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Mongolia: Turn around for the world's oldest nature reserve

Tony Whitten's picture
View to Ulaanbaatar from a tourist camp on the slopes of Bogd Khan Uul

Okay, so we changed our minds, but we did so for good reasons.

Some 15 months ago I posted a blog about the difficult decisions which led to our dropping Bogd Khan Uul Strictly Protected Area—the world’s oldest nature reserve—from the forest landscapes project we were preparing in Mongolia. In addition I mentioned that the money that was going to be used for the community forestry parts of the project was going to be shifted to give additional support to a $40 million Development Policy Credit to help Mongolia weather the impacts of the global financial crisis. There was a chance that our forest landscapes project might be resurrected in mid-2011 but that would have been too late for the Global Environment Facility (GEF) funding of the conservation activities planned. So, the forest landscapes project was cancelled.

The GEF money was, however, still available for a good conservation project in Mongolia but there was absolutely no thought that Bogd Khan Uul with all its allegedly illegal apartment blocks and houses would be part of any new project.

We looked at making the conservation component of the forest landscapes project into a something that could stand on its own, but it was difficult to make a convincing story. I thus brought in Andrew Laurie who had lived in Mongolia as the Chief Technical Advisor to the three UNDP-implemented GEF biodiversity projects to help. After he had been working in Mongolia for 10 days he called to pitch the idea which had arisen in discussions with government officers: to abandon the idea of patching up the dismembered project concept and instead focus on Bogd Khan Uul. My knee-jerk reaction was to dismiss it; all the reasons we had dropped it from the initial project were still valid.  But the more we discussed the pros and cons, the more it seemed to make sense to use Bogd Khan Uul—despite all its problems—as a window to improve all the country’s protected areas.

 

 

Bogd Khan Uul has high recreational value and is very close to Ulaanbaatar, a city with about 1.3 million people—half the country’s population. It is a sacred site and citizens often throw drops of milk in its direction in the early morning out of respect; its summits are pilgrimage sites used frequently by all manner of people. Nevertheless, many of the capital's inhabitants (especially those recently arrived from the outlying provinces) have never been to Bogd Khan Uul and few of its visitors leave with any greater understanding of the importance of forests or protected areas.

Interestingly, experience from outside Mongolia has found that conservation strategies commonly omit to give attention to awareness programs that focus on urban residents, and that it might be better to invest in protected areas near population centers where the impacts of demonstrations of effective management are more likely to be noticed. There is thus an enormous opportunity to use Bogd Khan Uul as a demonstration site for good forest and protected area management and through this to interest the urban public in all of Mongolia’s protected areas. If done well it is expected that this will lead to an increase in engagement and concern on such a scale that pressure is successfully brought to bear on government to increase funding and management attention for protected areas.

View along the Zaisan Valley to Ulaanbaatar from the slopes of Bogd Khan Uul

But what about all the problematic land uses? Well, various figures in central and local government as well as in parliament have been getting fed up. At the end of last year the General Agency for Specialized Inspection posted on their website a report on the situation of the various contentious and debatable uses of land in Zaisan, Nukht and other Bogd Khan valleys, naming names of the license holders and of the government officials who had given permission. In addition, questions were asked in Parliament, with one member reportedly remarking “How can we possibly manage our country’s natural resources properly when we can’t even manage to care for the protected area on our doorstep?”  On June 1 this year Mr L. Gansukh, the Minister of Nature, Environment and Tourism, revoked 59 land use licenses on the grounds of violation of related laws and regulations for plots where no building has started.  He followed up with additional cancellations. My hat goes off to him and his staff in their standing up for the law of the land against the license holders some of whom are very powerful and influential within Mongolia.

So, assuming the final stages of processing go as well as expected, Bogd Khan Uul will not simply be back in a project, it will be at the very center of a project and with the full and reasonable expectation that some substantial and significant changes will result not just there but across the country. The various project documents with full details can be found here.