The Mongolian government recently made an enormous contribution to conservation by protecting 3.7 million acres (1.5 million hectares) of land across the country. Among the happiest to hear the news? The staff of the Conservancy’s Mongolia Program, who accomplished their long-held goal of embedding their conservation priorities in the Mongolian government’s planning. I talked to Enkhtuya Oidov, director of our Mongolia program, about the great news.
Charles Bedford: So, Enkhtuya — 1.5 million hectares of land. That’s roughly the size of Connecticut. This is a big accomplishment.
Enkhtuya Oidov: It is! And what we’re happiest about is that 350,000 of those hectares (865, 000 acres) are located on the Eastern Steppe, which contains some of the world’s last, greatest grasslands and one of its last, great nomadic cultures. They simply have not been a government priority, until now. The Conservancy played a central role in that shift.
CB: Toson Hulstai Nature Reserve has been a priority for the Conservancy for years now. What other Eastern Steppe landmarks are protected now?
EO: The government’s committed to protecting places like Undurkhaan Mountain, Khangal Lake and part of the Sixty Kettles area. All of these are historically and ecologically important pieces of eastern Mongolia. They’ve been a home to nomadic herders since long before Genghis Khan, and the land and the people have long maintained a mutually beneficial relationship.
CB: Can you elaborate a bit on why these places are so important?
EO: In 2010, we completed an Ecoregional Assessment, or ERA, which took stock of the Eastern Steppe and identified the priorities for conservation. It laid out the most environmentally important spots, the places where we thought conservation would make the most difference. For example, the Sixty Kettles area I mentioned earlier is a hugely important breeding ground for the Mongolian gazelle, and Khangal Lake is a vital fresh water reserve in eastern Mongolia. The new protected areas really reflect our priorities, making this announcement the culmination of a lot of effort to get our ERA incorporated into the government’s own conservation planning.
CB: And this didn’t happen overnight. This is a process that’s taken four years.
EO: We got here by building from the ground up. We did the on-the-ground assessment based on our Development by Design (DbD) approach to inform our work and recommendations. DbD introduces a mitigation hierarchy where you first avoid, then minimize/restore, and finally offset. These protected areas are a great example of avoiding!
We developed relationships with soums [districts] and provinces, working with them and supplying our ERA data to support their own efforts, because we knew these would be the people who would ultimately need to implement protection and who would most benefit from conservation. At the same time, we worked with the MNET [Mongolia’s Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism] and Parliamentarians to make the protection of the Eastern Steppe a priority. In fact, President Elbegdorj voiced his support for the Conservancy’s programs in Mongolia during an MOU signing with the Conservancy in 2009, noting that “by supporting the Conservancy, you are also supporting Mongolia.” All of these accomplishments have taken huge contributions from every one of our 8 staff members, not to mention a supporting cast of Conservancy staff spread around the globe.
CB: You can’t really protect a piece of land long-term unless you have buy-in from all the different people who depend on it.
EO: That was very important to us, and is one of the reasons we started out approaching local communities — their taking the lead was critical. One of the biggest issues confronting Mongolia is the fact that it’s a rapidly developing place. In the last 22 Years Mongolia has transitioned to a market economy. We now have different resource and land use competing with herders. Extraction companies are playing a bigger role in the future of Mongolia, and we need to engage with them through processes like DbD. and we need to make sure the government is engaging with them as well on making the best decisions for Mongolia’s future. We’re assisting the government in planning ahead for a future that balances development and conservation needs.
CB: I think one thing a lot of people might not be aware of is that conservation is a huge part of Mongolian culture. You created the world’s first national park, after all, and the government is committed to protecting full 30 percent of its land through equal parts national and local land protection.
EO: That’s true, but an equally important piece of the equation is making sure we’re managing for the long term and not just placing areas off-limits and hoping for the best. Herders live in these areas, and their livelihoods depend on the land — it’s important to protect the benefits this region provides. That’s why we’re happy that, in May, the national government adopted a new set of land management protocols that require much more careful review before development is approved.
CB: So this is good news, but it does kind of add to your plate, doesn’t it?
EO: A moment to celebrate, and then it’s back to work.
[Top image: Kherlen Toono, an newly identified protected area. Bottom image: Bayantsagaan Tal, an newly identified protected area. Image source: Gala Davaa/TNC]