Cashmere goats

Turning Mongolia's grassland into desert

"Fly over Mongolia in summer and the steppes look as green as they must have done when Genghis Khan and his armies galloped across the land—but the switch is startling as the flight crosses the border into China's Inner Mongolia region. The ground suddenly turns brown.

The danger facing [Outer] Mongolia is that its steppes may be transformed into a desert similar to the one eating away at neighbouring China. The culprit is the humble goat—and the fascination of fashionistas for cashmere."

—Jane Macartney, The Times (UK), August 8, 2009

The cashmere goat is responsible for desertification of the grasslands? Well, it's a bit more than that—it's a tale of greed on the part of humans too. China is up to its old tricks—trying to shuffle the blame. Chinese officials have been trying to pin blame for erosion and desertification of Inner Mongolia on overgrazing by Mongolian nomads. But for this one, the Chinese have only their own disastrous experimental agrarian policies to blame—and their unbridled greed for cashmere.

Back in 1949, the ratio of Mongolians to Han Chinese in Inner Mongolia was estimated at 5 to 1. By 2010, the ratio was inverted, with an estimated six Han Chinese for every one Mongolian. Estimates placed the Han Chinese population at 24 million, and the Mongolian population at just 4 million. And those Mongolians are no longer nomadic—they are being shifted off the grasslands into villages and cities as part of Chinese government policy. But a lot else has transpired on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. With the deliberate policy of overwhelming Mongolian culture with an influx of Han Chinese came new policies concerning land use. The Mongolians are traditionally nomadic—herding yaks, Bactrian camels, horses, sheep and goats. The Han Chinese set about introducing a more agrarian society, with corn, oat and potato fields—which resulted in erosion problems, and speeded up the degradation of the grasslands.

In the meantime, something quite catastrophic was taking place. By the 1990s, China had cornered the world market on cashmere, which derives from the soft undercoat of the cashmere goat. The cashmere goat only grows this undercoat in harsh, cold wind-swept conditions—as in Mongolia and Tibet. Catering to huge demand from Western buyers, it was decided to increase herds of cashmere goats in places like Inner Mongolia. One unforeseen problem: cashmere goats are definitely not grasslands-friendly. Unlike yaks, which graze lightly with minimal impact, cashmere goats graze voraciously—consuming all greenery and ripping grass out by the roots. The sharp hooves of cashmere goats can pierce the soil surface (a crust that is composed of fungi, mosses, lichens and bacteria that help retain moisture). Once the crust is torn, strong winds in Mongolia can carry away the sand underneath in dust storms.

In the 1990s, the herds of cashmere goats dramatically increased in Inner Mongolia to feed demand for high-priced cashmere wool, which was processed in Chinese factories and shipped at great profits to places like Italy. The end result was that large swathes of Inner Mongolia turned into a wasteland, stripped of grasslands by the greed of the cashmere goats—and by the greed of Chinese entrepreneurs selling cashmere. When Gobi Desert dust started raining down on Beijing, Chinese officials got the message: something disastrous was going on. Officials backtracked and ordered the decimation of cashmere goat herds, and ordered more rotational farming.

With a sudden drop in cashmere production from Inner Mongolia, China's cashmere buyers turned their attention to independent Outer Mongolia for supplies. Outer Mongolia's population of cashmere goats soared. China is the largest buyer of Outer Mongolia's raw and washed cashmere, taking an estimated two-thirds of all exports (one third legally, and one-third smuggled to avoid export taxes). And with this comes the same colossal cost: potentially turning the grasslands of Outer Mongolia into desert.


Did I mention mining in Mongolia as a major cause of soil erosion? Mega-mines have sprung up in Chinese-controlled Inner Mongolia—which has seen an explosion of mining for much-valued rare-earth minerals. Across the border, in independent Outer Mongolia, more environmental havoc is being wreaked—at the hands of China. Mining is a severe threat to pristine grasslands there, wiping out the nomads of the region. Foreign mining companies involved are British group Rio Tinto, and Canadian-headquartered Turquoise Hill Resources (formerly Ivanhoe Mines).

How much can an ecosystem take before it collapses? Read on...

Gobi mega-mine puts (Outer) Mongolia on brink of world's greatest resource boom

Coal extraction in 'the last frontier' expected to triple economy by 2020 but will compete with nomads for scarce resources

—Jonathan Watts,, 7 November 2011

After a 16-hour drive under the piercing blue skies of Mongolia's southern Gobi, the first view of the world's newest mega-mine looks eerily like a desert aflame. Black clouds of dust billow up above the horizon from the pit at Tavan Tolgoi, where a swarm of bulldozers and mechanical diggers have clawed a 70-metre deep gash into the yellow hills. This resource — thought to be the biggest deposit of coking coal on the planet — is chewed out and transported away to China by a seemingly endless line of trucks that rumble across the plains in a convoy of dust.

Until recently, this area of southern Mongolia was one of the world's last great wildernesses — a cold desert that is home to gazelle, wild ass and herders living a traditional nomadic existence. Today, however, it is the centre of the planet's greatest resource boom. Some are calling it "the last frontier", others "Minegolia". Whatever the name, this impoverished but remarkable nation in east Asia is on the brink of one of the most dramatic transformations in human history.

The vast opencast pit at Tevan Tolgoi is just the start. Its 6bn tonnes of coal are being partly developed by a local mining firm. Extraction rights will also be auctioned off to overseas bidders, likely to include China's Shenhua, Peabody of the US and a Russian consortium. Whoever does the digging, the ultimate buyer of the fuel is likely to be China, which accounts for 85% of Mongolia's exports. Other mega-mines will follow. The extraction is expected to triple the national economy by 2020 and propel the living standards of the small, impoverished 2.6 million population into the global middle class, but locals fear it will also devastate an arid environment as the mines suck up scarce water resources, damage the grasslands and necessitate roads and electricity grids that disrupt the migration patterns of local species.

The damage is already evident in the cross-Gobi traffic, where drivers churn up so much dust that some use their headlights in the middle of the day to pierce the gloom. "Every day, they use 2,000 off-road 100-tonne trucks. There is so much dust in the sky, it looks like a war is taking place," said Enkhbat, co-chairman of the Mongolian Green party, who fears unregulated development of the southern Gobi could lead to ecological catastrophe.

"The government needs a much more comprehensive plan to protect the environment and respect local communities. This is not just about economics. It is about human rights." Nomad families in the area blame the mines for dried up wells, shrinking watering holes and clouds of dust that blacken the lungs and stomachs of their animals. "It makes us cough. Even the animals cough. There is so much dust we can't recognise which animal is which," said Tsevedelger, a 60-year-old herder. "The animals eat the dusty grass. Then humans eat the poisoned animals. Soon it will be impossible for us to stay here."

The next supermine to come online will be Oyu Tolgoi, which is operated by Ivanhoe Mines and Rio Tinto — a UK-headquartered mining multinational. Once it starts operations in 2012, it expects to produce 450,000 tonnes of copper every year for half a century. The total output will be worth about $200bn at today's prices. The transformative potential of the mining boom was the subject of an international conference in the capital Ulan Bator last month. Officials from the United National Development Programme (UNDP) expressed hope that Mongolia — as a rare democracy in east Asia — could set an example in transparent, environmentally sensitive resource extraction that will benefit the entire population.

"It's very exciting. Mongolia has the potential to do it right," said Ajay Chhibber, UNDP assistant secretary general. "In a way Mongolia is the last frontier. You might have to go back to the Californian gold rush to find anything similar." But he warned resources can also be a curse. In Nigeria, an oil boom led to environmental destruction, increased corruption, a widening income gulf and conflict. The signals so far in Mongolia are mixed. Two-thirds of the state's Human Development Fund — which has come from mining revenues — has been spent on monthly cash payments to the population to secure electoral votes. The minister for resources, Zorigt Dashdorj, said there would be a major change in the future, with more money going on health insurance, public housing and education.

Environmental worries also loom large, particularly with regard to water usage rights. Oyu Tolgoi alone plans to use 920 litres of water per second for the next 30 years. The former herder Dolgor, who now lives in Khanbogd, says the mines are good for Mongolia, but bad for residents of the southern Gobi. "They take too much water. There is not enough left so the herders have to move or sell their animals."

The operators of Oyu Tolgoi acknowledge they have taken surface water until now, which has made them a competitor with the nomads for scarce resources. But from next year, the mine will extract and treat saline water from a fossil aquifer 45km away. Operators say this is not linked to any lakes or watering holes. "It's very unlikely that there'll be an impact, but we will continue to monitor the situation carefully," said Shea O'Neill, Oyu Tolgoi principal environmental adviser. The water will be recycled under the company's zero-discharge policy. "We're doing just about everything we can. It's the right thing to do and it's good for business. There is not a lot of water in the Gobi. This is a non-replenishable resource so it is in everyone's interests to conserve water. If we don't, we go out of business."

Rio Tinto have pledged to set the highest international standards in minimising the impact on the environment. They plan to build an asphalt road to reduce dust, with underpasses for migrating animals. They have also promised to recycle much of their water. Conservationists have praised their plans for "biodiversity offsets" to make-up for the damage to nearby eco-systems and wildlife. But, even if successful, fresh threats will come from the numerous other mines, roads and electricity transmission lines that are being planned in the region.

Kirk Olsen, an expert on gazelles and wild ass, who has worked with several international conservation groups, said the impact has not been comprehensively studied. "How much can an ecosystem take until it collapses? We don't know enough yet about the Gobi to answer," he said. "At the moment, it is all piecemeal, mine by mine, project by project. If they carry on down that road, there will be a lot of problems ahead." Despite Mongolia's democratic system, concerns about corruption, inadequate consultation and weak oversight persist. "There is really no enforcement of regulations. The mining companies can do what they want," said Keith Svensson, a landscape management specialist based in Ulan Bator who expects increased water stress and habitat fragmentation in the South Gobi. "These corporations have a track record. I don't think they are going to operate any differently in the Gobi."

Rio Tinto's influence is growing. Along with Ivanhoe, it expects to invest $16bn over 30 years in the Oyu Tolgoi project. The company's headquarters in Ulan Bator is one of the biggest buildings in the capital. Its advertisements run constantly on local television channels and it will be a leading sponsor of the country's Olympic team in London next year.

It remains to be seen whether it will prove a force of the good in Mongolia. But nomads fear the worst. "I have seen Oyu Tolgoi grow bigger and bigger. When it started, it was just one tent. Then three, then 10. Now look at it. They are even taking our grasslands to build a new airport," said Byunjargal, the matriarch of a nomad family that had herded Bactrian camels and cashmere goats in this area for generations. "In the future. There will be more dust and less water. It will be impossible for us to stay here."

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