Land Use Policy, Climate Change, and the Destitution of a Professional Class: How Mongolia’s Herders are Falling into Poverty and What it Might Mean for the United States

December 19, 2023 by Nicholas Mayer

In considering the role of law and policy, comparative perspectives are often useful, particularly when they relate to poverty. Every historical and present state has had to deal with parts of their populations that are either unable to meet subsistence or at risk of losing their access to subsistence. Those countries’ experiences present valuable information for policymakers here in the United States. This post calls attention to one such group, the herders of Mongolia, who were once a thriving professional class but, thanks to state policy and the effects of climate change, are increasingly falling into poverty. After examining this group, this post will draw parallels to America’s farmers — a professional class that is also starting to feel the effects of American policy choices and climate change — and potential implications for American policymakers.

The people of Mongolia have thrived off of herding since their earliest recorded history.[1] The seemingly endless grass steppe served as a wellspring for herders and the backbone for the various Khanates that dominated the region and their conquests, including and most especially the Mongol Empire.[2] Most herders engage in nomadic and semi-nomadic practices, taking their herds from one fertile area of grass to the next as the seasons change.[3] This way of living depends on access to migration routes, vast stretches of land, and water sources, making a careful balance that is easily disrupted.[4]

Feudal Mongolian leaders in the thirteenth century recognized the importance of maintaining this balance and sought to preserve it.[5] Specific detail is illustrated in the apocryphal Secret History[6], where Ögedei Khan[7] is said to have reserved the grasses of the Mongolian steppe “to the people” and ensured that hunting in the open fields was regulated, indicating that having the land be free for traditional migration and preventing overuse of the land was important to the Mongolian people at that time.[8] This attentiveness preserved itself all the way through the socialist era, where the Mongolian government carefully regulated the use of the land and the number of animals on it.[9]

The introduction of free-market capitalism in 1990 and the end of communism dramatically changed the way many herders thought of their flocks. With a focus on free market reforms, the Mongolian government was no longer interested in regulating the number of animals on the land, and explicitly began selling parcels of the steppe – a first in Mongolia’s history.[10] Further, the country suffered enormous economic shocks with the end of Soviet support and de-collectivization, leading many people who had once held industrial and service jobs to leave the settled towns and join their families in the country.[11] The number of herders increased dramatically — in 1989, before the fall of communism, nineteen percent of the population were herders; just ten years later, that number turned to fifty percent.[12] Access to schools and services are a priority for these herders, who tend to keep their flock close to the settlements, crowding out the land and leading to overgrazing.[13]

In addition to overgrazing, climate change has also begun to take a dramatic toll on Mongolian pastoralism. Among the many events that can ruin a year of difficult herding is a zud, which in Mongolian refers to a climatic event that limits grass growth, often due to a mix of extreme cold, early warmth, and drought.[14] These zuds can devastate a herder’s flock — the 2010 zud wiped out at least half of 41,000 families’ flocks, resulting in eight million dead animals.[15] A zud occurred again during the winter of 2015-2016, thanks to a drought during that previous summer.[16] Droughts like these are going to become more common — changes in precipitation, increasing desertification in the Gobi, and the continued problem of overgrazing are predicted to lead to more zuds, devastating the livelihoods of more and more herders and driving them from the countryside to the capital city.[17]

Herders can be considered wealthy despite the difficult conditions they face, but herding is a time and capital-intensive activity.[18] Many herders prefer to value their wealth in animals rather than cash, as the animals (and the tools required to take care of them) can represent the entire investment of a herder.[19] Thus, when a zud claims their flock, it often means that a herding family loses all of their wealth. All that remains is often a ger, or yurt, which the family takes with them to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, in the hopes of being able to glean a new livelihood out from the wealth of the city.[20] Former herders take on a variety of different kinds of work, ranging from prospecting in abandoned mines to informal taxi/long-haul driving.[21] These jobs happen outside of the formal economy, and net very little income — it is often extremely difficult to find a new line of work.[22]

Over time, these devastated herders have congregated together in ger districts, which often lack essential services, and people are crowded together in conditions akin to slums.[23] The smoke generated from a family’s attempt to keep themselves warm causes little problem in the countryside, but when congregated, the smoke becomes much worse. Ulaanbaatar has some of the worst air pollution in the wintertime, not due to density per se or any particularity of the geography surrounding the city, but because so many people rely on coal, tires, and any trash they can find to stay warm throughout the winter — the gers need a continuous source of fire to stay warm.[24] This naturally leads to serious health problems in the ger districts, and even the wealthier parts of the capital.[25] The jobs available to the herders, as noted, leave them no money to buy coal (a more efficient heat source), and even less to buy a more heat resistant permanent structure.[26] As overgrazing continues and zuds become more common,      more and more herders will lose all their wealth and fall into poverty, expanding the ger districts and exacerbating the public health issue at large for Ulaanbaatar.

The start of this vicious cycle seems to be playing out here in the United States with our farmers. American policy since the 1970s has encouraged growth, with the Department of Agriculture encouraging farms to “get big or get out”.[27] This certainly worked, and Americans use more land than ever.[28] At the same time, this policy drove out many small-scale farmers at the expense of the larger ones, and small-scale farms continue to report negative incomes.[29] The larger farmers may have trouble on the horizon as well — just as Mongolian herders overused the grasslands necessary to keep their flocks robust, American farmers are overusing the groundwater needed to keep our crops flowing to the market.[30]

Complicating this, the combined effect of agricultural policy goals and climate change is already hitting American farms. When heatwaves or droughts hit, the crop failure is covered by the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation — over the past two decades, South Dakota alone has received over eight billion dollars in reimbursements for weather related losses.[31] The American government’s response thus far has been to create carbon credit programs for retooling equipment and farming to be more sustainable and climate-friendly, but few farmers have done so, due to the enormous costs of retooling.[32] Like the Mongolian herders, the majority of American farmer’s capital is invested in their farm, making any kind of retooling very costly.[33] This, along with head-in-the-sand management and high costs of changing the profession seems eerily familiar to the Mongolian experience.

The troubles Americans face are certainly not the ones the Mongolian people face, and the American government and the agricultural profession could well tackle the issues before it without impoverishing American farmers as a class. However, many professions are going to be affected by the climate crisis, and American policy in all relevant areas ought to be closely examined to ensure that these professions can transition to deal with the issues before it. Mongolia’s experience indicates that it is critical to recognize that issues affecting a vulnerable economic class, like Mongolian herders or American farmers, can spill over into much larger crises without proper management. American policymakers ought to approach the climate crisis and its current policies with realistic goals that meet our vulnerable populations where they are at in order to stop a potential crisis from spiraling into something unsolvable.

[1] Elizabeth Endicott, A History of Land Use in Mongolia 43 (2012).

[2] See Niel Pederson et al., Pluvials, Droughts, the Mongol Empire, and Modern Mongolia, Proc. Nat’l. Acad. Sci., 4375, 4376-4377 (2014) (Noting that tree rings indicated especially intensive rainfall in the years leading up to the rise of the Mongol Empire, and a likely impact being an abundance of herd animals)

[3] Endicott, supra note 1, at 63-64.

[4] See id. at 64.

[5] See id. at 43-46.

[6] The Secret History of the Mongols is a significant native Mongolian text from the thirteenth century that concerns the rise and early government of the Mongol Empire, though much of what it is difficult to independently verify. See The Secret History of the Mongols (Francis Woodman Cleves trans., Harv. Univ. Press 1st ed. 1982) (~1240).

[7] Genghis Khan’s son and immediate successor in the Mongol Empire.

[8] Endicott, supra note 1 at 44-45.

[9] See id. at 78-80.

[10] See id. at 95-97.

[11] Id. at 125.

[12] Id.

[13] See id. at 125-126.

[14] See Andrew Jacobs, Winter Leaves Mongolians a Harvest of Carcasses, N.Y. Times      (May 19, 2010),

[15] Tania Branigan, Mongolia: How the Winter of “White Death” Devastated Nomads’ Way of Life, The Guardian      (July 21, 2010),; Jacobs, supra note 14.

[16] Madoka Ikegami, Mongolia’s Dzud Disaster, The New Internationalist (May 10, 2016),

[17] See Punsalma Batima, Luvsan Natsagdorj & Nyamsurengyn Batnasan, Vulnerability of Mongolia’s Pastoralists to Climate Extremes and Changes, in Climate Change and Vulnerability 67, 69-79 (Neal Leary et al. ed., 2008). (Showing that trends are leading to increased droughts and thus likelier zuds).

[18] See id.

[19] See Andrei Marin, Between Cash Cows and Golden Calves: Adaptations of Mongolian Pastoralism in the “Age of the Market”, Nomadic Peoples, 75, 78 (2008) (noting that most herders hold their wealth in animals); Antonio Graceffo, Modern Mongolia and the Economics of Herding, Special Eurasia (July 4, 2023),

[20] See Ikegami, supra note 16.

[21] See id.

[22] See id.

[23] See Implications of Demographic Trends for Socio-Economic Development and Public Policy in Mongolia, U.N. Pop. Fund. 1, 92 (2012),

[24] See Ikegami, supra note 16.

[25] See U.N. Pop Fund, supra note 23, at 93.

[26] Brian Dentin, Burning Coal for Survival in the World’s Coldest Capital, N.Y. Times (Mar. 15, 2018),

[27] Laura Reiley and Kadir van Lohuizen, Climate Change is Pushing Farmers to Confront What’s Next, Wash. Post (Nov. 10, 2023),

[28] Id.

[29] See id.; Farm Sector Income & Finances: Farm Sector Income Forecast, U.S. Dep’t of Agri. (Oct. 12, 2023),

[30] Claire O’Niell, Matt McCann, and Umi Syam, America is Using its Groundwater Like There’s No Tomorrow, N.Y. Times (Aug. 28, 2023),

[31] Bart Pfankuch, $8.3B in Crop Insurance Payouts to South Dakota Farmers: A Cost of Climate Change, S.D. News Watch (Nov. 16, 2023),

[32] See Reiley, supra note 27.

[33] See id.