Shepherding Tradition

Mongolia, November 25, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

The title of "Master Herder" is reserved for a select few across Mongolia. It conjures up a distinct image: an aged but still eminently capable man dressed in traditional robes, standing on the vast steppes, exercising an almost mystical control over his livestock.

There is much truth in that perception. After all, Mongolia is a place where the herding and care of animals isn't only a centuries-old tradition, but also critical to family health, income and survival. Master Herders are not only the keepers of customs, but also the guardians of nomadic families' present-day success.

But here in a nomad camp in Mongolia's southernmost province, the Master Herder is dressed in a black velvet jacket, grey corduroy pants and blue hiking boots. Her name is Surenjav. She's 29 years old.

Opportunity to grow

In this world of wizened herdsmen, how did Surenjav become a Master Herder in charge of more than 2,000 livestock — including 250 camels — at such a young age?

"I've known how to work with camels since I was a child," she said. "My experience with herding helped me run our group of herding families more efficiently. Visits from Mercy Corps-supported veterinarians help keep our herd healthy. And trainings conducted have helped me to better organize and manage our business."

Mercy Corps' Gobi Initiative is helping traditional herders like Surenjav get the training and other help they need to compete in Mongolia's expanding economy, as well as cope with the constant challenges of life in the desert. Technology is making inroads, even in some of Mongolia's most isolated areas: banking is conducted over cell phones and daily market prices for livestock products are broadcast over the radio. The Gobi Initiative works with nomads to harness these new innovations.

Surenjav is one of Mercy Corps' newest clients in this part of Omnogovi province, a picturesque section of the Gobi Desert punctuated by rust-orange rock formations known as the Bayanzag, or "Flaming Cliffs." Her herding group — Bayanzag — takes its name from the nearby natural wonder.

Milking camelsPhoto: Thatcher Cook for Mercy CorpsThe group — four households with eight adults total — sells fresh camel milk, cheese and wool all over the area, as well as providing breeding stock for other herding families. Part of the milk is donated to a local school as part of a lunch program. They've won many regional awards for their herds — including "best breed" and "best baby camel" — and hang the medals proudly from the poles of their traditional dwellings. But they're most proud of the progress they've made as a business since beginning collaboration with Mercy Corps earlier this year.

"Before we started working with Mercy Corps, we didn't know how to keep good accounting records to determine our monthly sales and turnover. For the most part, no cash is used in our daily local economy — it's always been trade-based," Surenjav said. "But now we're able to be more precise with our bookkeeping and see not only what we've done, but also the opportunities for growth."

Growth is definitely on the horizon. For the upcoming year, the group is projecting sales of 1.4 tons of camel wool for about US$2,600; approximately 3.5 tons of camel milk for more than US$2,500; and meat sales totaling at least US$1,700. They will also make another few hundred dollars a year from trade fairs, camel racing and other competitions.

Mercy Corps is helping Surenjav's group manage their accounts and growth in the short term: each month, they submit their ledgers to the local Mercy Corps office for review, as well as monitoring and evaluation to determine how the program is performing across the area.

Surenjav is certainly grateful to have Mercy Corps supporting her growing group of herders, but her most trusted advisor is her 98-year-old grandmother, who still gets out to milk the camels.

The wisdom of generations

Surenjav's grandmother, Uruvjin, is the oldest citizen in this part of Mongolia. She's been a camel breeder and herder for her entire life. She has two children and about 30 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all of whom are involved in the family business.

"The temee [Mongolian for "camel"] is the most suitable animal for this part of the desert. It requires little water," Uruvjin explained. "But the art is slowly disappearing. My granddaughter is helping keep it alive."

Uruvjin is a daily voice in the herding group's decisions. She knows the best times — and places — to move the livestock on to new pastures. And, according to her, finding good grazing land isn't easy these days.

"Back in my youth, there were much better pastures and vegetation. Now, every year it's getting worse," she said. "The pastures are diminishing, water sources are disappearing and the desert is expanding."

Climate change is a fact of life here; Uruvjin has seen irrefutable proof over her lifetime. But the wisdom she's handing down — combined with modern-day business training and technology from Mercy Corps — are giving a young Master Herder and her group the help they need to not only cope and adapt, but succeed.