Could nomadic traditions be the key to progress?
A View on Landscape Planning in Mongolia

Today the rural land use in Mongolia is increasingly assuming the form of a land-use process based on the application of alien planning approaches under the slogans of 'progress' and 'modernization'. Those may seem to have pushed aside traditional ethical values in favour of rational and economic values or may just represent a failure to understand, or indeed ignorance of, the specific traditional nomadic values regarding the use of natural resources in environmental planning and day-to-day land use. Germeraad and Enebisch were confronted with this problem during their work on the development of a management plan for the Mountain Steppe Reserve in Hustain Nuruu in the summer of 1993. They noted the importance of a thorough systematic overall insight into traditional nomadic land use concepts and in 1994 decided to investigate the evolution of the nomadic tradition and its role in the contemporary landscape planning and management in Mongolia. Below they give an excerpt of their research, which will be completed in July 1995.

By Pieter Germeraad and Zandan Enebisch

Between 1921 and 1990 the development of Mongolia was under the aegis of Russia and based on a socialist model of development. In 1990, after the disintegration of the Russian Federation, a new, freely elected government took over, and as in many of the GOS countries at the moment Mongolia is in the process of a transition from a communist to democratic parliamentary state. Simultaneously a series of bold comprehensive economic reforms have been implemented by the government aimed at dismantling the centrally planned economic system and introducing a market-based economy. In this reform process privatization is a key issue, supported by reforms in many other areas including the financial, fiscal and external sectors. Furthermore, a renaissance of Lamaist Buddhism seems to have begun, which involves a renewed interest in traditional values. In July 1993, during a workshop in the capital Ulaanbaatar organized by the United Nations Development Project (UNDP) within the framework of the formulation of a Global Environment Facility (GEF) project to conserve biodiversity in Mongolia, the Mongolian participants expressed the need to develop a landscape planning and management strategy which fits the Mongolian cultural context and anticipates the search for a Mongolian identity and the revival of Lamaism. Both governmental and non-governmental representatives were of the opinion that in land use, landscape planning and conservation matters more attention should be paid to the traditional nomadic culture. This aspect is also recognized in the national security concept for Mongolia, adopted by the Mongolian parliament in the spring of 1994 ("Mongolia's vital national interests are defined as the Existence of the Mongolian People, their Culture and Way-of-life").
Former Russian land-use and nature protection approaches based on collectivism and modern Western landscape planning concepts often seem unsuited to the contemporary needs and conceptions of the Mongolian rural people who are mainly nomadic herdsmen. Restriction on grazing possibilities and migration are easy to order on paper but are often not followed in practice by herdsmen since these interfere with their ancient freedom, which was only restricted by certain customs related to, for example, seasonal migration, herding of livestock, attitudes towards nature and social organization. Furthermore the pressure on the rural areas is growing due to population growth and the rise in number of domestic animals, changes in pattern of life and the development of national parks. Extra pressure is exerted by migration from the cities to the rural areas. All these developments make the need for a 'Mongolian' strategy to guide these processes and at the same time to safeguard the natural values of Mongolia, an urgent matter.
To contribute to an appropriate contemporary comprehensive approach to the development and implementation of land-use and nature-conservation management plans and policies, we have researched the role of the Mongolian culture and its traditions in the landscape occupation process. In so doing the emphasis has fallen on the interpretation of the essence and the spirit of valid rural and nomadic cultural values both in the past and the present.

Tradition based on religion and law

In the past Mongolian nomadic society was strongly determined by principles related to behaviour focused on surviving in the harsh environment, in which Shamanism and later (since the late sixteenth century) Lamaism played a major role. These religions emphasized the importance of living in harmony with nature, and their written texts and customs included a series of basic nomadic land-use principles and guidelines. These were related primarily to the use of land, water, soil and vegetation and simultaneously formed a framework for adjudicating related conflicts between users of the land. The leading principle for nomadic land use was related to what we may now describe as 'sustainable' principles.
During the Mongolian Great Dynasty (13th century) and the Juan dynasty (15th century) stern laws were issued by the rulers of these dynasties to protect nature in Mongolia. Severe punishments could be expected if these rules were broken.
In tandem laws and religion dictated and provided sources of values and guiding principles for all human actions and behaviour, which eventually merged into traditions. The traditional Mongolian environment was controlled by a cohesive complex of ethical rules, embedded in traditions. The rules focused on the respect man should have for his natural environment also expressed the mutual responsibility of the nomads for the land as the source of their common existence. Fear sustained the implementation of the Mongolian nomadic tradition since it was believed that a violation would make the sky and the 'mother earth' angry, which would result in nature loosing her virginity and the spoliation of the land. Within the context of nomadic land use and environmental behaviour the rules can be divided roughly into the following nine categories:

1. Take care of the environment and it will take care of you
2. Treat nature with respect and do not litter the environment
3. Never stay too long in one place
4. Be able to recognize the quality of pasture, find pasture suitable for your animals
5. Attend to the needs of both household and domestic animals
6. Restrictions on killing or frightening animals
7. Choose your location wisely
8. Do not spoil products of plants
9. How to behave regarding customs

Nomadic customs in transition

During the feudal period (until 1921) and communistic period (1921-1990), Mongolian society was characterized by an autocratic system, dominated first by the clergy and nobility, later by the central government. In the eyes of the Mongolian people the communist system did not change the basis of their traditional social system, of which a strong community feeling and mutual responsibility for the existence of the group to which one belonged were essential components. In the communistic period also the traditional group-oriented nomadic customs never disappeared completely. The 'we'- aspect, collective interests which were more important than the individual ones, was a main element in the Mongolian culture which largely determined the codes and rules for thought and behaviour until the 1990s. The reforms of 1990 brought about a major change in the cultural context which determines the original 'we'-culture. The capitalist and free market system, adopted by the government in 1990, emphasizes the importance of the fulfilment of individual needs. Personal interests and success became more important than the collective interests of the group and individual development has priority over the maintaining of traditional group norms and rules. This process is dominant in the cities, especially in Ulaanbaatar. In the countryside the change from 'we' to 'I'-culture is less obvious since survival in a landscape and weather conditions which are often extreme is still dependent on mutual co-operation within herding groups in which nomadic traditions often still play a role. This led us to the conclusion that the nomadic tradition is still partly alive and can be considered a determinant for actions and behaviour, especially in the countryside. From this conclusion we developed the hypothesis that tradition might be a tool for guiding land use and conservation. In our report we elaborate this hypothesis which pays special attention to how to cope with traditions in the context of the current development in Mongolia of a anthropocentric movement which is heavily inspired by the Western, 'material' oriented, civilization. Personal gain seems to be the main goal of man's actions in this movement overriding any recognition of the spirituality of the landscape and nature is generally reduced to an object of consumption. This process makes a return to pre-socialistic land use and conservation concepts founded on former nomadic traditions difficult, since these concepts cannot be easily incorporated into the current modernization process. We believe therefore that if Mongolian society is really determined to regenerate its historical and cultural constituents this will only be possible if these are based first on economic incentives and second on a solid realistic comprehensive set of laws based on the Mongolian way-of-life.

Dr ir Pieter W. Germeraad studies Ecology of Human Habitat and Landscape Planning and Architecture. He works as a private consultant in Asian and Middle Eastern countries.
Zandan Enebisch studied Mongolian Literature and is a teacher at the Agricultural University in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.



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