Human Rights, Environment, and Migration of Mongolia’s Herders

by Rachael Diniega

This month, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John Knox, will travel to Mongolia on an official country visit. By creating the mandate in 2012, the Human Rights Council acknowledged the increasing recognition of governments and civil society that a safe and sustainable environment is needed to fully enjoy many human rights, such as the rights to food and water. For Mongolia, a healthy environment is particularly important for the one-fifth of its population who are nomadic pastoralists, as their livelihoods are intricately tied to the environment. This post will discuss how rural-urban migration of Mongolian herders highlights the connection between environmental concerns and human rights.

Facing threats of climate change, poor rangeland management, and pollution, Mongolia is falling behind on many of its environment-related human rights obligations. For my dissertation for the MA Human Rights & Cultural Diversity at the University of Essex last year and as a National Geographic Young Explorer, I interviewed herders about environmental change, natural disasters, and migration, focusing on learning what a local human rights-based approach to climate change displacement could look like. One former herder’s story highlighted the human rights and environment issues that Mr. Knox will need to address in his upcoming country visit.

The former herder I talked to had lost many of his livestock in a dzud – defined as extreme (normally winter) weather that weakens and kills an unusually high number of livestock – during the devastating 1999-2002 winters that killed 30% of the nation’s herds. Believing that recovering his herds would be futile, he and his brothers packed up and moved to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. There he failed to find a job due to lack of education. He returned to his home district center, managed to establish his own small business, and is thinking about returning to herding full-time.

This herder is not alone in his migration experiences. In the latest nationwide dzud in 2009-2010, about 7% of affected herders said they were planning to migrate to cities. Their migration adds to a steady flow of rural-urban migration that has resulted in half of Mongolia’s population living in Ulaanbaatar today.

At the root of high rural-urban migration are unequal development policies that have gradually marginalized herders and made them more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and other locally-caused environmental changes. Unfortunately, those who do migrate to the city face a host of problems, including suffocating air pollution and urban social inequality. But this is their only choice if they want to access the education, health care, and other social benefits the city provides.

Rural inequality and vulnerability to climate change, conflict, and capitalism

Formerly socialist, Mongolia transitioned to democracy and a market economy in 1990. Although national pride centers on its nomadic herding tradition, the national government has implemented policies resulting in a decline of rural public services. Rural schools, clinics, veterinarians, and local governments now lack resources to serve their populations. Moreover, without socialist-era safety nets, herders affected by natural disasters like drought or dzud are less able to prepare, cope, or recover. Subsequently, herding has become a less viable livelihood for families, leading some to migrate to urban areas.

Meanwhile, climate change has caused Mongolia’s average temperature to rise more than two degrees Celsius since 1940, and herders have witnessed melting permafrost, desertification, different precipitation patterns, and changing season timings.

Additionally, since the transition to capitalism, herders have become vulnerable to market fluctuations and competition, so many have increased herd sizes as a coping strategy. The number of livestock has more than doubled from the socialist-era 22-25 million limit, exceeding the rangeland carrying capacity and contributing to rangeland degradation in over 70% of the country. Subsequently, inequality among herders has also increased, as has conflict among herders over rangeland use. In one overcrowded area I visited, one-third of herders had to travel to other districts just to find winter shelter campsites, leading to arguments with the residents of these districts. Local administrators are supposed to mediate conflicts, but lack of political will and guidance from the national government means the role is often overlooked.

In another district, herders worried about toxic spills from a local open pit mine. Large-scale and artisanal mining have caused displacement of herders and resulted in environmental pollution across the country. Herders have little access to remedy: in one case a company conducted reprisals against herders who had spoken out against mining pollution by suing them for defamation.

The Mongolian government must address basic human rights in rural areas, including the right to housing (winter shelters), right to education, and right to health care. This will require a shift in development priorities. It is also necessary for the government to provide herders with access to remedy regarding negative effects of mining, ensure consent to mine is obtained from communities, and implement clear pollution regulations. Addressing these causes of urban-rural migration would bolster herders’ resilience to environmental changes and disasters and ensure migration is actually a choice.

Urban poverty and pollution

The Mongolian government also fails to guarantee basic human rights of herders and other migrants who move to the capital. Almost half of Ulaanbaatar’s residents live in the city’s informal housing area, known as the ger district, where they often have no running water or electricity and poor access to basic social services. In-migrant herders, including those who lost all their livestock in dzud, receive no state support or emergency aid after migration. They often lack employable skills and education, leading to extended periods of unemployment, and can be stigmatized or face psychological trauma as a result of losing their herds.

Despite being closer to better health care, residents must contend with Ulaanbaatar’s notorious air pollution. Without steady access to electricity, inhabitants of the ger district resort to burning coal and other fuel in their stoves for cooking and heating during the winter. Levels of particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) have been measured as exceeding the World Health Organization recommendation by a factor of 80. Researchers in one study estimated that 10% of deaths in Ulaanbaatar could be attributed to air pollution.

Concerns over air pollution led Ulaanbaatar’s city council to enact a controversial restriction on migration to the city earlier this year. The regulation banned people from moving to the city from January 2017 to January 2018 unless necessary for long-term health care or if they move to an apartment. Meanwhile, the city will make plans to relocate migrants to areas further from the city, as well as promote voluntary returns of former herders, although there is little indication that the government is expanding additional infrastructure development or services to accommodate this population.

How this regulation is implemented and its effects on migration are unclear. Its timing was particularly concerning given that officials declared dzud conditions in 17 of 21 provinces over the 2016-2017 winter. What is certain is that it further marginalized and stigmatized an already vulnerable group: Mongolia’s herders.

 The Future of Herding?

Problems in the city were too much to overcome by the herder I interviewed. He returned to the countryside, an option growing in appeal to urban residents worried about air pollution. Some also believe the environment is improving, especially if their relatives have been unaffected by dzud since the nationwide one in 2009-2010.

Yet the few Mongolians who choose to return to herding will have to confront the same issues that may have led them to move to the city in the first place: mining pollution, rangeland degradation, inequality, disappearing rural public services, and climate change. The majority of my interviewees wanted their children or grandchildren to go to university, not become herders.

The Special Rapporteur should call upon the Mongolian government to fulfill its human rights and environmental obligations that expand herders’ freedom of choice before migration, and that guarantee basic dignity upon migrating. Particular attention should be paid towards the right to housing (including winter shelters), an adequate standard of living, safe water and sanitation in the ger district, education and health care in rural areas, and a healthy environment free from air and mining pollution. The government should also adhere more closely to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement for people affected by environmental change and natural disasters. These additional commitments from the government will support a viable, sustainable future for Mongolia’s nomadic herders.

The dissertation research was supported by the National Geographic Society and a University of Essex Blomfield Memorial Travel Grant.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone


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