Being organic, minimalist and sustainable are all innate to nomadic lifestyle

Today we have interviewed Enkh-Amgalan Tseelei, who is the National Coordinator for Green Gold – Animal Health Project (GGAHP) of Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in Mongolia. She has close to two decades of experience in community-centered sustainable rangeland management in Mongolia and her team has played a key role in the development and promotion of collective rangeland management approaches among nomadic herders. Today’s interview is peculiar in the way that there will be more informal and close-to-heart angles.


Please tell us about your fondest childhood memories?

I grew up in a tiny county in Uvs province, known for its beautiful nature and the coldest winter in Mongolia. There, winter temperature reaches – 50oC (smiles). One simple yet cherished memory is that I used to be so excited about moving to our summer camp. The joy for the family and animals who have overcome the harsh winter. Time to enjoy and reenergize for the fall and winter, which shall come inevitably. Walking barefoot on fresh grass carpets, birds chirping as part of mother nature’s orchestra, being lullabied by the sound of the stream nearby, waking up to my mother’s soft calling … All are dearest to my heart.

I realize now that the summers were also special in the sense that it was a course of excellent detoxing in more than one sense. Not necessarily in a sense that there was very small or no meat. But certainly, at times they would have meat, but mostly it would be fresh dairy products and occasional dried, usually in small amount. Partially, it has to do with the fact that livestock lives are cherished and no waste was to be made. That is caused by the affection that the herdsmen have for their animal, which are treated as a live being or at times even as pets by the children, rather than merely a source of income or business capital.

Very interesting analogies. What are the lessons that such childhood gives a person?

It is the most interesting and engaging way that someone can learn about essential internal and external values and skills. Until I was in 5th grade, we used to spend summers every year in the countryside. As a child living in a nomadic family, my days in the countryside were never dull or un-learning. Tending on baby animals, milking, dung collecting, being a handy assistant to my mum and grandma in many senses taught me so much. Nowadays, city parents look for such hands-on programs and learning opportunities. For nomadic families, it is the status quo (smiles).

That is because nomadic livestock husbandry is a very complex project and herdsmen, in a traditional sense, are inevitably project managers. Being part of the buzzing household with non-stop project, because animals never rest or have a day off, you learn so much about survival skills, agility as well as the balance or interrelationship between human lives and mother nature. You learn to enjoy warmer times, and notice even how in summer “happier” animals are wagging their tails, yet learn how to stay hydrated and not be affected badly by the scorching suns. You observe how ageless and time-tested wisdom and traditions, keeps the “project running”; e.g., preparation of felt keeps families warm in traditional dwelling – gers – even during blizzards and snow storms. On a lighter note, I learnt to make milk vodka and so many types of these, for that matter and now fermented milk products are hotly back on the market (laughs).


What do you miss the most about Mongolia?

Another one of my fondest memories of childhood is about when our grandfather would take us to the top of a local mountain, which has a great 360-degree view of the vicinity. The crowd would be not only my immediate family, but also my relatives [and neighbors]. This was not a simple larger family gathering nor an ordinary hiking. I remember vividly the breathtaking view, the smell of the sweeping wind, the feeling of freedom and abundance, the humbleness and awe, and how our grandfather used to talk - about everything around us and whys and whats - as if he was telling a grand story.

In hindsight, it was a holistic event, where all gathered, heard about the values of what has kept the system in place, the perfect balance between nomads and gifts of mother nature that has been continuing for millennials. Therein was relayed the message about being sensitive, sensible and also grateful towards all that have been presented to us. I realize now that it was a ritualistic embedding of core values of lifestyle that is in great harmony with mother nature. In modern days, these would be equivalent to work-retreat or, in a way, even spiritual getaway and/or a “stakeholder consultation” (smiles).


Has this led you along your professional decisions and career paths?

My mum and I were in charge for household matters when my dad and my older brother were tending on the animals in rangelands. My mother was such a loving and caring human being. But she also was a great mentor. Even amidst her nonstop busy chores, she always made it a point to relax and enjoy time with me. While collecting dried dung for fire-making in the rangelands, we used to sit and chat. My mother used to talk to me about our homeland, how animals are precious to us and how we should be grateful for being provided with all that we have. May I add, “organic” to that (smile). These talks and the experience have certainly led to my career decisions.

Interestingly, the further one goes along the academic path, the more one realizes how amazingly backed up are traditional wisdoms and the time-tested researches. For instance, globally there is research that 50% percent of the plants on the land should be forage for livestock and 50% should be rested or left for regeneration. Whereas in Mongolia, traditionally herders used to move as many 12 times as year to let the pasture rest - another proof how the rangeland not only houses and nourishes the beings in or on it, but how it also serves as the learning ground and research laboratory. That is in line with, for instance, the Montessori method of hands-on learning, which is now also becoming more known and sought out as an education school. More often we hear about families looking for relatives in the countryside, where they can spend some real countryside time with, as opposed to short-term, drop-by touristy approach.

So, when I came back to Mongolia after spending several years studying abroad and visited my homeland, I was deeply saddened to see how things have changed for the worse, including degradation of rangelands caused by multiple factors. It got me thinking about what can I do to contribute to the improvement of the situation. That is in perfect sync with when SDC has started helping Mongolian herdsmen about dzud (harsh winter). Along the process series of research have been made as to how degradation happens and what needs to be done in order to prevent from and improve the alarmingly worsening rangeland degradation, which is only one aspect of a holistic ecosystem, which affects the livestock, the herdsmen and their family and livelihood as well as others in the “project cycle”.


Is that why you have worked with Green Gold Project? Does the project [negate or] tie with traditional way of livestock husbandry?

Yes, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the number of livestock in Mongolia has nearly tripled. In 2020, 69 million animals were counted. All this is happening to the detriment of the country's grasslands, and thus livelihood of herder families and rural population and consumers of their products, which indeed is everyone. Thus, it is a universal problem that affects many stakeholders.

For Mongolians, the word rangeland (belcheer) means more than a “workplace for the herdsmen or countryside people”, it also means the “homeland” (nutag). Rangelands are not only a source of food for livestock, but also the symbol of the value and cornerstone what makes Mongolia what it is. In other words, the fragile rangeland is the puzzle piece, that gives Mongolia its uniqueness and its soul. In the words of our famous composer Jantsannorov, “What are the poets going to write about if we do not have the rangeland? How is Mongolian going to stay Mongolia if we lose the tradition? Who are we going to become?”

The core principles of collective rangeland management approach that the Green Gold Project has been developing together with local partners and successfully tested are built around the concept of “homeland”.  This ties well with traditional notion of “neighbors” and calls for collective actions and commitment of not only the herder families, but also the local stakeholders for the sake of preserving and maintaining healthy and productive homeland. Much has been accomplished as has been raised extensively during the IV Rangeland National Forum and GGAHP Closing Workshop which were held early September.

To return to the “human” or even “humane” side, for instance the rotational grazing method is an essential part of the traditions to let rangelands rest and recover. Behind such traditions are time-tested observations, lessons reinforced with trials and tribulations. In modern management terms, even such moves are informed, well researched and risk-assessed decisions. Even in a day of a herdsman, when and where to start grazing, where to go for water, where to have the last stop of the day, when and how to return home are carefully planned. Careful crafting of such process flow with multiple steps not only relate to everyone on a daily basis, but throughout the year as it is seasonal. Only with such careful approach, can we talk about animal health, and their passing of harsh winters and being stress-free and sustainable livelihood for herdsmen, and reliable life quality for everyone in the process.


What will happen if we do not do anything? What are the other outcomes of the Green Gold Project?

In a way “owing” to COVID-19, we are more aware that only if we let nature, it will heal itself. Exact same conclusion has been proven by Green Gold Project by resting the overgrazed rangelands and letting them recover. In other words, we need to let mother nature revitalize itself.

Market economy brought the notion of monetizing everything to the maximum as much as possible, which is in a very traditional business sense. Yet the widely expanding notions of responsible manufacturing and consumerism, fair trade, sustainability and minimalism are so natural to nomadic lifestyle. Mongolia’s vast, yet very fragile rangeland ecosystem plays a significant role in the global sense that it is a huge sink of organic carbon.

In a nutshell, sustainably managed rangelands and healthy animals are Mongolia's “green gold”. Preserving of the green gold in a manner that is economically viable for all stakeholders and environmentally friendly is vital. When studying in Switzerland, I once visited the village in the Valais, which is known for its unique tourism products, including local food products. All interestingly unique, but the fact that these things have been brought together to become this attractive package is an excellent example. This is something doable with the right mindset, careful research and persistency in Mongolia too.

Mongolia is a new player in the world market. What new values and products can we offer to the world consumers? The food and fashion industry are mindful of a devastating environmental footprint; brands are thinking about how their raw materials are produced. Research shows that a majority of greenhouse gas emissions and water usage take place early in the supply chain. All of this has come at an enormous cost to the planet. An increasing number of discerning consumers pay attention to the geographic origin of products and rely on certified labels to assess their purchasing decisions. They know that the origin of a product determines its specific qualities and social and environmental impacts. Likewise, Mongolian nomadic livestock herding products are distinct in quality and entail a specific social and environmental impact.

Green Gold Project’s legacies, as were acknowledged by the Minister of Food, Agriculture and Light Industry, Member of Parliament G.Temuulen and other stakeholders recently include impressive results, which brought rangeland management, animal health and herder organizations to a new level: a behavior change among herders and local stakeholders towards responsible and sustainable management of Mongolian rangelands numerous and impactful educational and physical investments, including rehabilitation of 20 million hectares of degraded rangelands, development of sustainable code of practices and standard for nomadic livestock production and its digital traceability system to assure the origin and quality of livestock raw materials, which has resulted in improved market access of livestock raw materials in addition to meat and cashmere, such as milk, sheep wool, skins and hides.

In the traditional sense, livestock husbandry involves careful strategic planning with much agility tactics. Yes, livestock husbandry is a life-long career. It is an exciting project that evolves all year around. That being said, if the preparation for the winter has been made very well, then from December to March is rather slow time for the herdsman, which is always great. The slower times are great opportunity for herdsmen and the families to spend more time together and relax. Spiritual mantras and songs are sung by parents and grandparents in the evening while animals are right outside in their warm fences, so the meditation-like process must have affected all (smiles).

Modern times, when herdsmen have too much livestock in overgrazed pastures, i.e., working hard but not always healthily and or economically beneficial way, these in turn affect their life standard. Green Gold Project success stories include lessening of number of livestock yet being able to earn as much while having less workload (e.g., 300 yaks vs 1,000 yaks). The first milk product certified and fully traceable by #ResponsibleNomads digital system is released in the market[1].


What can everyone, regardless of where they live can do to contribute to their life standard?

In striking contrast to the agonizing overconsumption, nomadic way of life is sustainable, organic and minimalist. The ancient cultures had it all. They have been living so close to nature for so long that it is an innate part of their lives, successes and failures. Mongolia is one of the last very few remaining. We in Mongolia in fact have a saying, “all except animal breaths can be (re)-used”.

I was fortunate in the sense that I got to experience very closely what is now becoming more and more valued in modern world, where much natural sources are being exhausted. True nomadic herders are indeed perfect project managers – they plan in advance, including about the risk management, they are so agile as they live adaptably to the nature, as maintaining of the balance is the only way they can survive.

If no natural disaster or overgrazing and other negative impacts, the nature can get back on track fastly. It is vital for the existence of human beings to take into consideration the footprints or impacts of certain decisions we are making. We are borrowing from our future generation. With our partners, we have conducted #ResponsibleNomads, social series content aimed at hearing and sharing with the society, the views of the youth on rangeland and rural development issues. Youth from various parts of Mongolia with differing education and professional backgrounds were involved and the content went well beyond expectations. It was encouraging to see the youth concerned with the subject matter and even starting some dialogues.

We, Mongolians pride ourselves about having quality and organic products, and many manufacturers wish to export, but to prove locally and abroad the quality of the goods requires quality assurance. Hence was introduced the traceability angle of the Green Gold Project. Now we have textile and food products, that are traceable. The magic football, for instance, shows where did the yak leather pieces that created the handmade ball comes from. These are huge steps important for national and local markets. We are positive that the good examples of the Green Gold Project, through its stakeholders, will be ensured continuity and sustainability and the momentum will not be lost.

The world is crying for more heroes and joint forces to let mother nature takes its course and do its job of reviving. That requires humanity, in a sense, to “go back to the roots.” Nomadic herdsmen are the unique in that they are the carriers and protectors of such fragile and vulnerable culture and ecosystem.

Alas, we must be “smart softies” – “smart” in a sense that efforts must be based on research and facts, “softie” in a sense that we have respect for the time-tested values and fragilities. The synergy of the aforementioned traditionally time-tested wisdom as well as modern science-backed approach is vital for preservation of all that is essential.


Interview by Ariungoo Khurelbaatar