Informal life politics in Mongolia

Resource development projects have brought severe contamination and destruction to the ecological environment across the grasslands of Mongolia. The everyday life and livelihood of local residents, including herding communities, is under excessive threat. Grassroots action to protect the grasslands and livelihoods have become increasingly strident in response to this escalating environmental pollution. My research focuses on case studies of informal life politics in Mongolia, including the country of Mongolia (Outer Mongolia) and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China (Inner Mongolia). Both regions have experienced rapid industrialization over the past decade, which involved a huge number of large-scale resource development projects

Along with environmental degradation in Inner Mongolia in the late 1990s, grassroots environmental protection activities have gradually emerged and developed. It expanded slowly to fight against industrial pollution on the grasslands and to protect herdsmen’s rights on their own land. This is an open network which involves people from different walks of life, such as local herdsmen, educated youth from Beijing, young ethnic Mongolians living in cities, professors, people from environmental NGOs and public interest law firms. The network plays an important role in linking environmental activities in diverse forms and various locations.

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Educated youth in Eastern Ujimchin grassland in the 1970s

From here, I would like to introduce a story of educated youth. The situation of industrial pollution in the grasslands and the plight of local herdsmen have caught the attention and sympathy of educated youth, city dwellers sent to live on the rural Inner Mongolian grasslands during the cultural revolution between the 1960s and 1970s. Most of them were from Beijing and therefore returned to Beijing after the Cultural Revolution.

When they saw the beautiful grassland where they lived being polluted, and their old friends and local herdsmen suffering from these changes, many educated youth stood up and actively involved themselves in grassland protection activities. One of them is Chen Jiqun, who is an artist living in Beijing. Over ten years, he travelled multiple times between Beijing and Eastern Ujimchin grassland, one thousand kilometers to the north of Beijing, to engage in a range of activities to help the herding community to win their case. He created and operated the website ‘Echoing Steppe’, to release information on the situation of industrial pollution in Eastern Ujimchin through photos and videos. Through the website, he also reports the functioning of surveillance on environment issues by the Eastern Ujimchin government. In addition, he provides herdsmen with legal assistance and helps them to conduct independent investigations. For instance, Chen Jiqun offers to help herders to contact lawyers, organize the translation of law books from Chinese to Mongolian, and distribute these books among the local community.  Meanwhile, he has facilitated collaborations between scholars from Beijing, Outer Mongolia and Korea, as well as Eastern Ujimchin local herdsmen to conduct independent investigations on industrial pollution and desertification of the grassland.

Mongolia has its own cultural and historical background, distinct from other cultural groups in the region. A study of grassroots action in Mongolia requires interpreting case studies in their historical context. Outer Mongolia and Inner Mongolia bear different and distinctive historical footprints. Inner Mongolia has adopted an economic development strategy focusing on resource development since the 1990s. Development projects in Inner Mongolia were often accompanied with a huge influx of Han immigrants into the grasslands, which has brought not only tangible damage on the environment but also intangible pressure on Mongolian language and culture.

Post by Wuqiriletu. Find out more about Wuqiriletu’s research work.

Mongolian president’s gift illustrates country’s close connection with The Australian National University

By: Spencer Haines

Recently, staff and students on the way to their classes at The Australian National University (ANU) were surprised to see that a large white yurt had been mysteriously erected just across from the Chancellery Building. This intricately carved yurt, which would appear more at home on the grassy steppes of Eurasia than on a university campus in the heart of Canberra, was an official gift given to the ANU on behalf of the President of Mongolia, His Excellency Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. It is also a tangible symbol of the strong relationship that began over a decade ago between the Embassy of Mongolia to Australia and the ANU Mongolia Institute headed by Professor Li Narangoa.

A ‘ger’ (the more accurate Mongolian name for a yurt) is the traditional dwelling used by the pastoral nomads of Eurasia since antiquity. It is a type of tent comprised of an expanding wooden circular frame surrounded by a felt cover, which makes it easy to assemble and transport. The ger is also part of Mongolians’ larger sense of national identity and the traditional craftsmanship of the Mongol Ger and its associated customs has been inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mongolia, Damba Gankhuyag, presented ANU’s ceremonial ger on 24 March 2016 in recognition of the university’s support for the teaching of Mongolian culture and language. It is the first of its kind for a university in Australia.

Australia’s interest in the “Land of the Blue Sky” has increased steadily over the past decade based on Mongolia’s rapidly expanding economy and its solid democratic credentials. As Australia’s leading centre for research on Asia, the ANU actively sought to build links with the Embassy of Mongolia to provide a focus for this growing interest. Beginning in 2010, the ANU was the first Australian university to offer a Mongolian language course. The following year, the Prime Minister of Mongolia Sukhbaataryn Batbold’s visit heralded the official founding of the Mongolian Studies Centre (the precursor to the ANU Mongolia Institute). Since its founding, Professor Li Narangoa has instigated many new initiatives with the active support of a network of interested scholars at the ANU and the Mongolian Ambassadors Ravdan Bold and Batlai Chuluunhuu. This has allowed the scope of the ANU Mongolia Institute to expand dramatically. To date the Institute has hosted three Mongolian Studies open conferences, two Mongolia Updates, as well as popular cultural events including a recent performance by a grand finalist of ‘Asia’s Got Talent,’ the ‘Khusugtun’ ethnic ballad band of Mongolia.

The connection between the Embassy of Mongolia and the ANU continues to be mutually beneficial. The Embassy of Mongolia to Australia has used its “soft diplomacy” to promote Mongolia abroad and strengthen its people-to-people ties, while the ANU Mongolia Institute has in turn become a centre of national pre-eminence. The ANU has also produced a crop of international country experts and helped undergraduates expand their knowledge about this fascinating and important country. The future of this relationship looks bright with multiple upcoming events planned for Ulaanbaatar later this year.

More information is available from the following sites.

  1. The ANU Mongolia Institute
  2. The Embassy of Mongolia to the Commonwealth of Australia

Spencer Haines is a former diplomat and a current PhD candidate in the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University. He is focusing his research on International Relations and Inner Asian History.

Erecting the ger, ANU
Erecting the ger, ANU
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Mongolian ger, ANU