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Trying to green the growing Gobi Desert

BUREN SOUM, CENTRAL PROVINCE, Mongolia – In Beijing, we're used to hearing about the problems of desertification. 

Roughly 400 million people in China and a third of its land are affected by desertification – the consequence of several factors that include not just climate change but misguided farming policies, deforestation and drought. Some estimates say, at this rate, roughly one million acres of grassland in China are being devoured by the desert each year. 

But desertification knows no boundaries, especially when it entails the Gobi Desert. Not only is Asia's largest desert expanding from north to south across China, it's creeping south to north, too, farther into Mongolia.

VIDEO: Mongolian's battle the growing Gobi Desert

"Seventy percent of our territory is affected by desertification," said Tsognamsrai, a project officer with the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) in Ulaan Baatar.  (Like most Mongolians, he goes by just one name. But fortunately, for tongue-tied Westerners like us, he has a nickname: Namsrai.)

Adapting to the Gobi's spread

An ecologist by training who used to teach at the Agricultural University of Mongolia, Namsrai has seen first-hand the impact of the growing Gobi.

For two years now, he's been working with local communities in the Middle Gobi – the northernmost reaches of the desert – to help them combat desertification.

"We should change people's attitudes towards the natural ecosystem," he said. "People [are] trying to use the ecosystem and the natural resources, but people need to understand they need to do something to improve the…living environment."

Knowledge and adaptation are key to Namsrai's effort. In Buren Soum, in Mongolia's Central Province, for instance, the population has been shrinking – from 5,000 in the 1990s to now about 600. As a result of increasing desertification, people have been fleeing, literally, for greener pastures.

A longtime resident, Erden, said the environment has changed dramatically. "When I was small, the grass grew easily," he recalled. "But now during the spring, it's very dry. And there are sandstorms everywhere, much more than before."

We could see small piles of sand that had blown up against the fences surrounding every property.  "(The sand) affects my health," said Erden. "I cough, sneeze, and have more allergies."  

Still, the shopkeeper said he wouldn't leave.

"I'm 45 now. I have nowhere to go," said Erden, who owns a corner shop in this dusty one-horse town.

Like many, Erden believes the problem is not just climate change but also herding – in particular, raising goats. "The number of goats has increased, and some people say they're destroying the pasture land."

Adrienne Mong / NBC News
Raising goats may turn a profit, but ecologists say it's hard on vegetation.

Trying to halt overgrazing
Goats, say environmentalists, are hard on the land because they chew the grass down to the roots. And herders in recent years have increased the numbers of their livestock because they make a decent profit from selling the goat hair to cashmere producers. 

"It's like ruining your future because of today's cash," said Lkhamdulam Natsagdorj, executive director of People Centered Conservation, a grassroots non-governmental organization.

But eliminating the practice of herding isn't a realistic option.

Nomadic herding is as much a part of Mongolia as the vast steppes that occupy about half of the country.

In fact, shepherds have played a long historical role in Mongolia's economy just as hunter-gatherers or warrior horsemen did thousands of years ago. Today half of the country's population are herders who depend on their livestock.

"I don't think there's a way to change the lifestyle. It's really unique. This is our tradition," said

Natsagdorj.  "But I think there's a way to regulate and govern it. Governing the situation and also to use these adaptive methodologies, and also by economic policy, it should be manageable."

And there is a precedent for good practices and methodologies. "We have a really good tradition [in herding]," noted Namsrai. "Ten years ago, people used to use their pasture in rotation because they had good knowledge about it. But after the [end] of socialism, people didn't have much knowledge [about] how to use the pasture properly."

Adrienne Mong
Myagmarbaatar, who is usually a goat herder, tries his hand at farming.

Greening the desert
One solution, overseen by the UNDP in Buren Soum, is teaching herders the benefits of rotating pasture land. Nearby, in the temporary settlement of Bayangbalak, seven nomadic herding families last year planted a vegetable plot.

They grow potatoes, cabbages, carrots, and other vegetables, which they will harvest in the autumn, explained one of the herders, Myagmarbaatar, who had never farmed before, but said he now understood the value of rotating the land for grazing.  In the winter, he continued, they would use the patch of land as a reserve pasture for their livestock.

"It wasn't difficult trying to farm here," he said. "We are quite satisfied."

The UNDP is also encouraging non-herders to cultivate a green thumb – similar to the Green Wall of trees built across the border in China – to help stem the spread of the desert and to ease the impact of sandstorms. 

Erden, the shopkeeper in Buren Soum, recently began to grow a small garden, using donated seedlings and relying on water that comes from a newly installed irrigation system funded by the UNDP.

Sitting in shade cast by his house, he gestured across a garden path to the handful of plants thriving under the blazing desert sun. "Planting trees will help keep the Gobi back," he said.  "The land will be renewed again so there will be fewer sandstorms."

"But the main thing is the plants give the land moisture and softens it. It smells very nice," he added, smiling. "Maybe in two or three years, I will have lots of trees and then I can lie in the shade of my trees."

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