A Mongolian herder leads his horse through an oasis in the Gobi Desert. (Photo courtesy of Taylor Weidman/Vanishing Cultures Project.)
Mongolia is still a land where wind whips through horses' manes as they race across a terrain of rolling green pastures. Herders roam the steppe, in tune with the seasons, their white felt tents dotting the landscape like clusters of mushrooms. But a lot of that is about to change.
Mongolian herders make up one of the world's last nomadic cultures. For centuries -- even millennia -- families have moved with their livestock, following an ancient pattern of seasonal grazing. Roughly a third of the country's population of 3.1 million
still depend on herding for their livelihood, but recent discoveries of rich mineral resources have made Mongolia the fastest growing economy
in the world in 2011. In addition, trends in climate change, desertification, poor pasture management, and a growing pressure to educate children for urban jobs is shifting Mongolia from a nomadic society to a settled one.
Herders are leaving the steppes in droves, either driven by desperation or the gleam of new possibilities. The record-breaking dzud (harsh winter) of 2010 devastated rural families and forced roughly 200,000 herders to move to Ulaanbaatar, the capital city. The urban population is now mushrooming, posing problems in overcrowding, resource management, unemployment, alcoholism, depression, crime, and family stability. Abandoned babies and orphans, the result of high poverty, remains a serious issue in Mongolia.
Poised to become one of the most significant mining industries in the world with some of the largest untapped reserves in coal, copper, gold, and rare earth elements, the Mongolian economy is now offering new opportunities and wealth for those with the means to pursue mining jobs. However, the government still struggles to effectively address the issue of ex-herders unsuccessfully making the transition to an urban lifestyle and monetary economy. According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
, the newly found wealth is contributing to social inequality.
"While some parts of the country are being transformed, poverty remains very high and is becoming entrenched not only in rural areas but also in urban centers as the income gap widens and inequality increases," said a UN Special Rapporteur
, Magdalena Sepúlveda.
It's a tumultuous time for Mongolia, with the government scrambling to curtail corruption and to make policies that will close the wealth gap. Many NGOs have already stepped up to mitigate the problems caused by the transition. Here's what we can do to help Mongolia's transition: