10:47am

Wed May 23, 2012
Mongolia Booms

Old Ways Disappearing In The New Mongolia

Originally published on Thu May 24, 2012 9:57 pm

Mongolia, the land of Genghis Khan and nomadic herders, is in the midst of a remarkable transition. Rich in coal, gold and copper, this country of fewer than 3 million people in Central Asia is riding a mineral boom that is expected to more than double its GDP within a decade. The rapid changes simultaneously excite and unnerve many Mongolians, who hope mining can help pull many out of poverty, but worry it will ravage the environment and further erode the nation's distinctive, nomadic identity.

Last of four parts

Mongolia is a country of tremendous contrasts. Consider this: Two out of every five Mongolians make their living herding goats, sheep and camels.

But last year — according to World Bank estimates — Mongolia's economy grew faster than any other on the planet, driven by a mining boom.

The Central Asian nation seems to be racing from a nomadic culture to an industrial one practically overnight. To appreciate how this transition — and its inevitable tensions — play out in the lives of ordinary Mongolians, spend a few hours with Bat-Erdene Badam and his family.

Bat-Erdene, 47, is a lifelong herder who lives in a ger, or a yurt, in the middle of the Gobi. He spends each spring combing cashmere from his goats. On a recent day, a goat lies stretched out on its side in a ger, its horns tethered to the ground. A fellow herder rakes off tufts of white cashmere with what looks like a gardening tool as the goat yelps in fear.

Bat-Erdene sells the cashmere for about $20 a pound. Combings from his 300 goats should bring in more than $6,000 this year.

That's decent money in the middle of the Gobi, a mix of moonscape, mountain and increasingly arid grassland in southern Mongolia. But Bat-Erdene's three children have no interest in the family business.

"Young people stopped herding animals," says Bat-Erdene, leaning against the wooden gate of a corral filled with goats. "There are lots of employment opportunities for them in the mining business. Therefore, I could probably say that the generation of herders is ending with me."

A Mix Of Old And Modern

Bat-Erdene heats his felt tent with an iron stove. Rugs cover the dirt floor, and the walls of his corral are constructed of bricks made from goat and sheep droppings.

But he also rides a motorcycle, uses a cell phone and watches limited satellite TV on a small black-and-white set powered by solar panels.

On a recent day, the romantic comedy How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days plays silently in the background.

Bat-Erdene lives with his wife and a high-school-age son. Their daughter attends college in Mongolia's capital, Ulan Bator, about 300 miles away, and their other son, Uuganbaatar, drives a dump truck at a coal mine.

"Two or three years ago, my elder son used to help us out," says Bat-Erdene, who wears a gray cap and a brown sweater that zips up the front. "Now, he's really tired of being a herder, because we depend too much on the weather and climatic conditions."

Rising temperatures are drying out Mongolia's grasslands, while severe weather is taking a toll as well. In recent years, heavy snow and drought killed more than 400 head of the family's livestock, more than half of their herd at the time. Bat-Erdene says for a new generation, herding seems too unstable.

"When someone has a regular job, it doesn't matter if there's severe weather or not," he says. "He can do his work, no matter what."

A Blessing And Curse

Bat-Erdene's son Uuganbaatar began working at the coal mine about a year ago. He's 22 and, like many young Mongolians, painfully shy.

In an interview outside the gates of the mine, he studies a water bottle he's holding and kicks the ground with his black Air Jordans. The mine is completely isolated in the desert, but Uuganbaatar says he has more friends there and there's more to do.

"I watch TV," he says. "There's a recreation room with ping-pong and pool and there's a computer room."

The camp TV is a big, flat-screen. Uuganbaatar follows sports on the Internet, especially the NBA. His favorite team is the Orlando Magic with its towering center, Dwight Howard.

Mining has been good for Uuganbaatar. He makes $500 a month — in a country where the annual per capita GDP is about $2,500 — and Mongolia's mineral reserves are so vast, he could probably spend the next several decades working them.

But his father sees mining as a threat. Mines need water to process minerals and the mine that employs his son plans to tap into an aquifer beneath the family's grazing land.

The local government had designated the area as protected, but Mongolia's central government has an ownership stake in the mine, and last year, it decided otherwise.

Resignation About The Future

Bat-Erdene is bracing himself.

"It was a very hard hit for us, because it is only going to speed up desertification and we can see how desertification is already moving at a very high speed," he said, surrounded by parched clumps of grass.

Rising temperatures and decreasing annual rainfall has led to more sandstorms, and surface water sources such as rivers and lakes are drying out a rapid rate, according to the Mongolian government and nongovernmental organizations. Mongolian officials say that about 70 percent of Mongolia is now suffering from desertification.

Officials at the mine say it will draw from a deep aquifer and won't affect herders' wells, but Bat-Erdene doesn't believe it.

"Animals will be thirsty, people will be thirsty, it will be very hard," he says. Bat-Erdene supports his son's new career in what is becoming Mongolia's national industry. As to the dispute over water, he doesn't bring it up.

"It wouldn't change anything," Bat-Erdene says, "so we don't talk too much about it."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

All this week, we've been traveling through Mongolia. It's a country of great contrast, with vast, open spaces and natural beauty, but with a mining sector that is now booming. Mongolia seems to be racing from a nomadic culture to an industrial one practically overnight. To find out what all this means for Mongolia's many traditional herders, NPR's Frank Langfitt began his final story in this series outside the tent of one family in the Gobi region.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Spring's the time to comb cashmere from goats in Mongolia. One lies stretched out on its side in Bat-Erdene Badam's ger, or yurt. Animals' horns are tethered to the ground. A fellow herder rakes tufts of white cashmere with what looks like a gardening tool.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOAT YELPING)

LANGFITT: The goat hates this.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOAT YELPING)

LANGFITT: Bat-Erdene sells the cashmere for about $20 a pound. Combings from his 300 goats should bring in more than $6,000 this year. That's decent money in the middle of the Gobi, a mix of moonscape, mountain and increasingly arid grassland in southern Mongolia. But Bat-Erdene's three children have no interest in the family business.

BAT-ERDENE BADAM: (Through translator) Young people have stopped herding animals. There's lots of employment opportunities for them in the mining business, and a lot of other stuff. Therefore, I could probably say that the generation of herders is ending with me.

LANGFITT: Bat-Erdene's daily life is a mix of old world and modern. He heats his felt tent with an iron stove. Rugs cover the dirt floor, and the walls of his corral are constructed of bricks made from goat and sheep droppings.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE REVVING)

LANGFITT: But he also rides a motorcycle, uses a cell phone and watches limited satellite TV on a small black-and-white set powered by solar panels. When I visited, the romantic comedy "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" played silently in the background. Bat-Erdene lives with his wife and a high-school-aged son. Their daughter attends college in Mongolia's capital. His other son, Uuganbaatar, drives a dump truck at a coal mine.

BAT-ERDENE: (Through translator) Two or three years ago, my elder son used to help us out. Now he's really tired of being a herder, because we depend too much on the weather and climatic conditions.

LANGFITT: Rising temperatures are drying out Mongolia's grasslands. Severe weather takes a toll, as well. In recent years, heavy snow and drought killed more than 400 head of the family's livestock. Bat-Erdene says for a new generation, herding seems too unstable.

BAT-ERDENE: (Through translator) When someone has a regular job, it doesn't matter if there's severe weather or not. He can do his work, no matter what.

LANGFITT: Bat-Erdene's son Uuganbaatar began working at the coal mine about a year ago. One afternoon, I met him outside of the gates of the mine. He's 22 and, like many young Mongolians, painfully shy. As we talked, he studied a water bottle he was holding, kicked the ground with his black Air Jordans. The mine is completely isolated in the desert, but Uuganbaatar says he has more friends here, and there's more to do.

UUGANBAATAR: (Through translator) I watch TV. There's a recreation room with ping-pong and pool, and there's a computer room.

LANGFITT: The camp TV is a big flat-screen. Uuganbaatar follows sports on the Internet.

What sports do you follow?

UUGANBAATAR: NBA.

LANGFITT: Really? Who's your favorite team?

UUGANBAATAR: Orlando.

LANGFITT: He likes is the Orlando Magic and its star center, Dwight Howard. Mining's been good for Uuganbaatar. He makes $500 a month. Mongolia's mineral reserves are so vast, Uuganbaatar could spend the next several decades working them. But for his dad, mining is a threat. Mines need water to process minerals, and the mine that employs his son plans to get it from an aquifer beneath the family's grazing land. The local government had designated the area as protected, but Mongolia's central government has an ownership stake in the mine, and last year, it decided otherwise. Bat-Erdene is bracing himself.

BAT-ERDENE: (Through translator) It was a very hard hit for us, because it's only going to speed up desertification, and we can see how that's already moving at a very high speed.

LANGFITT: The mine says it will draw from a deep aquifer, and won't affect herders' wells. Bat-Erdene doesn't believe it.

BAT-ERDENE: (Through translator) Animals will be thirsty. People will be thirsty. It will be very hard.

LANGFITT: Bat-Erdene supports his son's new career in what is becoming Mongolia's national industry. As to the dispute over the water, he doesn't bring it up. It wouldn't change anything, Bat-Erdene says, so we don't talk too much about it. Frank Langfitt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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