Charles Bedford, the Regional Managing Director for The Nature Conservancy’s Asia Pacific Region, has been going to Mongolia for many years and we recently caught up with him after his most recent visit to attend the Mongolia Green Development Conference in UlaanBaatar. Co-hosted by The Nature Conservancy, the Ministry of Nature, Environment & Green Development and the Business Council of Mongolia, the event was held to mark the 5th anniversary of the Conservancy’s Mongolia program. Charles was also the recipient of the Ministry of Environment’s highest award as the industry’s ‘best worker/nature’s hero’, making him only the second foreign national to have ever received this honor.
Conservancy Talk: So, I understand the Conservancy decided to celebrate our 5th anniversary of work in Mongolia not with cake and candles but with a conference. Tell me about that.
Charles: Right, I guess that is a bit of a non-traditional celebration. But it was cool and inspiring way to mark this milestone. What our Mongolia team did was bring together partners from the country’s business and government sectors to talk about where we’ve been and where we want to go with respect to conservation and green development.
We had players around the room who are responsible for decisions that affect our conservation priorities—like Mongolia’s environment minister, and executives from the mining and green energy industries. It was remarkable to have this time together to think big about a shared vision for the future.
Conservancy Talk: How has Mongolia changed since the first time you went there?
Charles: Wow, the pace of change in Mongolia could give you whiplash. Just over 20 years ago, the country transformed from a communist state to a free-market democracy. And in only ten years, the population of the capital, Ulaanbaatar, doubled as a result of herders moving from the countryside seeking new economic opportunities.
Now, with the recent explosive growth of the mining sector, the country’s leaders are facing big decisions about Mongolia’s development path; and whether they want to become the ‘Saudis of the Steppe’ or travel Norway’s route of investing in sustainable development.
Fortunately, Mongolia has the advantage of a well-educated and sophisticated population with a deep, visceral connection between the health of their land and the health of people. So it’s a time of transition AND a time of unparalleled opportunity to chart a course where conservation and development priorities are balanced.
Conservancy Talk: To date, what has been the Conservancy’s biggest accomplishment or success story in Mongolia?
Charles: There are three things that we’re the most proud of in Mongolia:
- The government’s creation of 3.7 million-acres (1.5 million hectares) of protected areas. A quarter of these are priority sites identified by the Conservancy on Mongolia’s fragile Eastern Steppe which contains the world’s largest remaining healthy grasslands and supports charismatic species and the way of life of Mongolian herders.
- A new law now in place designed to protect people and nature from undue development impacts by requiring that potential impacts be proactively evaluated and, where unavoidable, offset.
- A map of conservation priorities across two-thirds of the country and a request from the government to complete the final piece of the nationwide map starting next year. And that these priorities are being incorporated into national and provincial land use plans used to make decisions about land protection and development.
The fact this much progress has been made in only five years and with such a small staff is mindboggling. People talk about “return on investment”—well, it doesn’t get much better than that!
Conservancy Talk: What has been the most instrumental factor behind these successes?
Charles: The main factor in our success is, without question, our passionate, smart and dedicated staff. In particular, I’m thinking about Enkhtuya Oidov (program director) and Gala Davaa (conservation lead), who are the crème de la crème of Mongolia’s political and scientific establishment. Our people, and the reputation they’ve built for the Conservancy with local partners, make the program possible and successful.
If I may gush for a moment… I am so proud to work with such talented patriots—and I mean patriot in the best possible sense of wanting the best for Mongolia, and figuring out how to the Conservancy can bring together the right players to deliver on our highest aspirations.
Another factor is Mongolia’s enabling social and political environment that is hugely receptive to a science-backed land planning and management approach, and that’s truly committed to finding a balanced way forward for nature and people.
Conservancy Talk: What would you recommend people see and experience when they visit Mongolia?
Charles: Mongolia is a big country and it’s kind of hard to choose just one thing. But I think the real magic and soul of the country is in its vast, rolling grasslands that seemingly go on forever beneath the bright blue sky. To me, it’s like what the American West must have felt like to the pioneers, before there were roads and fences.
And without having to go too far out of Ulaanbaatar, you will see white gers (traditional Mongolian homes, also called yurts) dotting the landscape and visit herder families whose lives are tied intimately to the health of the prairies. These families follow a lifestyle backed by a thousand years of tradition but are also now equipped with solar panels for electricity and access to the wider world and other modern conveniences that make life a little easier.
Experiencing the nomadic culture of Mongolia and seeing how that works is essential in getting a good feel for the country. I once met an educated woman who had made the thoughtful decision to leave the city and go back to the grasslands for a healthier lifestyle and choices for her family. The beauty of Mongolia is in this integration and appreciation of the natural world. It’s inspiring.
Photo 1: Charles Bedford and Gala Davaa on horseback in Mongolia. Credit: TNC. Photo 2: Gers in Mongolia. Credit: TNC.