Why Mongolia needs trees

By Elizabeth Bryning

Published Friday March 22, 2013

Yesterday the world celebrated the vital, life-sustaining role of forests. March 21, 2013 was the first ever United Nations International Day of Forests, a day set aside to raise awareness of the value of forests and to promote sustainable forest management. The importance of this day for Mongolians should not be underestimated.

Most people don’t think of Mongolia as a country with forests, and you wouldn’t know it from looking at Mongolia’s vast empty steppes, but closed forest cover accounts for about eight percent of the country’s territory.

The percentage of forest cover is declining fast, however. The ceaseless and growing demand for firewood and construction timber, along with the grazing of livestock and encroachment of mining in forested areas, and extensive forest fires, have led to deforestation rates of up to 150 million trees per year, with a combined total of about 230,000 hectares of forest being lost each year in the northern and Gobi regions alone. According to a 2007 report by International Forest Fire News, at least 40 percent of Mongolia’s forests have been damaged by human activity in recent decades.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported in 1998 that Mongolia’s forest area had decreased by 1.2 million hectares between the late 1970s and the late 1990s. Since then deforestation has accelerated, with an estimated 2.5 million hectares lost in the past ten years.

The forests of Mongolia provide a multitude of services for the people of this country. A key service provided by forests, and one that is crucial in a country as dry as Mongolia, is their role in the hydrologic cycle, which determines precipitation levels. Other water-related services include maintaining water tables, preserving river conditions, storing rainwater, and feeding filtered water to waterways and lakes. The forests of this country also serve to maintain nutrient cycling in soil; stabilize the soil and prevent erosion and desertification; provide wind breaks; supply habitat for Mongolia’s wildlife; and sequester carbon, thus combating climate change. These services have many economic benefits. Forests not only provide timber and firewood, the services provided by forests are invaluable to the agriculture, water, and tourism industries.

The economic benefits of forests are perhaps best understood through explaining the negative effects of deforestation on the economy and society. Deforestation accelerates desertification and diminishes water supplies, thus impacting severely on the agriculture industry. Deforestation translates into higher food prices, as loss of grazing land to desertification and decreased water resources (drying up of streams) result in lower agricultural productivity and reduced supply of agricultural products. Given that rising food prices disproportionately affect poor families, this leads to a widening in the gap between the rich and poor. Greater inequality in society in turn generates social unrest and increased crime.

Furthermore, the loss in the carbon storage value of forests caused by deforestation has the effect of hastening climate change, which is likely to lead to more frequent extreme weather events, such as dzud. Such climatic events have devastating impacts on the agriculture sector and lead to increased poverty in rural areas, which results in greater migration by herders to Ulaanbaatar, in turn leading to higher unemployment rates in the city and a rise in associated social issues such as alcoholism and violence. And those worst affected by societal problems are the most vulnerable, particularly children and the disabled.

Given the above, it is not an exaggeration to say that forests are crucial in ensuring human well-being in Mongolia.
Mongolia’s forests are disappearing largely because of unregulated use and inadequate protection. While many laws exist in Mongolia to manage and protect the country’s forests, these laws are largely not enforced.

Forest mismanagement is a key issue in Mongolia. According to the Mongolia State of the Environment Report for 2002, prepared by the Regional Resource Centre for Asia and the Pacific, forest resources are over-used, and timber harvesting practices in Mongolia have been wasteful and inefficient, with the timber industry using only 60 percent of the total harvested timber in a profitable way, due to poor forest management and outdated technology. Recent reports and studies by the World Bank and the FAO indicate that little improvement has been made in forest management in the past decade.

Forests are also poorly protected. Most rangers have little training and are inadequately paid, with the result that they have little incentive to protect the forests they are responsible for safeguarding. Efforts are being made by the FAO and other organizations to address these issues, but progress has been slow.

Reforestation activities began in Mongolia in the 1970s, and while there have been some positive outcomes, the rate of reforestation has been very low, with less than a million hectares replanted in the past 40 years. Furthermore, poor reforestation techniques and the low quality of the seedlings planted in reforested areas have resulted in minimal success in restoring forests.

Recognizing the importance of forests to the lives of Mongolian people, it is clear that the government must take further action to protect Mongolia’s forests and manage them sustainably. This is not just a matter for the Ministry of Nature, Environment, and Green Development, all related ministries in Mongolia must be involved in addressing the issues. The Ministry of Industry and Agriculture, for example, has to implement policies that decrease herd sizes and prevent overstocking, to stop herders resorting to forested areas as grazing land, while the Ministry of Mining needs to enforce laws to protect forested areas and watersheds from the devastating effects of mining, and the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism has to take action to prevent the destruction of forests, waterways, and the herding way of life, all of which are key attractions for tourists.

Anyone who cares about the people and development of Mongolia can only hope that the first International Day of Forests marks a turning point in Mongolia’s management of its forests. If action is taken by all sectors of the government and by civil society, it may be possible to one day have some optimism regarding the future of this country’s forests.


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