Mongolia: A Toxic Warning Or A Beautiful Opportunity?

As with any narrative it is important to remember that reducing a country, a people, a culture, a place to a single story is at best incomplete and at worst dis-empowering. Mongolia is no different, the stories of this land are as varied as the people and landscapes themselves. That being said, the challenge that the capital city of Ulaanbaatar is facing in its increasing toxic pollution is something that is complex and important to discuss. Check out the report below and then read on.

I am not an expert in combating pollution or the complex political, cultural, and economic threads that weave this story together. There are people who are much smarter than me who hopefully can tackle that particular thing. What I do know about, from my own experience, is that the root causes of this crisis take hold far from the bustling streets and crowds of Ulaanbaatar. The unlivable air quality in the city is a massive and dangerous challenge, something that must be altered immediately if the Mongolian people have any chance at a good quality of life.

On the surface the issue is this: toxic air quality due to a massive population boom in the city, and the burning of raw coal by the people and the country itself. The massive migration from the rural areas by traditionally nomadic herders has placed a burden on the city. Couple that with the Mongolian government doing little if anything to support those people through infrastructure, services, and education, and what you are left with are few alternatives to the current status quo.

That in and of itself is an issue that needs to be addressed, but the second layer down deals with what is causing the migration in the first place. This is where we begin to explore some of the root causes. As it was said in the news report people are leaving their traditional way of life, a way of life that has been carried on for many generations, because they are losing their livelihoods, namely their livestock. Volatile seasons, harsh conditions, and unpredictable patterns have placed into the system a disruption that has altered the very base structures that hold that lifestyle together. So families lose their animals due to climate change and have no choice but to abandon their homes, their freedom, their sense of identity and head to the city to find work.

Herein lies where I would like to explore, one layer down from where the news story went. How does it happen that an entire community of people can have their choices taken from them by the alteration of a single variable in their environment? Why is there no safety net, no backup plan, no alternative?

This issue is directly tied to what we do here at Travel Life Adventures and what our ultimate goal for our work is. Tourism has the power to play a positive role in this scenario not just in Mongolia, but the world over. The crux problem is the lack of economic diversity and opportunity to provide for your way of life outside a single pursuit. From the Mongolian steppe to the mountains of Chile to the arid deserts of Morocco we hear this same story repeated over and over again. I don’t want to leave but I have no choice. I don’t want to abandon my way of life but what is the alternative. Forces beyond my control have stripped me of my way of life, where do I go?

It was sunset time. The frigid air crystallizes our breath almost before it leaves our mouths and the distant moan of grazing cattle produce the soundtrack for this scene. We are standing in the golden light talking to our Kazakh host about his life, his dreams, his hopes for the future. “I have one son and one daughter. They won’t be nomads in their life. They won’t herd the sheep or hunt with the Eagle. That time is going away.” You can feel the sadness in his voice, the resignation that once he is gone his tradition will no longer be. You see, each winter they lose more and more of their livestock. The herd shrinks each year and they don’t have enough money to replenish the stock. Inevitably the herd will die and the family will have to seek work in the city. This repeating narrative is almost like a film on a loop. Each family slowly resigning to the death of their way of life.

Just like in the report, the woman says, “I don’t want them to become herders.” But underneath that, when you take time to listen, that statement becomes changed. It becomes, “I don’t want them to struggle.”

I try to ask questions to understand, but the answers are more like sounds. Shrugs. Empty thoughts about what once was. These people, like so many others, lack the diversity in their economy that is needed to weather storms and adapt to changing conditions. This is where we believe person to person, direct to community tourism can change the world.

We seek to connect travelers, those seeking adventure and interpersonal connections directly with people we know and places we are. We want to bring them into our life, to meet this man and to allow him to tell his story. By creating that direct connection this Kazakh family, the Berber nomads in Morocco, the Mapuche people in Chile can begin to fold into their lifestyle a new form of support. It will strengthen their bond with their traditions and ancestors, and when some of their herd dies in a harsh winter, they can fall back on income they make from sharing their life with travelers.

You can be part of this as well. By choosing to travel in this way, in a way that places the benefits of tourism in the hands of local people, you play a direct role in creating positive change. Not only will you connect deeply to the land, the people, and to yourself, but you will contribute to the preservation of traditional ways of life and the empowerment of people. This is no small thing and if we can influence the industry at large to focus more on supporting communities there can be substantial positive movement.

Another thing we see happen when we spend time in these places is that as families and communities begin to move back from the precipice of destitution, they begin to find each other again. Communities mobilize and begin to work together. Cooperatives form and the people begin to advocate for themselves. It is impossible to underestimate the power in feeling heard. The power of empowerment. It is like a wave of resolute determination to stem the tide of losing traditions. I have seen it happen in every place we work and in every person we meet.

The fight against climate change, urbanization, poverty, and extinction of beings and cultures is a multi-front battle. In Ulaanbaatar the restoration of breathable air is going to take commitment from government, people, and all those involved. But when we begin to understand the root causes of these immense challenges we can see that the power to create change starts in communities. People deserve to be supported in the lifestyle they desire, where they live, and to preserve traditions and connections to ancestors and ancient ways of life. This is the foundation of our work and why we seek to bring people into our life and our family. When you choose to meet people where they are you will be transformed, and the world around you will be transformed as well.

-Tanner Colton

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