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UN environment agency calls for urgent action to support Mongolia’s reindeer herders

Executive Director of UNEP Achim Steiner.
UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras
Executive Director of UNEP Achim Steiner.

UN environment agency calls for urgent action to support Mongolia’s reindeer herders

Urgent action is needed to support Mongolia’s reindeer herders and protect them from unregulated mining, logging, water pollution and climate change, among other threats, according to a report by the UN environment agency, released today.

The report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), “Changing Taiga: Challenges for Mongolia’s Reindeer Herders,” assesses the current living situation of Mongolia’s reindeer herder community, the Dukha, of which only some 200 members remain, and explores ways to guarantee their livelihoods, as well as of preserving the ecosystem in which they live in.

“The taiga – the Dukha homeland – is a hotspot for biodiversity and is rich in natural resources, but it is also one of the regions of Mongolia which could suffer the greatest impacts of climate change over the coming decades,” said UNEP’s Executive Director, Achim Steiner.

Many herders, the report found, have abandoned pastures because of damage caused by unregulated, small-scale artisanal mining of gold and jade, which leads to deforestation, forest fires, chemical contamination and poisoning of water sources.

Mr. Steiner stressed that the challenges faced by the herders reflect challenges faced by communities across the world which are seeking to transition to a sustainable future that generates jobs and livelihoods while still protecting the environment.

In the case of Mongolia, its transition to a market economy in the 1990s resulted in eight million livestock being added to its pastures, significantly affecting traditional herding practices. In addition, certain measures to conserve biodiversity in the region, such as the creation of national parks and stricter hunting laws, have limited access to pastures and affected herding communities negatively since their subsistence depends on trapping wild animals.

Droughts and extreme winters in the past decade have also posed a threat to herders as they have led to widespread livestock deaths.

“As a culture tightly-coupled with the taiga environment, Dukha reindeer husbandry has played a significant role in shaping the environment and conserving the unique biodiversity surrounding them,” said the report’s Chief Editor, Kathrine I. Johnsen. “It is important that any protected area regulations or community partnerships take full account of the Dukha’s needs and rights to access to their traditional pasture grounds and migration routes.”

Other activities such as tourism have been both beneficial and detrimental for the Dukha community, the report states, as it provides herders with incomes and alternative ways to participate in the market economy. However, herders have altered reindeer migration routes to accommodate tourists, forcing animals to graze on pastures of poorer quality and limiting their ability to increase the herd size.

The report includes recommendations such as closely monitoring reindeer numbers and changes in migration routes, forming community partnerships to support biodiversity and traditional Dukha livelihoods, re-evaluating current hunting regulations, and providing assistance to develop local herders’ institutions, among others.