter, when life is slow and takes place largely inside canvas tents called gers. But when the snow melts, families move their herds and gers to the banks of rivers and ponds, and life goes into overdrive. There are just a few short months in which to milk animals, process dairy products, grow vegetables and earn a bit of income.

Not a moment can be wasted, but it’s hard to work when small children are underfoot. To increase the productivity of these families while helping children prepare for primary school, in 2004 IFAD began supporting a mobile kindergarten project for children aged 2 to 7.

Freeing parents to work

“We are very busy growing vegetables and producing and selling dairy products in summer,” says Dulmaa, a mother of two, who, like most Mongolians uses only one name. “During this busy period of the year, our children get bored and we need to take care of them as well. Now my two children are going to mobile kindergarten and learning many new things, such as new songs and poems and writing.”

Each kindergarten serves about 25 children, with parents setting up the ger and providing food. They pick up their children each day around 7 p.m., after milking. At the end of the three-week session, the children put on a recital to show their parents what they have learned. Then the ger is packed onto its wooden cart and moved to the next site.

“Mostly the herders’ children cannot go to kindergarten because each soum (rural village) has one centre, and herders cannot bring children all the way to the aimag (provincial town),” explains Bayanjargal, head of the kindergarten in Hotont Soum. “Herders tend to gather closer together in summer, so it is easier to bring the kindergarten to them.”

Since 2004, the IFAD-supported mobile kindergartens have served more than 35,000 children in 79 villages in four of the country’s poorest provinces. The initiative is part of the Rural Poverty Reduction Programme, which has worked to improve the lives of some 80,000 households. With IFAD funding coming to an end, the government is taking over these preschools.

Learning to socialize

School helps socialize shy young children, who see few people outside their immediate families for much of the year. “In the beginning, because children have been living without any social contact, they would sit in the corner not talking, some would cry,” says Bayanjargal. “After one week, they are playing together, singing, learning poems.” By helping the children prepare for school, these activities are an important first step in creating a more secure future. The children also learn about hygiene – washing their hands before eating and brushing their teeth after – and about local vegetables, which are served at school.

Because of Mongolia’s harsh climate, which makes vegetable and fruit cultivation difficult, the local diet is heavily based on meat and flour. The programme has helped participants cultivate the vegetables to diversify diets and provide income. Programme participants receive seeds for vegetables such as potatoes, beans, peppers and tomatoes, as well as funds for potato storage and training in growing and preserving vegetables. The programme has also supplied hand tools and greenhouse materials. Of the more than 22,000 households involved in the programme, about 10 per cent are growing vegetables semi-commercially.        

Urtnasan, 58, grows potatoes, cabbage, carrots and beets in Tunel Soum. With 10 years’ experience, she now trains others. Urtnasan’s output feeds her children and grandchildren, and she sells the surplus at market. Carrots and potatoes are her most successful crops. The work is heavy – she has to transport irrigation water 2 kilometres by cart – and in Mongolia’s precarious climate the risks are great. Interviewed in June, she noted, “It is very cold now for June. It could damage all my work in one night of frost.”

Yet the payoff is great. “My family got more used to eating vegetables,” she says, which means she can serve her family less meat. “But I cannot get away with serving a meal without meat. Mongolians believe that a meal without meat is not a meal.”

Supporting sustainable practices 

In fact, ‘meat on the hoof’ is a growing issue as Mongolia begins to confront climate change. More than 60 per cent of the country’s land has been identified as vulnerable to climate extremes. By 2040 the annual mean temperature is expected to increase from 1.8° to 2.8°C, accompanied by growing dry-steppe and desert. That means the land available for grazing is shrinking, but the human and livestock populations are expanding. 

To encourage sustainable land management, the Rural Poverty Reduction Programme has supported community herders’ groups and rangeland management and monitoring committees throughout the four provinces. The committees formulate natural resource management maps and development plans. Based on the maps, the committees choose the timing of migrations, location of winter camps and seasonal use of shared lands. They also allocate grazing and haymaking zones according to herd size and composition. 

All decisions on land allocation and use are made within the country’s legal framework. More than 1,600 herders’ groups and more than 400 rangeland management and monitoring committees are now operating. In addition to the herders, members of the committees include teachers, doctors, veterinarians and others. They function as a quasi-governmental unit, taking up issues beyond rangeland matters, such as location and refurbishment of schools and hospitals. 

Working together to benefit people and pasture          

In Hotont Soum, a voluntary herders’ group of 15 households collectively cultivates 20 hectares of hay and protects a nearby forest. The members also grow vegetables and collect and sell pine nuts and wild berries. The group has set up a grazing rotation schedule to protect pastureland by avoiding overuse. Selling surplus vegetables provides income for a community fund, which the group uses to buy fencing materials, seed, tractor fuel and a labourer to work the land. The group has received a small tractor from the programme for haymaking, so that members can make more hay for winter use, and has begun growing fodder. It sells the surplus to nearby herders.

Altanshagai, 34, is head of the group. “The pasture condition has improved by moving from one place to the next and allowing the pastures to grow back,” he says. “All households have agreed to move according to the schedule.”
Nomadic families have few opportunities to earn income, and the herders’ groups help by dividing the labour. Togtohjargal, 41, is part of a group in Ikhtamir Soum. She makes butter and also collects milk, butter, yogurt and curd from the other herding families and sells them in bulk at the central town market. Working with larger quantities as a group makes it profitable to sell at the market, despite transportation costs and the time lost from work. With help from the IFAD-supported programme, Togtohjargal’s family now has 200 head of livestock and has fully paid back its loan. “Sometimes families pay us to take care of their livestock, or let us use the milk as payment for this service,” she says. “This is very good for our livelihood.” 

That is good news for the Rural Poverty Reduction Programme, which has worked to improve livelihoods in a coordinated way. The mobile kindergartens give children a head start on their education, the first step in creating a better life. By caring for small children during the busy season, they also free parents to grow vegetables, which provide a healthier diet and some income for these nomadic herding families. Sustainable rangeland management practices help protect the land they depend on. Some 35,000 children have attended the kindergartens since 2004, and about 80,000 families have benefited from the programme.

Together, these initiatives are helping Mongolia prepare for a complex future.