Policies governing access to the forage resource of livestock in arid rangelands have been a topic of intense debate globally. Institutional design is highly political in Mongolia where about 35% of people are employed in the agricultural sector, primarily as herders. A number of stakeholders assert that the weakening of institutions governing access to the forage resource has contributed to declines in rangeland condition and herder livelihoods. Institutions are being redesigned in light of this assertion. Yet empirical relationships between institutions, rangeland condition and herder livelihoods have been poorly examined.
In recent years, international understandings of the biophysical and socio-economic causes of rangeland change have shifted. Hence, assumptions of land degradation require careful examination, particularly in rangelands that are arid and highly variable across space and time. This research examines these assumptions in the Gobi Desert by exploring the relationships between rangeland condition, herder livelihoods and institutional settings. The Gobi Desert was selected because it is the most arid area in Mongolia and borders Chinese Inner Mongolia, a similar landscape with different institutional settings governing access to the forage resource.
In this research, Gobi Desert rangelands were approached as a system with interacting social and ecological components. Study sites represented three forms of bureaucratic institutions: the Mongolian national Law on Land; Pasture User Groups (PUGs), which were established as common property institutions to improve rangeland condition and herder livelihoods; and the Household Responsibility System of Inner Mongolia. Data were sourced from rangeland condition surveys, herder and local official interviews, and secondary sources. Socially embedded institutions were identified. A range of socio-economic and biophysical metrics at a variety of scales and levels were analysed and modelled to explore the types of change that may have contributed to perceived declines in rangeland condition. The risks of livestock feed gaps produced by climatic and forage variability were assessed. Interactions between socially embedded institutions, bureaucratic institutions and feed gaps were explored. Alternative tools for managing the risk of feed gaps were assessed, including their availability and affordability through time and space. This analysis identified the periods when feed gaps were most likely. Indicators of rangeland condition and herder livelihoods were then assessed to identify the impact of feed gaps in different institutional settings.
Land degradation levels in all Mongolian Gobi Desert study sites were found to be relatively low. Many indicators of rangeland condition were not significantly different between Law on Land and PUG institutional settings. Those indicators that were different suggested that rangeland condition was slightly better in the PUG areas that herders recognised as being ‘steppe-like.’ However analysis did not reveal any institutional mechanism that accounted for this difference.
There are three possible explanations for these findings. Firstly, PUGs may have been effective at improving condition, but were established in areas that were originally in poorer condition. Secondly, neither Law on Land nor PUG institutions had an impact on rangeland condition compared to socially embedded institutions that are common to both. Thirdly, neither bureaucratic nor socially embedded institutions substantially affected rangeland condition. Rather, exogenous shocks and stresses that affected livestock grazing pressures, such as atypical winter conditions and volatile commodity prices, challenged the ability of current institutions to influence rangeland condition. The second and third explanations are the most likely. Consequently, improving rangeland condition and herder livelihoods requires that policy extends beyond institutions governing access to the forage resource.
Policy needs to consider the dynamic relationships between biophysical, social, political and economic spheres in ways that are appropriately scaled and recognise non-linearity. In the case of the Mongolian Gobi Desert, theories of both the tragedy of the commons and common property have been inappropriately applied to institutional design. Any intervention needs to be tailored to the local social and ecological context. Where forage resource boundaries are fuzzy through space and time, institutions must be equally fuzzy through space and time.
Policy makers are in the difficult position of balancing domestic and international interests that sometimes conflict. Nevertheless, new institutions to address rangeland degradation are not warranted if rangelands are not degraded. In arid rangelands where forage availability is highly variable in space and time, livelihood outcomes are also likely to vary in space and time. Interventions need to extend beyond managing access to forage in order to improve herder livelihoods for the long-term.