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ISEK - Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies Social and Cultural Anthropology

Dealing with Uncertainty: Changing Strategies, Institutions and Perceptions among Pastoralists in Western Mongolia

Linda Kelley


1. Summary of the research proposal

Mobile forms of animal husbandry have always been a risky livelihood due to pastoralists’ dependence on highly dynamic natural and social conditions. Common risks are human and animal predators, epidemics and climate conditions, which are true for Mongolian pastoralists as much as for pastoralists anywhere in the world. However, the situation in Mongolia has become particularly precarious in recent years due to a series of events and challenges such as:

a.    ongoing difficulties of transformation and adaptation to a market economy
b.    successive droughts and winter hazards causing severe livestock losses
c.    equivocal changes of the Mongolian land laws, and
d.    increasing competition for pastureland with the growing gold mining sector.

From the herders’ point of view, prospects of a rural livelihood in Mongolia have arguably changed from a situation of calculable risks to menacing uncertainty. Hence it is doubtful whether pastoralists’ traditional social and economic strategies are still sufficient. As research among Kazaks in western Mongolia indicates, this seems to be no longer the case and therefore many of them decide to migrate to Kazakstan instead. The aim of this project is to investigate the consequences and responses among Mongolian herders in the same region who do not have such an option. These have, so far, not attracted much scholarly attention. This research project is to fill this gap by looking at: firstly, individual socio-economic strategies, including rural-urban migration movements, secondly, the role of social institutions and networks of mutual support, and thirdly, pastoralists own perceptions and meanings ascribed to the changing natural and social environment.

An understanding of these processes is highly relevant for a number of reasons, scientific as well as political ones. Mongolia is one of the key pastoral regions in the world and livestock rearing of tremendous importance for its national development. However most regions outside the central areas near Ulaanbaatar are barely studied. This is true especially for western Mongolia and hence empirical fieldwork will be conducted in northern Khovd and southern Uvs provinces, where comparisons to the applicant's work on Kazaks will add extra value to the project. The theoretical contribution will be to anthropology of risk and uncertainty, unsecure property rights and institutional change as well as emic perceptions on environment and social change among pastoralists as particularly vulnerable group.