An interview with Ts. Enkh-Amgalan, Coordinator of the Green Gold Animal Health Project of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.
Five million hectares have been restored, quite a substantial number. What is the total for rangeland area in Mongolia?
In total, Mongolia has 110 million hectares of rangeland. Seventy-one percent of total territory is used as rangeland. According to the State Land Management Database, out of a total arable land area of 114.8 million hectares, 110.4 million hectares are used as rangeland for livestock. Thus, for being the most widespread form of land use, the sustainable management of rangelands should be of crucial policy importance for Mongolia. On the other hand, our rangelands are a major habitat for many rare and valuable plant species and wild animals. Out of over 3,000 natural species of plants found in Mongolia, over 1,000 grow on rangelands. This shows how important sustainable rangeland management is from economic and ecological perspectives.
I would like to take this opportunity to elaborate a bit more on three important findings revealed by the ten years of research implemented by the Green Gold Project. I think these findings have important implications for ensuring the sustainability of the fragile yet very diverse and rich ecosystem of Mongolian rangelands. First, according to the assessment that resulted from the production of the National Rangeland Health Assessment, 65% of rangelands are degraded (about 72 million hectares). However, 90% of this land still maintain the natural capacity for regenerating itself completely or improving significantly within 10 years, provided that stocking density is reduced. At present, there are ample opportunities for changes in management and policy that improve rangeland health, that enable adaptation to climate and land use changes, and that secure the future of pastoral production and food security in Mongolia. But it is important to act decisively and promptly before these opportunities are lost. Second, if we can’t manage to take measures quickly, there is danger that —as our ancestors have advised— the soil and plants, which are as sensitive and fragile as an infant’s forehead, will gradually disappear. According to the results of research conducted by scientists from many countries around the world, and the experience of countries with similar ecological conditions, the soil and native plants have adapted to Mongolia's harsh climate, geography, water, moisture, sunlight, and air temperature for hundreds of millions of years. They have invaluable ecosystem services apart from being a source of forage for livestock and wild animals. The second National Rangeland Health Assessment results show that the severity of degradation is growing. The amount of rangeland that has passed the threshold for natural recovery capacity has doubled. The proportion of sites that were classified as non-degraded to slightly degraded has decreased by up to 10%, while sites classified as heavily or fully degraded has increased by 4.3-5.9%. The third point I would like to bring to the attention of our fellow Mongolian people is that we all love our country, especially how important our homeland is in the heart of each and every one of us. No one wants to see their homeland turn into a desert before their eyes.
Could you please elaborate on this recovery of five million hectares of rangeland from degradation?
Within Green Gold Project, research trials were conducted on a range of modern technologies in order to identify how rangelands could recover from a degraded state. Those trials revealed that the rehabilitation of degraded rangelands was both difficult and costly, and that the best method is a return to traditional rotational grazing practices and resting to let them recover naturally. Mongolia's rangeland degradation is often manifested in the form of changes in plant composition and the replacement of indigenous plants with non-nutritious species. A very encouraging result was that basically all rangelands with various levels of degradation, from heavy to moderate, were showing clear signs of recovery. Native plant species were emerging and soil was healing.
What we did first was to identify the baseline of a healthy state for all types of rangelands. This allowed us to define to what extent the rangelands in question had altered or degraded from its healthy or reference state. Each type of rangeland has different ecological capacity. Gobi or desert rangeland ecological capacity is different from those in steppe and forest steppe areas. The level of degradation in each type of rangeland is defined as compared to its natural ecological capacity or potential. For example, Gobi rangelands with relatively sparse vegetation and lower productivity can’t be compared to rangelands in steppe or in forest steppe areas.
So, having different levels of ecological potential, the rangeland ecosystems across the different natural zones in Mongolia are classified into 22 ecological site groups (ESG). Each ESG has a state and transition model that illustrates potential shifts between different states of rangeland, and potential drivers causing shifts and restoration pathways. The state and transition model is a tool used to classify rangelands by their ecological potential while recovery classes are used to define degradation and the recovery level of rangelands. There over 5000 monitoring spots installed in each of the four seasonal rangelands of Pasture User Groups of herders and registered in the National Land Management database at the Agency of Land Management, Geodesy and Cartography.
Rangeland recovery monitoring spots installed in the seasonal rangelands of Pasture User Groups of herders
This work was made possible due to long-term rangeland health monitoring data available, the commitment of local specialists, and the traditional knowledge and experience of herders in Mongolia. Using the link posted on the website of the Institute of Meteorology and Environmental Monitoring, it is possible to get detailed information about rangeland conditions, degradation rates, and recovery capacity of the aimags, soums and baghs of interest http://pasture.tsag-agaar.gov.mn/.
The next important work we have done is to assist herders in defining the level of degradation of their seasonal rangelands, and to formulate a grazing plan together to prevent further degradation and to let it rest to recover. As of now, there are about 1500 Pasture User Groups of herders membership of which include 86 000 herder households. A pasture user group of herders (PUG) is a union of herder households that share customary access to two to four seasonal rangelands. PUG members define the boundaries of grazing areas and regulate their use based on a common plan. These plans form the basis for the establishment of a Rangeland Use Agreement between PUGs and local government, which serve as a means to enforce and monitor PUG rotational grazing and rangeland-resting plans. These plans resulted in the recovery of five million hectares of degraded rangeland at various levels.
An increasing number of herders are accepting the conditions of these agreements and manage rangeland using the stocking rate adjustments needed to sustain or improve rangeland conditions. The agreements also serve as a tool to resolve conflicts between herders and to manage land conversion.
The experience of more than 10 years of cooperation shows that if the current level of grazing intensity is reduced with the number of livestock adjusted to the land's carrying capacity, Mongolia's rangelands will maintains their natural ability to recover. Hence, I would like to ask all herders and all Mongolians not to miss out on this opportunity.
Sample photos of rangeland recovered in three to six years due to reduced grazing pressure
Ecological region: Desert steppe
Pasture User Group of herders: Ovoot
Location: Tsahuirtiin Am
Ecological region: Steppe
Pasture User Group of herders: Ikh Margats
Location: Ikh Margarts Mountain
Recently, there is quite a lot of talk about rangeland ecosystem services. Could you please elaborate on this? I think, since Mongolia’s main ecosystem is grasslands, it should be very relevant to us?
The Mongolian rangeland ecosystem is not only the primary source of feed for domesticated animals but also the habitat for a rich variety of wildlife across the Eurasian continent. Experts confirm that nomadic livestock herding is the most sustainable way of using these fragile, dry rangeland ecosystems of the Central Asian Plateau, characterized by low rainfall and scarce surface water resources.
Maintaining healthy rangelands is crucial to sustaining its ecosystem services, such as nutrient cycling, oxygen production, and soil formation. Rangeland ecosystem regulatory services include water purification, protection of the soil from sand and water erosion, and flood protection. Scientists keep reminding us of the importance of maintaining the natural regeneration capacity of rangelands and not to exhaust their natural ability to recover themselves.
Apart from over stocking, climate changes are also among the factors that contribute to rangeland degradation. Global climate change effects in Mongolia are prominent especially in the rise of annual average air temperature. Annual rainfall is slightly going down in regions with high levels of average precipitation: forest taiga, forest steppe, steppe, and high elevation mountains. However, there has been a slight increase in rainfall observed in the desert and desert steppe regions, which are usually characterized by low precipitation. Average summer rainfall is in decline all over Mongolia.
Thank you for this very interesting interview.