New Mongolia: The Changing Lifestyle of Mongolia’s Nomadic Herders

As a documentarian, I am often drawn to stories about societies and cultures on the fringe of modernization and interested in observing how changes in the global economy and the environment affect such communities. 

One such ongoing personal project of mine is about is about the nomads of Mongolia. Although nomadic herders have lived on Mongolia’s steppes for centuries and persevered to maintain their traditional way of life, over the last two decades, systemic factors such as the country’s fairly recent transition from Communist control to a market economy as well as a string of devastating winters have reshaped daily life in the countryside and forced many to give up their old nomadic ways. Livestock production, a backbone of the Mongolian economy, has become increasingly harder to sustain after a string of devastating winters or “dzud” virtually wiped out livestock populations (11 million animals died in the dzud of 2001 and about 20 million perished in another similar dzud a decade later in 2010). In addition, soaring transportation costs have prompted mass migration to areas near urban market centers, and has in turn resulted in herders competing with each other for limited tracts of grazing land.

Many have started to diversify their ways of earning a living by exploring new business opportunities and using technology to link up with new markets as well as cope with market fluctuations. However, many more have also been lured by the riches of from “ninja mining” – a way of mining for valuable minerals using primitive tools and ninja-style methods of exploration and extraction despite the fact that the practice is illegal and extremely hazardous. It remains to be seen whether these new emerging lifestyles, often at odds with traditional nomadic principles, can withstand the test of time.