Updated: Mar 30
This is an edited transcript of our conversation with Dr. Ariell Ahearn, Departmental Lecturer in Human Geography at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford. She has worked extensively in rural Mongolia with mobile pastoralist communities around land use and rural development issues for the past 16 years. You can read more about her work here.
What led you to your current research interests?
I first went to Mongolia as part of a student exchange program. I, myself, am from quite a rural place in upstate New York and grew up with goats and sheep. I had the opportunity to get a scholarship to go to university—otherwise my family didn’t have much money to spend on university—and to do a study abroad program So I took the opportunity to go as physically far away from New York as I could, which happened to be in Mongolia. Part of the study abroad program was to learn Mongolian, take a lot of classes in history, do a lot of home stays in the countryside, and not just learn intellectually but physically different skills of pastoralism and herding. I realised that I really enjoyed this—having had the experience of working in livestock husbandry and then connecting with people around that same kind of work.
I became interested in looking at foreigners working in development, how they represented Mongolia in their development projects, what kind of interventions they were doing for herders, and how they represented herders in that process. When I went on to do my PhD, I focused more on the changing rural economy, household decision-making, and the political dynamics of the countryside. There’s a lot of discourse of the countryside as being outside the state. But in my experience, this is really not what’s happening. I see a lot of local administrators doing home visits to herders all the time, but a lot of writers would present it as if there’s no government in rural Mongolia, therefore we need to do all these interventions—interventions according to a Western logic of what that should look like.
I started to get involved in looking more at how mining was affecting the relationships between herders and mining, and the types of land use which were happening in the same areas, often around important water sources. There’s an interesting geological dynamic in the fault lines, where a lot of the precious minerals that are exported such as copper, gold, coal are found together with water—which is a very important resource for pastoralists in an arid place like Mongolia.
In 2016, got involved as an independent researcher in a complaint lodged by herders against the Oyu Tolgoi mega mine in the South Gobi through the IFC (International Finance Corporation) complaints mechanism. That’s when I really got involved in looking at mining, and ever since then I’ve been exploring these issues around resettlement, local impact, the types of companies, and so on.
What is the state of informal mining in Mongolia?
In Mongolia right now there are over 2000 companies, large and small, across the country. We often think of the bigger ones but there are many, many companies which are Mongolian private companies, Korean, Chinese, joint ventures, doing all kinds of mining. Some of which might be just a bulldozer out in an area during a gold operation, others might be quite bigger. So, you see a huge diversity in mining.
What’s interesting about informal mining is that, often, in some cases, informal mining might be a way to claim the territory, although I don’t think it’s been very successful, unfortunately, in Mongolia. There’s a lot of conflict between people doing informal mining and larger mines that want to have a formal license over those lands to carry out larger extraction projects. Like in other places in the world, you see a lot of informal mining on the tailings—that’s the material that’s removed and dumped. So, people go over the tailings and try to find whatever is left over. It’s almost as if large-scale mining and informal mining can sometimes go together.
How has the transition of livelihoods from herding to informal mining taken place?
It’s interesting because there are a few different ways that informal mining has been presented in Mongolia, and a lot of different policies related to that have changed over the years. The herders that I’ve talked to in this province called Bayanhongor, there’s a season when they may go and make some extra money. It’s not that they’re giving up herding, it’s not like they’re saying “I’m transitioning out of this livelihood into a new one”. They’re doing it in an opportunistic way. There may be a whole range of reasons for that—it might be because of loss of livestock because of a major dzud (which is a winter disaster) but it might be also to pay school fees or for healthcare or whatever it might be that can be combined with herding livelihoods.
To emphasise, it’s not necessarily people exiting one livelihood into another—it’s combining of set of livelihoods. There are also quite a lot of taboos around informal mining because cosmologically, Mongolians do not support digging into the ground. So, there’s a lot of concern about the spiritual repercussions of informal mining that potentially attract bad spirits, bad consequences or even health consequences and people worry that benefiting from this type of wealth might have potential effects on the family. Thus, there is a taboo around people saying “I am an informal miner,”, they do not necessarily want to identify as that being their main livelihood—often they’re herders, but they may do some informal mining on the side.
How has this transition impacted gender relations?
I think that’s a really great question to ask. Actually, not much research has been done on this; it’s an area that needs more attention. All I can really offer is anecdotal observations, conversations with others—I’ve seen many families, husband and wife, that participate together in informal mining. I don’t know as much about formalised, artisanal mining. I have noticed that there are issues of alcoholism and domestic violence within those contexts that have again been understudied. There are very clear gender dynamics within the herding household in terms of what women’s work is expected to be and what men’s work is expected to be. It’s interesting to think of how that would translate into this new context. I can imagine that women would still be expected to do the cooking, cleaning, and household work and that men are probably out doing a lot of the physical labour. But I’ve seen many women also do the physical labour of being in the streams, collecting the dirt, washing it, and so on.
What has the state's response been to informal mining?
Interestingly there has been a big push in the Mongolian policy space through a project led by the Swiss Development Agency (SDA) to formalise informal mining because they’re quite concerned about the health and safety risks, such as use of different chemicals, people falling into deep pits and breaking bones, and so on. Formalising informal mining and then getting people to participate and pay taxes to the state—this process created a form of employment which was then seen as ‘valid’ in the eyes of the state. There was a big push by the state to collaborate with development organisations like the SDA to support ‘artisanal mining’—so they then presented it as an artisanal mining sector, which benefits the government.
One of my Master’s students did a project on this and found that a lot of people did not want to necessarily formalise their work as miners because they still had quite a strong identity as herders and they were a lot of taboos around mining. Part of the formalisation project was wearing colourful uniforms, paying taxes, doing a lot of paperwork, and having all types of safety signs. Not many people moved into that as a formal sector, but some did embrace this transition: some herders fully left herding for artisanal mining, and some people from urban areas took on this employment.
So, you have artisanal miners—formalised, paying government taxes; then you have informal miners—people who might do it here and there; and then you may have people who, in a devastating economic situation, have no other means, so they may turn to mining.
What are the politics of land use and land rights in Mongolia?
It’s difficult when it comes to land rights because what I’ve found is that there is an acceptance of the herders’ customary use of land which is quite flexible and adheres to a non-equilibrium understanding of how the land is used. In the Gobi, where there is very little rainfall, people need to travel to new locations to access water, to access pasture—which is a very flexible use of land. Often people go back to places they know; it is not that they’re randomly deciding, t
hey’re making strategic choices based on their expertise. Within this context there is an understanding and acceptance of that kind of land use. But now that there’s more and more demand for mining which is seen as a pathway to development for the country…
Weirdly enough, a lot of the ways the herders use land isn’t formally protected under law. So, it’s very easy for the state to appropriate land because basically all the land is state-owned public land. It has been used by the herders in their traditional way which is widely accepted but now that there’s demand for mineral extraction, a lot of the land is being appropriated. Because herders are not accepted as indigenous people in Mongolia, they don’t have the same rights for free, prior, informed consent that they would have if they were considered to be an indigenous population in the country, so that’s also a big issue. What we’ve observed in our work is a lot of forced resettlement and human rights violations around land being expropriated.
Part of the problem is that there’s a lens through which people always think in terms of ‘private property’. There may be a huge amount of land that the herders are using in a flexible way but they will only think “Oh, I am just compensating this person for where their winter camp is located”, which might be a very small place, you know? Or “we’ll compensate you by building you a new corral a couple of kilometres away” without thinking about how this is actually changing the whole dynamic of how the land is being used. Many water sources and spiritual sites are being lost this way. And herders don’t really have a right to say that this 100 sq km space is actually part of their livelihood! There’s a lot of discrimination in the interactions between mining companies and herders.
What is the significance of nomadic herding in Mongolian culture? Are herders recognised as an indigenous population of Mongolia?
It’s interesting because Mongolia, and also a lot of central Asian countries, doesn’t recognise indigenous populations. China recognises ethnic minorities but they don’t accept that there are indigenous groups. It’s different in Mongolia, there’s a very small population, and it hasn’t been necessarily colonised by another group. Mongolia was part of the Qing dynasty in the late 19th century but it gained independence. Part of what was considered to be Mongolian-speaking groups are in Inner Mongolia, and Inner Mongolians in China are considered to be an ethnic minority in China.
Within Mongolia, herding is seen as a type of employment and the cultural beliefs of herders are celebrated nationally as a common cultural background. For instance, some people are bankers and retire to become herders. As for the issue around “who is indigenous?”—everyone is indigenous, is their land for centuries now, they claim Genghis Khan is the father of their nation. Obviously, there is linguistic diversity in Mongolia, there is minority populations, in the west there are Kazakhs, there’s Buryat groups—these groups are seen as minority groups but in a way all of them are indigenous.
In that sense the international understanding or the international legal definition of ‘indigenous’ becomes kind of awkward in a place like Mongolia. Because you want to protect this—what we would consider to be—indigenous knowledge but it’s seen as a form employment because that knowledge is shared. All the food, heritage, and cultural understandings are shared amongst people in urban areas too, and there’s a lot of back and forth between those areas. But when you want to get legal protection for people who are practising mobile pastoralism, then it becomes quite tricky. Designating groups as pastoralists would allow them to have rights under international law which now, they can’t quite leverage the same way. At one point I asked the ILO (International Labour Organization), because I’ve done some work in collaboration with them, would it be possible for herders to be protected as indigenous people? They said we would need to have discussions with the Mongolian state. So, it’s interesting also to see how the state plays a role in these questions as well, and it raises issues around human rights law internationally, the colonial history of human rights law, and all such things. A lot of NGOs are trying to grapple with this issue—how to protect the rights of a group that is still practising a more traditional livelihood.
How does the sedentary bias in development debates play out in Mongolia?
It seems that so much is focused on enabling livelihoods like becoming an engineer or a banker but why aren’t the livelihoods of herders supported through creating mobile education systems? Sometimes a fixed school or sending your children to a boarding school 200 kms away isn’t very convenient for herders. Also, the curriculum is not teaching students the skills they may need to become herders. A lot of it is taught to move people away. I don’t know whether it’s unconscious or conscious bias against herder livelihoods—in some ways I think the development discourse has fed into that by creating fixed schools. There’s a really strong value for education, formal education. Many people, herders and non-herders, invest a lot in education for girls and boys. There’s been a lot of neoliberalisation in the education sector; Mongolia used to be a socialist country that changed in the 1990s to the free-market system. There’s a lot of migration away, or as I call it, ‘education out of’ or ‘schooling away’ from pastoralism into other types of employment.
What is valid knowledge? Who holds valid knowledge? Everyone does, we all do because we’re all experts in our own lives and how our own lives function so we should all reconsider to having extremely valuable knowledge about how the world works. But those things are not held up as valuable in the Mongolian school system. It’s a weird contradiction because in Mongolia you find this great celebration of nomadic heritage and history and traditions but on the other hand, the day-to-day physical work of herding is seen in a discriminatory light, kind of like dirty work.
There is also a sedentary bias for healthcare, education—these services are usually always in urban centres so people feel that in order to have access to those things they need to either be partially settled or have some kind of a base in an urban area, whether it’s through familial relationships or they themselves have invested in property. The herder livelihood has become more precarious because of a lack of investment in the rural economy. It’s ironic because in Mongolia there’s a lot of media discourse saying that climate change is going to make herding unviable forever. Climate change is a crucial issue in Mongolia, I’m not denying that, but it’s a political problem as well. Climate change tends to hide the politics of the issue—because you say “Oh climate change is so devastating; all the herders are going to move to the city”, well that’s one issue amongst others. And if we don’t put a spotlight on the political issues then no one needs to take responsibility for those other issues.
Cashmere, which comes from goats, is also a big source of income for herders, and along with camel wool, it makes up a decent amount of the GDP. From a pure economic point of view, investing in rural, herder, traditional livelihoods is actually a good idea. But it’s very focused on mining right now, unfortunately.
How has pastoralism been represented in the environmental conservation discourse?
There has been a demonisation of these livelihoods. Industrial agriculture is one thing and if you look at herding it’s such a different way of using land, such a different form of livelihood. Some pastoralists keep tons of animals to sell but many pastoralists don’t—they use milk and dairy rather than expand their herds like ranchers. It’s not necessarily a commercial model. The carbon footprint of pastoralism is almost carbon nil or even carbon negative because the manure is going to fertilising the grassland, and the whole cycle is ecologically sustainable.
What’s also forgotten in the whole discourse around degradation is that people’s land has been taken away and they’ve been squeezed into tiny spaces. They don’t have the right to mobility, and mobility is so important to them to practice this flexible and non-equilibrium-based livelihood. If you take away people’s right to mobility, and they have no political voice, and then you point fingers at them—"you caused this degradation”—well, actually the cause was you taking away their
political voice and rights. That’s the real cause of the problem. I think there’s a lot more work to be done around decolonising conservation, there’s so much work to be done around environmental and social justice.
According to you, what role does your positionality as a Western researcher play in your work?
The first time I was in Mongolia I was a study abroad student, which is an extremely privileged position to be in—to be able to travel outside of my country of origin freely, without too much hassle, to a place like Mongolia. I’m still in touch with the researchers that I came to know as an exchange student I’m still working with them. In my research practice, I do my best not to take an extractivist approach where I need to get information on my project that I need to go write up under my name only. I try to build collaborations and do co-funded projects with organisations on the ground.
When you’re a PhD student you’re expected to produce your own independent work in order to get a PhD. As a student I would always contribute through sharing articles or access. I’ve put in a lot of volunteer work to edit people’s work in English, you do whatever you can, in the amount of time you have, to give back, and as much as possible have a reciprocal relationship. After completing my PhD, I tried actively, as a critical geographer, to participate in social justice campaigns based on the research I am doing in collaboration with Mongolian researchers. Now that I have a more stable academic position, I’m trying more and more to apply for grants that can be used to benefit local movements, projects, local academics, and to build capacities in the local context.
It’s amazing how much we rely on funding, and what the funder’s requirements are. It’s difficult to accomplish some of the things we want to accomplish when there’s no money to pay for people to organise a workshop, or to contribute to the work of local NGOs: paying their salaries at a higher rate, building capacities for them to be first authors or co-authors on our work, helping them build a media presence, a website, organise funding workshops, training, etc. Once the money dries up, you can still do a lot but it somewhat limits your flexibility.
The main principles for me have always been relational accountability and allowing for as much long-term commitments as possible which prioritise the interests of my collaborators and research participants. I’m in touch with people on WhatsApp continuously. It will be a 20-year relationship with my host family in Mongolia—I have contributed to child care and elderly care, I’m in a way part of the family, my host sister texts me most of the day updating me about different things. Being a part of those relationships is quite intimate; in academia they say “you should be objective and not have these types of relationships”, which I don’t agree with. We’re part of a human world and we need to have human relationships, and as researchers we shouldn’t limit ourselves and say that we can’t. The argument that it limits objectivity is an anti-feminist one, and I try to take a more feminist approach.
What is the local research scenario in Mongolia like? Does the state take interest in research on pastoralists?
There are many Mongolian researchers publishing amazing things. A difficult issue is between people who are able to publish in English and people who have to publish in Mongolian—there’s an inequality in language where having a book/article published in English carries a lot of prestige from the conventional academic point of view. There are obviously language barriers in that sense. There are many local Mongolian journals and herders actively participate in social media, a lot of discussions are happening on social media and blogs. Google translate has been great because even if people can’t necessarily speak to each other, they can still have a great email exchange.
I am not aware of many projects in the fields that I work in—human geography and anthropology—that have been funded by government agencies. There may be more in the health and engineering fields. A lot more have been funded by development organisations like the SDA and the Japanese Development Fund, and obviously that is oriented more towards development project goals. There is a World Bank project focused on livestock intensification—which I have a lot of critical thoughts on—and they have a huge amount of money behind them. There are a few research components within these projects but they aren’t always available publicly or they are published as grey literature. There is a lot of money in bringing teams together to do that, or they’ll hire a Mongolian research organisation to do research or run a survey in the topic they’re interested in.
We take a lot of precautions in terms of where we’re accepting money from because we want to make sure that the projects we do are truly collaborative. The projects with lots of money, it’s amazing that they haven’t learnt—they say all these things about participation but what about codesign? What about prioritising the things that are important to the communities you call ‘officiaries’?
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted herder livelihoods in Mongolia?
There are cases of COVID-19 in Mongolia but they came quite late—it was November or December 2020 when it started to get worse. It’s more of a concern in urban areas. I was hoping there would be more appreciation for herders because they provide a lot of meat and dairy to the rest of the country and that people would come to value all of their contributions. In fact, Mongolia donated 10,000 sheep to China as part of an international diplomacy gesture. There is an interesting dynamic here with the donation of sheep and food security. It shows just how much Mongolia can be potentially exposed to issues of supply chain, the precarity of an economy that is based so much on resource extraction and having to export those resources to China, and what happens if those export routes are closed due to COVID-19.
There’s also the big question of whose voices are being silenced or marginalised within this. A lot of my colleagues in Mongolia have had to deal with major issues of child care, elderly care, not having financial support, and businesses being devastated. All this economic turbulence is affecting people’s ability to even engage in political action in some cases. There’s a wider question around what will happen in some projects that are trying to promote human rights when people are just trying to get food on the table.
Watch the video of the conversation here.