Golden eagle.

Going on the Offense with Conservation Science: Thoughts from Mongolia

by Peter Kareiva

Mongolia. Land of majestic expanses, animated by the spirits of Genghis Khan and Roy Chapman Andrews, the real-life Indiana Jones who hunted fossils here on his way to becoming director of the American Museum of National History.

You get a taste for that majesty and history at Hustai National Park — home of the restored Takai wild horses, which the country repatriated from European zoos. Here the horses thrive, embedded in a community of herders and preyed upon by Mongolian wolves of Wolf Totem fame. International scientists and tourists alike go to Hustai — only three hours drive from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital — to witness one of conservation’s great success stories.

But Mongolia is anything but a museum. Having shaken loose the shackles of Soviet-style communism in 1990, the country today has a vibrant parliamentary democracy. Now, equally momentous change is again underway here — fueled this time by a rush of foreign investors seeking to exploit the nation’s mineral and fossil energy wealth. As a result of this mining boom, Mongolia’s GDP grew by 17.5% in 2011 and by 12.3% in 2012 — in both years, the highest rates of economic growth in Asia.

Things should be good in this beautiful land, and indeed the future does seem hopeful here. But as this great country joins the global economy, it faces the quintessential dilemmas of human economic development: At what expense? And for whom?

Ulanbaatar, Mongolia.
Photo: Jen Molnar
Ulanbaatar, Mongolia.

Believe it or not, conservation — done well — will help answer both questions properly, with maximum benefit for nature and people.

Put it another way: Conservation must succeed in Mongolia. If it fails, we lose one of the most spectacular wild places left on the planet, an astonishing tapestry of snow leopards, Gobi bear, wild horses and camels, and vast, ancient, inspiring grasslands.

But if, in saving those treasures, conservation neglects the people of Mongolia —particularly when it cuts deals with mining and energy interests — it fails, too. And puts anything we gain for wildlife and habitat ultimately at risk.

Mongolia is a litmus test for conservation’s new intention to value human well-being — and to bring value to people’s lives. The socioeconomic problems here are severe, growing and complicated. Are we as conservationists developing relevant strategies, or are we doing business as usual? Is our science exploring the right questions? Are we ready to redefine success beyond the protected area?

Based on my recent travels there, I think we have a long way to go, and some old habits to shed. Yes, Hustai National Park is awe-inspiring. But practicing business as usual in Mongolia — protecting wildlife, but ignoring society — will destroy our credibility and miss a golden opportunity not just for conservation, but for the country as well. Mongolia gives conservation a chance to take people seriously, if we can figure out how to do that.

“Mongolia is a litmus test for conservation’s new intention to value human well-being — and to bring value to people’s lives. Are we developing relevant strategies, or doing business as usual?” – Peter Kareiva

The good news: Mongolia’s current government is well disposed to such an effort. Sanjaasürengiin Oyuun, the current minister of environment and green development, is a brilliant geologist who entered politics after her brother, a pro-democracy leader, was murdered in 1998. The government is attempting to limit mining in areas of high conservation value, and its political leaders have embraced a strategy of development by design, where the amount of land under conservation grows even as the economy grows.

In essence, the government brokers deals with big global corporations so that, in exchange for permission to mine in one area, in addition to royalties, the nation gets a large set-aside in some other area or a restoration project that protects species and habitats conservationists care about. And we in conservation generally applaud these efforts. Certainly, they are better than an unregulated free-for-all.

Ger, Mongolia.
Photo: Jen Molnar
Ger, Mongolia.

But Mongolia’s current administration is increasingly under fire from political opponents who claim that restrictions on mining are slowing economic development at the expense of the country’s poor. And there are many poor: More than one-quarter of Mongolia’s youth is unemployed, and over one-third of the population lives below the national poverty line.

The growing income disparity is perhaps even more troubling — the Gini coefficient grew by more than 20% in the last decade. Ulaanbaatar, the capital city and really the only city in Mongolia, says it all. Modern high rises and Louis Vuitton stores are interspersed with traditional ger settlements with no running water and without access to modern sewage. Almost one-half of the people living in Ulaanbaatar must walk with pails to get water from wells — no easy task in the frigid winters. Air pollution is also so severe in Ulaanbaatar that nearly 1,600 people there die each year due to air-quality related illnesses.

But enter the ger on the remote Mongolian grassland. What does the 61-year old man living here want for his granddaughter? He wants her to go to the city to attend school, get a good job — and not be a herder. It makes sense: Overgrazing combined with climate change and water stress has recently pushed pasture yields down by 20% to 30%, which puts herder livelihoods at risk.

And conservation is completely out of touch with this complex mix of increasing poverty, inequality, pollution and urban migration fueled by desire for modern amenities.

If you look at the websites of conservation organizations and listen to conservation leaders talking about traditional people in countries like Mongolia, you will hear genuine concern — but also a romantic view of pastoral lifestyles. Western conservationists celebrate teaching a group of Mongolian herders how to better manage their lands. But what many herders want is for their children to leave behind the grinding work and brutal cold of the grassland in exchange for the comforts of a modern apartment and a job in the city.

Conservation strategies and scientific inquiries in Mongolia are well intentioned and seem to be reasonably effective. But they also miss the point:

  • Can conservationists have any credibility with Mongolians if they fail to address the herder’s dream of education and advancement?
  • What good is conservation-friendly mining if we do not also pay attention to the environment of Ulaanbaatar and other cities here?
  • And what support will conservation have if restrictions on mining are so severe that many residents of Ulaanbaatar are delayed access to water and sewage for an extra decade? Are we willing to gamble that Mongolia is willing to bear that cost?

In my recent travels there, I heard many young Mongolians worry that economic development is being advanced in Mongolia at the expense of equity. Other youth worry that too much environmental restriction will reduce their chances for improving their own lives, and maybe owning an apartment someday. Still other worry that the deals cut with mining companies are too sweet and do not adequately protect wild nature. While many mining operations here behave responsibly, some release cyanide and arsenic into the waters, and at least 30 of Mongolia’s large rivers are polluted.

Herders drive their horses in Must, Khovd Province, Mongolia.

So: Have we framed our conservation science questions to address the worries of Mongolia’s youth, as opposed to our worries? Do we have any idea whether our policy interventions enhance or reduce inequity? Equity and fairness may not matter to the snow leopard — but they matter to most Mongolians, and they should matter to us as we make our deals with mining companies in the interest of nature protection.

But while academic studies of coupled human-natural resources in Mongolia are increasingly common, the papers strike me as sterile and often disconnected from the urgent questions of human-natural systems as seen here. The science questions we are posing in Mongolia are still wildlife-centric, with scant exploration of how alternative social investments or technological investments might produce very different futures.

“Instead of simply asking how we can ‘do conservation that benefits people,’ we should be asking what new knowledge will make the greatest difference to both nature and people.” – Peter Kareiva

Do we know what type of innovation and technology would best serve Mongolian people and the wild camels of the Gobi? Should we speak out about the coal-fired power plants in Ulaanbaatar, or only worry about the Mongolian gazelles in the eastern steppe? Is what happens to people in Ulaanbaatar in any way linked to the future of wildlife on the eastern steppe? Are there useful comparisons to be made between the environmental path of Mongolia and those taken by other developing countries?

A dirt road meanders past a ger in Mongolia.
Photo: Jen Molnar
A dirt road meanders past a ger in Mongolia.

Instead of simply asking how we can “do conservation that benefits people,” we should be asking what new knowledge will make the greatest difference to both nature and people. What is the equivalent of the human genome project for conservation — something that would transform conservation science so it could genuinely deliver a promising future to the natural majesty of Mongolia and to the education and development of the Mongolian people?

Conservation has gotten into the unfortunate habit of playing defense — protecting this species or habitat from that impeding threat. But playing defense with our science is not going to shape Mongolia’s future; it is only going to win some battles for some species in some places, and perhaps only temporarily. Trying to make a distinction between conservation for biodiversity and conservation for people here — as in so many places — makes no sense. Mongolia needs a conservation science that goes on the offensive, to address the full interplay of nature and people. And with only such a science can we hope to help Mongolia.

September 24, 2013. The views expressed above are the author’s and should not be taken as those of SNAP or its member organizations.

Peter Kareiva

Peter Kareiva is the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy — where he is responsible for developing and helping to implement science-based conservation throughout the organization and for forging new linkages with partners — and the acting director of SNAP. Read More