Mongolia: tough decisions about the world's oldest nature reserve


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Bogd Khan Uul Strictly Protected Area (SPA) (41,651 ha) is located on the edge of Mongolia's capital city, Ulaanbaatar, and dominates the views to the south. It is the oldest continuously protected area in Mongolia and possibly the world, being first established in 1778. Its establishment preceded by almost 100 years that of Yellowstone National Park in the United States. There is evidence the area held informal protective status as early as the 12th century. Bogd Khan Uul holds significant historical and cultural importance (pdf) for the people of Mongolia. In 1995, Bogd Khan Uul was formally designated a 'Strictly Protected Area' in accordance with current Mongolian law. Bogd Khan Uul was further recognized for its ecological importance when it was awarded UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status in 1997.

Hover over "Notes" for photo information.

So, if one were going to undertake a conservation project focusing on forests in the central part of Mongolia, one would reckon on including it, right? Wrong.

We have been designing an interesting forest project combining work on community-based exploitation and conservation. The forest area chosen was roughly the blocks of forest in a wide 'V' north of Ulaanbaatar up to the border with Russia, and the initial proposal was approved for funding by the Global Environment Facility. It was most exciting for the potential of linking some of the protected areas within the project scope with 'biological corridors' about which we had earlier commissioned an interesting report (pdf). Such linkages are vital as an adaptation measure to climate change (pdf) to allow species to move into new ranges. Notably it would have connected Hustai National Park with Bogd Khan, and Bogd Khan with the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park and the vast Khan Khentii SPA to the north. 

Apart from the ruins of Manzhir Monastery, other long-established buildings in the SPA are the President's Palace Complex, the Nukht Hotel – used for government workshops and the like – a youth prison, and the Observatory. About six years ago things started to change. Ger camps on the reserve's slopes became visible from Ulaanbaatar, and some very nice private homes appeared in the Nukht Valley just off the road to the airport and through a guarded gate to the SPA. Over the years the numbers of houses have increased, the Zaisan Valley has become simply an extension of Ulaanbaatar's urban sprawl, and tourism facilities have multiplied such that every valley and periphery is now committed to some form of development. In 2008 the ground was broken for Mongolia's first ski resort on the NE slopes.

This all became rather a problem for us. The Global Environment Facility (GEF) expects the money it contributes to conservation projects to be used to support 'globally significant biodiversity'. Could we really, hand on heart, swear that Bogd Khan Uul was – or could be – any longer an important conservation site? Perhaps if the money accruing from the sale of the land inside this Strictly Protected Area had gone into conservation management and the sales were all part of a broadly consulted management plan it might have been different. Sadly, after consulting with the government we dropped Bogd Khan Uul from the project preparation. 

Since the decision was taken just after Christmas, the project has run into further difficulties. Mongolia's financial crisis has been precipitated by the dramatic fall in copper prices which so determine the financial health of Mongolia. As a result the IMF and the major donors in Mongolia have devised a package with the Ministry of Finance collectively amounting to some hundreds of millions of dollars. From the World Bank's side, the allocation of money to Mongolia has not increased but rather the investment projects are either being put on ice or dropped. The Forest Landscapes project to which the GEF project had to be linked is in the former category for now but it is highly unlikely to be taken out of the freezer until mid-2011, if then. Under the rules of the GEF this is beyond the period within which the provisional allocation of funds remains available, and so the conservation project has to be dropped. We'll see if we might be able to reduce its size and scope and resurrect it as a 'medium-sized project' but there may be procedural problems with that.

We'll keep trying because it's worth it, we have good partners, and there's too much work to be done to give up and sit on our hands.


May 03, 2009

Is there anyone in Mongolia protesting the development and sprawl coming out of Ulaanbataar? I wonder if some type of conservation incentive agreement wouldn't encourage locals to protect this treasure rather than develop it. I am curious, though, why the protected area has persisted for so many years yet only now is facing the challenge of nearby economic development.

Tony Whitten
May 04, 2009

Dear Brett

The press has taken up the issue and there are quite a few reports along these lines. At a civil soceity meeting I addressed at the Open Society Forum a few months ago I asked the participants exatly your question. Some said there was no point, and some said they were scared (though that was based on experience a few uears ago).

It is only in the last 6 years or so that the relevant legislation has been interpreted to permit the developments now seen. When I read Articles 8, 11 and 12 of the Protected Areas Law, my unqualifed interpretation would be that almost all of the current construction activities in Bogd Khan are illegal. i.e. ...

Article 8. Strictly Protected Areas Zones
1. Upon consideration of the natural features, characteristics, unique soil, water, flora and fauna, and the human activities involved, Strictly Protected Areas shall be divided into the following zones:
1/ Pristine Zones;
2/ Conservation Zones, and;
3/ Limited Use Zones;,

Article 11. Limited Use Zone Regime
Pursuant to the appropriate permit, the following activities may be conducted in Limited Use Zones using environmentally safe technology:
1/ activities described in Articles 9 and 10 of this Law;
2/ soil and plant cover restoration;
3/ forest maintenance and cleaning;;
4/ pursuant to an approved program and method, conduct animal surveys and regulate the number, age, sex and structure of animal populations;
5/ use mineral water and other treatment and sanitation resources;
6/pursuant to the appropriate procedure, organize eco-travel and tourism according to designated routes and directions
7/ use accommodations constructed pursuant to appropriate procedures and designated for temporary residence, camping, observation, research and investigation by travelers and other people with permission (see 12(5));
8/ take photographs, make audio and video recordings and use them for commercial purposes;
9/ conduct mountain and ovoo workshop and other traditional ceremonies;
10/ pursuant to the appropriate procedures, local residents may collect and use side-line natural resources and medicinal and food plants for their household needs.

Article 12. Activities Prohibited in Strictly Protected Areas
1. If its prohibited to conduct the following activities in Strictly Protected Areas for purposes other than those described in Articles 10 and 11 of this Law:
1/ to change natural characteristics by plowing, digging, use of explosives, > exploration of natural resources, mining, extracting sand or stone, harvesting wood and reeds, or constructing roads in areas other than in Limited Use Zones;
2/ to collect and prepare secondary natural resources or medicinal, food, and technical plants for commercial purposes;
3/ to hunt, trap, or startle animals or destroy their nets, hibernation or burrows for purposes other than those described in the paragraph 4 of Article 11 of this Law;
4/ to use methods, techniques or substances with have negative environmental impacts in order to combat or prevent hazardous insects, rodents, or fire;
5/ to construct buildings other than those described in paragraph 7 of Article 11 of this law;
6/ to conduct any activities which pollute the soil, water and air;
7/ to enter a Special Protected Area with a dog and gun without permission from local protected area administration;
8/ to land aircraft or fly at low altitude without prior permission from the local protected area administration;
9/ to building winter, spring, autumn, and summer settlements or graze cattle without the appropriate permit;
10/ to using open water sources such as lakes, rivers, steams, springs or ponds for commercial purposes;
11/ to conduct other activities prohibited by law, or protection regime which have negative environmental impacts

However, if Article 33 (below) is read alone, without the above, then any "environmentally safe" land use could be justified. But I am not a lawyer. Also, if Article 36.3 is not read together with Article 11.7. then tourism sector developments could be justified as long as they "have attained international standards".

Article 33. Land Use in Special Protected Areas
1. Land within Limited Use Zones of Strict Protected Areas, National Conservation Parks Natural Reserves, and Monuments may be used by citizens, economic entities and organizations through the use of environmentally safe methods pursuant to a contract designating the purpose, terms, and conditions.

Article 36. Land Use Decision
1. The State Administrative Central Organization shall make a decision on land use by citizens, economic entities and organizations within the Limited Use Zones of Strictly Protected Areas, National Conservation Parks, Nature Reserves and Monuments based on the recommendations from the Protected Area Administration and Soum or Duureg Governors.
2. Where two or more persons request to use the same land, the decision shall be based on land use designation, environmental impacts and the expenses for environmental conservation measures.
3. Where citizens, economic entities or organizations requests to use the same land for travel and tourism business, the decision shall be based on whether the facilities for those activities have attained international standards.
4. The decision set out in paragraph 1 of this Article shall clearly state the land use designation, the location of the zone, the location of the land, its boundary, size and whether the land shall be used solely or jointly.
5. In case of objection on land use then the reason and justification of it shall be set out in the decision of state administrative central organization.

I am pleased to say that the Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism has used some of our funds provided by the Netherlands Government to hire one of IUCN's best environmental lawyers to help find ways to modify the Protected Areas Law and remove the ambiguities. In due course the final version will go before Parliament for approval.

July 09, 2011

Hi Tony,
Any updates on the developments in Zaisan, or a modification of the Protected Areas Law? Seems like the development continues to grow bigger each year.