Darhad Mongolia — Community-based Conservation Creating Sustainable Wildlife and Livelihoods

The Darhad Region supports highly vulnerable wildlife species, including snow leopard, argali, brown bear and musk deer. In 2012, in response to devastating illegal mining and poaching, three contiguous protected areas under the Ulaan Taiga Protected Areas Administration (UTPAA), encompassing 1.6 million hectares, were established with broad support among the region’s local inhabitants, the Darhad, Khalkh, Buryat, and reindeer herding Tuvans.

There is currently, however, increasing local frustration about the national management of the parks and local management by soums (county) of the communal valley lands, creating the need to restore a sense of shared ownership and valuation of the diverse lands and regional biodiversity. Additionally, limited inter-generational transfer of traditional knowledge and cultural values creates a fragile future for this once thriving bio-cultural system, which has historically sustained rich biodiversity and sustainable agricultural economies. Research completed reveals a desire by local government, community members/herders, and UTPAA to promote conservation of wildlife and healthy environments. This project convenes these stakeholders to create a sense of shared ownership in conservation, revitalize sustainability cultures, and improve livelihoods.

Traditionally, Mongolians in the Darhad have a strong environmental ethic and indigenous environmental science system that can and should provide for local sustainable livelihoods and healthy environments that include resilient biodiversity. The advent of capitalism, the arrival of western-style protected areas, and changes in education and internet access have eroded some of these connections, creating conflict over appropriate land use, accentuating poverty, and driving people towards unsustainable resource use levels and poaching for cash. These social and cultural factors combined with climate-induced changes are accelerating environmental degradation on communal lands surrounding the Park, leading to declining native biodiversity habitats and potential population expansions.

The degradation of the bio-cultural system of the Darhad is evidenced by the frustration of the local communities, high levels of poverty, areas of degraded landscapes, declining wildlife populations in communal landscapes, and increasing emigration of youth from the region to the cities. The weakening of the bio-cultural system will inevitably result in environmental degradation as agricultural management becomes unlinked from traditional environmental knowledge systems that provide environmental sustainability in these northern landscapes.

Changing these dynamics requires understanding contemporary challenges for sustainable livelihoods, re-establishing local ownership of conservation and land/wildlife stewardship, creating trust and new arenas for collaboration, and inter-generational transfer of cultural ownership. Our work’s foundation relies on facilitating a process to engage local communities, local governments, and Park management in identifying shared environmental and economic values and goals, identifying barriers to sustainable livelihoods, and developing feasible and incremental strategies to overcome these barriers.

Phase One: Information collection and strengthening relationships

  • Develop a full team, including local team and Community Advisory Board. Local team members will include field technicians to work with senior project personnel. The advisory board will consist of critical local individuals to guide research and implementation efforts.  Both the technical and advisory teams will reflect different ethnic, age, and gender groups.
  • Collect information on the community values, interests, and challenges related to land, wildlife, and other resources affecting poverty and local livelihoods’ sustainability. We will conduct small-group interviews to identify livelihood challenges and opportunities, with specific reference to the protected areas. Interviews will identify experiences and perceptions regarding the protected areas, wildlife, major livelihood issues, mapping of land use areas and interests, and developing mechanisms for income generation. Interviews will be conducted across >20% of the Darhad population, focusing on the inclusion of different ethnicities,, age, and gender groups.
  • Support and strengthen traditional bio-cultural systems, including sustainable agricultural practices and knowledge systems focused on community and cultural relationship to and valuing of the land and biodiversity. Activities will include cultural activities, activities with schools, and online media focused on biodiversity, educational materials that incorporate scientific and traditional knowledge, and inter-generational knowledge transfer and relationship building.

Phase Two: Identifying shared interests and strategies to support local livelihoods

  • Stakeholder workshops will develop priority activities for sustainable economic development. These workshops will be open to broad participation, but we will target outreach to include representation from all ethnic, age, and gender groups. The sessions will include mapping of land use areas and interests integrating prior interview mapping, providing information for shared ownership management plans including seasonal herding requirements, and community activities such as festivals and business endeavours such as tourism.

Phase Three: Implementation and monitoring

  • Implement incremental steps to advance sustainable local livelihoods based on community-identified strategies in Phase 2 and identify funding or other resource requirements to advance these poverty alleviation strategies.
  • Identify and establish mechanisms for monitoring the success of the identified strategies for reducing poverty, increasing sustainability of local livelihoods, and improving biodiversity conservation.
  • Identify and establish local monitoring of biodiversity health indicators including indicators of soil health in agricultural areas as well as highly vulnerable wildlife species, with wildlife monitoring capacity and collaboration primarily through recruitment and retention of Rangers working for UTPAA and the soums.