In the News: Cashmere and Climate Change in Mongolia

By Ricki Watkins, LCC CRSP

Maria Fernandez-Gimenez, associate professor at Colorado State University, has been researching rangeland ecosystems in Mongolia’s Bayankhongor province for almost two decades.

In 2010, the Livestock-Climate Change Collaborative Research Support Program at Colorado State University awarded her a seed grant to help Mongolian livestock herders adapt to climate change by monitoring rangeland ecosystems and encouraging community-based conservation.

The seed-project funding has been a part of Fernandez-Gimenez’s larger research portfolio, which includes research on the effects of climate change, livestock grazing and community-based management on rangeland ecosystems in Bayankhongor and other regions of Mongolia (read more about how Fernandez Gimenez’s research is related to current and past events in Mongolia on>> Storify).

Mongolia, which is located in Central Asia, is home to vast rangelands. This environment is ideal for the goats, which graze on a wide diversity of rangeland vegetation. It is these goats that provide Mongolian herders with their main cash crop: cashmere. Mongolia is the second largest producer of cashmere, after China, making many Mongolians dependent on the industry for their livelihood.

However, Mongolian herders have been forced to expand their herds over the years to compensate for price fluctuations, losses in other economic sectors and climate change.

The growing herds have contributed to environmental degradation, together with climate change, expanded mining, and increased vehicle traffic across the roadless steppes.

Fernandez-Gimenez said a shift from quantity to quality would help herders achieve more sustainable practices, helping both the rangeland ecosystems and, in the long run, the herders as well. However, the right incentive would need to be created for herders to make such a shift.

“Currently, there is little or no economic incentive for herders to reduce the number of animals they are raising and increase the quality of the animals, even when they recognize that this is ultimately better for the land and the long-term sustainability of their livelihoods,” Fernandez-Gimenez said.

Two possible incentives could include a price premium for higher quality cashmere or cashmere that has been produced in a “sustainable” manner. Rangeland monitoring, the focus of the LCC CRSP seed grant, is one key to sustainable production because it helps herders recognize when grazing is harming the ecosystem, signaling that a change in grazing management is needed.

Fernandez-Gimenez and her CSU team have published two books that highlight the relationships between herders livelihoods and the environment.  Restoring Community Connections to the Land shows how community-based management can help herders make the transition to raising fewer, higher quality animals while improving environmental and economic conditions. Lessons from the Dzud is about herders’ experiences of the 2009-2010 winter weather disaster in Mongolia and is illustrated with photographs taken by herders in Bayankhongor and Arkhangai provinces.