ANU Students in Mongolia: Post No. 2 ‘Mongolian Horse Racing’

Mongolian Horse Racing: tradition or tragedy?

By Melissa Duffy

Photo: ‘Naadam’ by Paulo Fassina (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Attending The Naadam

According to the Mongolian Tourism Industry, Mongolia is ‘the land of horse riders and horse lovers with at least one horse for every Mongolian, meaning there are over 3 million horses (MTI 2017).

I was fortunate to attend a local Naadam festival event and for the first time witnessed one of the epic Mongolian horse races. Mongolia’s horse races are between 15-30km long, depending upon the age of the horse. Jockeys are often children between seven and twelve years old and the horses must have a high level of endurance and stamina.

I spent quite a bit of time standing back absorbing the atmosphere, watching the Mongolian riders parading around in groups (I assume herding families and friends enjoying the catch-up time), showing off their riding skills and their horses. They were having such a great time just being together and enjoying the community event. The traditional clothing was beautiful, people were relaxed and smiling and even the horses seemed to be ‘talking’ to one another.

When someone got word the jockeys were nearing the end of the 20km race everyone ran or rode to the finish line and waited with much anticipation. A group of young boys and men gathered on their horses. As they were mounted up high they were some of the first to see the racehorses appear over the horizon to which in chorus they started calling loudly. Exhausted jockeys and horses responded to the calls and pushed hard to the finish line.

According to Mongolian tourism, at the National Naadam, the five winning horses from every official race receive awards and medals. The riders receive gifts and the trainers, significant monetary awards and titles. Mongolians do not bet on horse races, it is all about the pride and victory of continuing a long tradition. It is also more about the horses than the riders. Names and titles are important and can indicate if the horses have won a race before. If a horse has won more than four State Naadams, which is very rare, then the horse is said to belong to all the people of Mongolia and given the title State horse.

Environmental challenges linked to Mongolian herding culture, such as harsh winter weather and living conditions, highlight the traditional importance of being a skilled rider to a family’s survival. I therefore thought it was only natural to hear Mongolian children from an early age learn to ride and it seemed like a natural progression that a national sport would be centred on this craft. However tensions arise between the beautiful traditions of Mongolian culture, modern day racing and global human rights agendas.

Photo: Bulgan Naadam, by ‘WhatsAllThisThen’ (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

The welfare of the child

As part of our intensive field course, during visits to the Mongolian Red Cross and Save the Children, we were briefed on issues concerning child poverty, child labour, abuse and living standards. Some believe that, around the time of transition to democracy and a market economy, Mongolia’s horse racing tradition has been tainted by greed, corruption and ambition at the expense of vulnerable children and poor families. Many human rights activists are now expressing concern over the rise and proliferation of commercial horse racing involving child jockeys.

An academic article by Rebecca Empson emphasises the accumulation of wealth and the dangers of excess in a market economy in modern day Mongolia and the subsequent increase in morally suspect practices (Empson 2012). To many, Mongolian horse racing is a growing example of a morally suspect practice. International organizations such as UNICEF continue to voice concern over child jockeys in horse racing (Brown 2014). In May 2006, for the first time, the issue of child jockeys was discussed at the National Forum of Child Jockeys, organised jointly by the National Department for Children, National Human Rights Commission and National Sports Committee of Mongolia with financial and technical support from ILO’s International Programme to Eliminate Child Labour (IPEC) (ILO 2006). 

According to the National Human Rights Commission Mongolia (NHRCM) more than 30,000 child jockeys compete in horse races each year (ILO 2006). It is now law that children below the age of seven are no longer allowed to ride in the Naadam, although many children still know how to ride horses by the age of three. In Naadams, officially organised by the Mongolian Horse Trainer’s Association, all trainers are now required to provide riders with helmets, protective clothing and accident insurance. However, there are many reports describing the lack of adherence to such laws in the countryside and a blind eye is often turned when younger riders’ race and things like provision of accident insurance is ignored.

Broken legs, head injuries and facial damage are common and child deaths occur with added risk of being trampled after a fall during a race. With no insurance for jockeys that can no longer ride, already desperate families can be thrown into further economic and psychological despair. According to child rights defenders, children can be hired informally to take part for as little as a bicycle, a set of schoolbooks, or up to 150,000 tugriks (AUSD110) and, while the rider goes uninsured, winning horses may be insured for millions of tugriks (Brown 2014). Ownership of livestock is an important measure of success for rural voters, many of whom continue to lead traditional pastoral lives. Riders are often sponsored by local politicians, who also promote their personal ownership of race horses during their campaigns (South China Morning Post).

I can see that, as a country with strong cultural heritage and identity, it is important to acknowledge Mongolian traditions, but at the same time in my view, exploitation of children is not acceptable and it appears further advocacy is required in Mongolia when it comes to horse racing.

 

References

Mongolian Tourism Industry 2017. Naadam Festival Horse Racing Brochure.

Empson, Rebecca 2012. ‘The Dangers of Excess: Accumulating and Dispersing Fortune in Mongolia’ Social Analysis 56.1 (2012): 117-132.

Brown, Andy 2014. ‘In Mongolia, bringing attention to the plight of child jockeys’ <https://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/mongolia_76668.html>, viewed 10 July 2017.
International Labor Organization (ILO), 2006. ‘Mongolian child jockeys- balancing cultural heritage with safety’ < http://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_071483/lang–en/index.htm>, viewed 10 July 2017.

Lkhagvasuren, Nomin 2013. ‘Mongolian child jockeys race to danger’ < https://www.news.com.au/world/breaking-news/mongolian-child-jockeys-race-to-danger/news-story/f59f14305c80530ae93e733c753d8773>, viewed 10 July 2017.

Brown, Andy 2014. ‘In Mongolia, bringing attention to the plight of child jockeys’ <https://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/mongolia_76668.html>, viewed 10 July 2017.

South China Morning Post ‘Conflicts of interest keep Mongolian child jockeys in the saddle’ <http://www.scmp.com/news/world/article/2077844/conflicts-interest-keep-mongolian-child-jockeys-saddle>, viewed 10 July 2017.

 

ANU Students in Mongolia: Post No. 1. ‘Mining & Dining’

As part of an ANU Mongolia Institute course, twelve students traveled to Mongolia to participate in the intensive study tour ‘Modern Mongolia: challenges to the environment, economy and empire’, coordinated by Prof. Li Narangoa and Dr Jack Fenner. MongolInk will feature a series of posts written by students during their field experience in Mongolia in July 2017. The first post is by Savanna Pilgrim.

Visiting Baga Nuur mine. Photo: Savanna Pilgrim

Mining & Dining: Thoughts about female employment in the Mongolian mining sector from the Baga Nuur cafeteria

I was lucky enough to be a part of a group of ANU students who visited Mongolia on a winter school field trip, exploring the country that is modern Mongolia. On July 5, as a group, we made our first trek out of the big city of Ulaanbaatar towards the yet-to-be explored Mongolian countryside. After an hour of driving our view of green mountains and valleys was interrupted by what some in the group dubbed ‘Mongolia’s Uluru’, or what is otherwise known as the Baga Nuur mine. We were visiting the mine site, one of the country’s largest, to learn more about mining within Mongolia and the ways in which it has been relevant to the economic development of Mongolia in the past, in addition to how it will be important in the future.

 

As a part of the trip, we had each chosen a research area to explore, of which mine was female participation and equality in Mongolia’s post-socialist era. The relevance of this topic was clear to me when we were dining with the Mongolian miners in the mine’s cafeteria; whilst the room was bulging with male miners there appeared to be very few female miners. The reality of the gender divide of workers at the mine was made clear later in our tour when a guide informed us that, of the mine’s 1100 employees, only 150 of them were women. That is a participation rate of one female to seven males.

 

Female employment and participation in the Mongolian mining sector is interesting to considering for a number of reasons. Both historically and contemporarily Mongolia is a country that is typically discussed as having high gender equality. In many respects this is true, particularly in equal employment and education access terms. Women make up over 60% of university students, and go on to dominate fields, such as medicine and legal practices (Rossabi 2005). Mining, however, is very different. In 1999, the Mongolian Labour Law was enacted and Article 101.1, which prohibited female employment in a number of ‘dangerous’ sectors, including mining. This law was in spite of Mongolia’s 1999 signing of and commitment to the United Nations’ Convention Against Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in which economic rights are specifically codified (Ellis & Ellison 2015). This deprivation of employment rights within the mining sector is significant given that Mongolia’s mining sector is the nation’s fastest growing and highest paying industry. The mining sector currently makes up over 80% of the nation’s exports and 30% of government revenue, whilst miners make 2.5 times the national average monthly wage (Mongolian Economy Journal 2014). The ban on female participation in the field specifically excludes women from access to this area of flourishing growth and employment, based on a view of needing to keep women ‘safe’ (Khan 2013).

 

The Labour Laws in regards to female employment were reversed in 2008 by Mongolia’s federal parliament (Khan 2013, 8). This theoretically granted women greater access to the mining industry and the large-scale economic benefits the sector provides. Yet, despite the opening of economic opportunities, the female employment rate in the Mongolian mining sector is only currently between 5-10%. This is despite the fact that university graduates in geology (the main group employed in the mining sector) are overwhelmingly women (Ellis & Ellison 2015). Why is there such low female representation in the sector? International Labour Organisation (ILO) research suggests that women are not encouraged to work in mining, despite the economic benefits it could have, due to ongoing social pressure for women to be protected from ‘unsuitable’ and ‘unsafe’ jobs. Furthermore, ILO studies show that mining companies in Mongolia claim they prefer male candidates for jobs and prefer women to fill service, support and administrative positions (Khan 2016).

 

Given Mongolia’s reputation, as being a largely gender equal country, it would be encouraging to see action taken to rectify this ongoing issue of lack of female employment within the mining sector. Khan (2013) suggests the industry should: 1. Enforce the Law on Gender Equality (2011), 2. Promote a healthy and safe workplace environment for all individuals, 3. Enforce sexual harassment laws and create awareness of respect for gender equality, and 4. Create a mandate for companies to report employment practices and policies. Through such changes it could be possible for increased gender equality to occur within Mongolia’s mining sector.

 

With Mongolia’s mining sector predicted to only continue to grow in the decades to come, it would be disappointing and limiting to continue to see a lack of female employment in a sector where women have the rights and skill capacity to work. It will be interesting to see what changes occur in the future.

 

SOURCES:

Ellis, E. & Ellison, M., 2015. “Women in mining: will Mongolia’s proposed new Labour Law encourage greater participation by women?” https://www.expertguides.com/articles/women-in-mining-will-mongoliasproposed-new-labour-law-encourage-greater-participation-by-women/arlillic (accessed 7 July 2017).

Khan, T., 2013. Mongolia: Raising Female Participation in the Large Scale Mining Sector (No. 16499). The World Bank.

Mongolian Economy Journal. 2014. “Average Wage stands at MNT 760 000” http://mongolianeconomy.mn/en/i/6014 (accessed 7 July 2017).

Rossabi, M., 2005. “Women in Modern Mongolia” http://asiasociety.org/education/women-modern-mongolia (accessed on 15 June 2017).

Susanna Pilgrim is a fourth year Bachelor of International Relations/Arts student. She also works at the ANU as the Coordinator of the ANU Learning Communities, a student-led group, which seeks to engage both the ANU and broader Canberra communities in ongoing community-focused learning and development opportunities. 

 

 

Changes in the Mongolian Countryside

 

This year I spent some valuable time filming in the countryside during the Mongolian spring, from March until May. Changes in the Mongolian countryside are not as immediately evident as the rapid development of infrastructure and the polluted and clogged roads of the capital, Ulaanbaatar. When we drove into the river valley I had come to know so well, there were still ger (yurts) dotted in the same sheltered locations, while herds still grazed near the icy riverbanks.

When I was conducting fieldwork in the Khangai Mountains of Mongolia during 2005 and again in the spring of 2007, it was complicated to get into and out of remote herding encampments. The occasional herder had access to Russian motorbikes but they relied primarily on horses to visit neighbouring encampments, to ride to local Naadam festivals during the summer, and to herd the sheep, goats, cattle (including yaks) and horses. I relied on one of the herders with a coveted Russian jeep to get in and out. Often as many as twelve people would pack into the jeep with me, alongside dairy products and animal hides. Upon my return, the driver of the jeep joked about how many people would come along with me for the ride. Now almost every encampment has some form of motorised transport, making them less reliant on their horses.

I felt a stab of nostalgia when I found that the hand-made wooden carts that were used for moving peoples’ belongings during seasonal migrations were now only used as drying racks for dairy products, or left discarded and broken. I was told that Ulaanaa was the last ox used by one of the families I lived with. Ulaanaa, a large red ox, was remarkably complacent (nomkhon) and I would often lead him, with the wooden cart and water barrel, to collect water from the river. Ancestors of the family would have worked with oxen, just like Ulaanaa, for such tasks for centuries, possibly even thousands of years.

With such marked changes within ten years, I realised it was important to record herders riding about on horseback. The communication of a person on horseback is remarkable, as the horse intuitively knows to respond to a herder’s body language but not to the lasso-pole (uurga) held in front of its head, or to vocalisations directed at the herd. For Mongolians that still predominantly herd on horseback, much of the day is spent with an individual horse, following the tracks, signs and occasional vocalisations of the roaming herds across the mountainous landscape.

Spring snowstorms can be lethal for newborn animals. It is important for herders to check the herds and to make sure none are snowbound, or too far away from shelter. The video segment above (see: https://vimeo.com/228131918) was filmed using a GoPro camera fixed onto a young herder’s hat. Monkho must have forgotten his uurga, so uses an improvised stick from a nearby tree to signal to the herd. The calls and whistles differ depending upon whether he is communicating with the yak or horse herd, whether he is vocalising to the herd as a whole, or an individual animal. He says ‘chu, chu’ softly to a young foal when trying to redirect it back to the rest of the herd.

Just as has occurred throughout much of the world, people turn to the ease of motorised transport in favour of working with horses. If Mongolian herders increasingly rely on motorbikes to herd in future, some of the unique modes of communication with their herd animals will inevitably change, and the depth of knowledge relating to such close daily contact with horses may be lost.

Dr Natasha Fijn

Fejos Fellow in Ethnographic Film, Wenner-Gren Foundation (2017)

Mongolia Institute, The Australian National University

Are There Human Health Risks in Groundwater in Inner Mongolia?

Groundwater is an essential freshwater resource for many people in dry, remote, and sparsely populated regions. In the summer of 2015 and 2016 we observed the water quality of groundwater within an environmental science study and carried out questionnaires and spoken surveys about their lifestyle within an anthropological study in Inner Mongolia. The survey was conducted with local herders as citizen scientists. Before observations, the herders were trained in how to sample groundwater, how to use a measurement kit and how to take relevant notes.

 

People who live in Inner Mongolia have been required to settle due to the Chinese government’s land use system, established in the 1960’s. The herders began to heavily rely on groundwater as a means of survival. They could no longer use water from other sources, such as river water or snowmelt. In addition, along with economic development, people have begun digging several wells on their properties, which results in groundwater pollution caused by contaminants. This has become a serious problem in many of the areas we have conducted research; in fact we observed fluoriosis during our 2016 research. High levels of livestock waste were also observed around several wells, causing high nitrate ion concentrations in the groundwater.

 

Within a previous study in the South Gobi, our research indicated that, if groundwater is drunk by herders, the fluoride and nitrate ions in the groundwater posed a serious risk to human health. From the very beginning, we have only concentrated on the fluoride and nitrate ions in groundwater in order to estimate the human health risk levels to the population. In order to understand, not only water quality, but also eating habits, the herders’ lifestyle is essential for human health risk assessment. Our results reflect the potential health risks surrounding the drinking of groundwater within the herder population. Thanks to a combination of environmental science and ethnographic research, in collaboration with citizen scientists, this has been the strength of our research.

 

Results from our analysis found that fifty percent of the Mongolian herding population may be at risk, caused by fluoride ions in the groundwater and ten percent could be at risk to their health from increased nitrate ions in the groundwater. The local government has already provided water-filtering systems to some low-income families in the area. The herding community saythat they tried to use this system but they couldn’t use it effectively because the water flow of the system was very slow. They also say that the groundwater looks deceptively clean. Our results indicate that it is important to inform residents about the human health risks of drinking polluted groundwater and to provide the opportunity to think about how to reduce the health risks which may have already occurred through drinking contaminated groundwater.

Researching the quality of groundwater in herding communities in Inner Mongolia.

Research by Koyomi Nakazawa (Fukuoka Institute of Technology), Osamu Nagafuchi (Fukuoka Institute of Technology), Wuqirilteu (Australian National University), Koji Kanefuji (The Institute of Statistical Mathematics), Yi jin (Echoing Steppe NGO), Chen Ji-qun (Echoing Steppe NGO), Sasiqin (Inner Mongolia Agricultural University).

The Spectre of Pan-Mongolism

Sitting in the reading room at the National Library of Buryatia on a hot Monday afternoon in late June 2016, a burst of song erupts from down in the small city square of Ulaan Üde outside. People are singing the Russian national anthem because it is Russia Day, a national holiday celebrating the new constitution adopted after the fall of the USSR in the early 1990s. Russia day is not only immensely patriotic, it is genuinely very popular. Thus, there seemed something uncannily jarring when I came across news that in April 2016 a thirty-three-year-old Buryat-Mongolian man from Ulaan Üde, Vladimir Khagdaev, had been charged for threatening the integrity of the Russian Federation by stirring up political dissent online on VK, the Russian version of Facebook. He had been accused of advocating for something which has not been heard in a very long time indeed. The concept of Pan-Mongolism.

Pan-Mongolism was a term coined in the late nineteenth century by Mikhail Solovyev, a Russian mystic. Channelling the expanse and power of the mediaeval Mongol Empire, Solovyev dreamt of a future Eurasian state “from the Altai to Malaysian shores”. In the early twentieth century Central Asia was rocked by the crumbling of the Qing Empire and the Russian Revolution and the Civil War that followed. Pan-Mongolism came to take on a very different meaning for educated Buryat-Mongols such as Tseveen Zhamtsarano and Elbegdorji Rinchino. It was reappropriated as a post-colonial, nationalist self-determination towards a state that united all Mongolic peoples. A twentieth century Mongol Empire redux. A progressive nation state channelling the legitimacy of the past through western modernisation and communism. Both Japan and the USSR supported such movements during the Russian Civil War. This culminated not only in support from Moscow and the Buryat intelligentsia to provoke communist revolution in Outer Mongolia in 1921. It precipitated the rather bizarre formation of two competing and confusingly similar Buryat-Mongol and Mongol-Buryat Republics around Lake Baikal in 1923. By early 1924 Japan’s interest was withdrawn and the White Russian Mongol-Buryat Republic collapsed. Thereafter both were united into a shared Buryat-Mongol Soviet Republic.

Soviet authorities never really forgot about this strange Mongolic dream. In the late 1930s the USSR became increasingly inward looking, fearing sabotage, spies and nationalist reaction in its midst. Once again the term Pan-Mongolism returned. However, this time it was as a pejorative for a movement that no longer existed, except in the minds of Soviet elites. Zhamtsarano, Rinchino and many others were imprisoned and murdered in 1937 on trumped up charges for being secret Japanese spies bent on an imagined Pan-Mongolist enterprise. Moscow even went as far as to break up the Buryat-Mongol Republic into three separate states. The largest of these was also compelled to drop the word Mongol from its title in the early 1940s to become merely the Republic of Buryatia.

Photo of Vladimir Khagdaev in IXTC article, April 2016. Source: http://www.ixtc.org/2016/04/sledstvennyy-komitet-obyavil-voynu-panmongolizmu/

Once again, in May 1948 accusations of Pan-Mongolism arose when the secretary of Buryatia, Alexandr Kudryavtsev, invited the republic’s academics, media workers and propagandic arm to a special meeting. This was in conjunction with a touted six hundred year jubilee celebration of the mythological epic hero Geser. Although Tibetan in origin and a very common figure throughout Central Asia, Geser possessed an important place in academic understandings of the history of Buryat history and culture. As the USSR attempted to create national communist cultures in its republics, scholars had to prove that there was a history of proletarian revolt against religious and secular authority embedded in their folk literature. Yet, at the same time, studying the evil feudal past of khans and gods left one open to accusations of idealising reactionary ideas.

According to Kudryavtsev’s logic if the Buryat Geser epic tradition was too close to Khalkha Mongolian versions, it was worthless for a genuine national celebration of Buryat culture. It was pure Pan-Mongolism. If it was six hundred years old, as most scholars at the time estimated, then this dated the Buryat Geser to the period of the Mongol Empire. This would equally make it Pan-Mongolist feudalist nonsense. A popular idea at the time was that Geser might even represent a mythologised version of Chingis Khan. Chingis was the absolute bete noir of figures such as Kudryavtsev. Nothing was worse than this mediaeval, mass-murdering barbarian. But the worst factor was this. The idea that Geser was the Buryat national epic had been developed by Mongolist Nikolas Poppe, who had defected to the Nazis in 1941. Poppe’s intentions were reimagined by paranoid authorities as part of a “Hitlerite spy” network of Nazis trying to provoke nationalist reaction among the Mongolic peoples. Pan-Mongolism once again. Geser was doomed.

It was not until 1989, at the thawing of the USSR under perestroika that Buryat academics began to consider even collective Buryat identity seriously once again. Between 1991 and 1995, during some of the hardest years of the post-soviet transition, a series of Geseriada festivals were held throughout Buryatia and Irkutsk. Pinned to them were appeals for the renewal of Buryat language, culture and of course the reunity of the Buryat-Mongol state that had been cleaved apart in the 1930s. There was a great deal of hopefulness, but after all the celebrations, no Pan-Buryat reunification ever happened. Certainly no one was thinking about anything as ambitious as Pan-Mongolism.

Many Buryat scholars now look back at this Geseriada period very fondly, as a period of nostalgic pride. Yet, Pan-Mongolism doesn’t exist as a serious political movement any more than Pan-Buryat identity might even during the biennial international Buryat folk festival Altargana. Thus, for Pan-Mongolism to reappear once more and to be viewed as a serious threat in 2016 is bizarre. It means that the same old paranoid narratives about Mongol secession from Russia that have coloured the past century continue. Pan-Mongolism as a myth, however fantastical, isn’t quite dead yet.

Image used for the thirteen locations in Buryatia, Irkutsk, Ust’-Orda and Chita in which the 1991-5 Geseriada jubilee took place. Buryaad Ünen newspaper, June 1995.

Part II of two linked blog posts by Jonathan Ratcliffe. Jonathan is a PhD Candidate in Asian History and a member of the Mongolia Institute, ANU.