20 Dec 2012

The Commons in Mongolia

In the early medieval period nomadic herders travelled across huge territories freely however access to land over time, while remaining communal became more formalized and restricted.  Genghis Khan (1162?-1227) granted land to his allies to cement his political and military power.  This allowed a Mongolian nobility to control communal pastureland and they were able to tax herders.  Thus as in England, an essentially feudal system was introduced, with a monarch, granting land to an elite who were rewarded for their loyalty and extracted wealth from the wider population.  The reintroduction of Buddhism in 1586 was another important development.  As in England the church was a major owner of land and an important political and economic power.  The formalization of land rights under the Buddhist authority and the system of patronage established by Genghis Khan accelerated with the Manchu Qing dynasty occupation of Mongolia in 1691.  The occupiers drew up a legal code and rigidly divided up the land, eventually creating a hundred military territories known as khoshuun.  Herders who had previously moved from one territory to another had to stick to the territory within which they were born, showing allegiance to the ruler of such territory  (Fernandez-Gimenez 2006: 31).

After Manchu rule ended their system of formal property rights continued however transhumance with herders moving their animals seasonally was maintained.  Yet herders had to remain in the same khoshuun rather than ranging where they liked throughout Mongolian territory.  Gradually some privately control campsites emerged but communal and nomadic ways of life continued.  The creation of a 20th century Mongolian Republic, at least briefly, led to a return to more flexible and locally controlled property ownership as in 1925 feudal and religious structures were abolished.  The 20th century saw the introduction of soviet style collectivism that peaked in 1959 with 99% of herders cemented into this system of state central control of agriculture.  Once again the freedom of herders was restricted by a governing power.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a market orientated Mongolian Republic emerged which saw attempts to privatize land holdings.  In the 21st century a greater understanding of the benefits of communal herding may be re-emerging.  Yet with economic and political change in Mongolia communing has diminished.  While commons still exist and nomadic herding continues the territory used by herders has shrank, their control over their animals has been reduced, while informal regulation has been increasingly replaced by formal legal control (Fernandez-Gimenez 2006: 33). 

            Mongolia shows also that commons while difficult to eliminate totally or control centrally are affected by external political events.  Genghis Khan, Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese invasion, the Soviet experience and market based policies encouraged by bodies such as the World Bank have all shaped the commons, nonetheless despite formalization and erosion the Mongolian pastoral commons remains.  The anthropologist David Sneath (2007) has stressed the libertarian nature of Mongolian society, arguing that central control has remained relatively weak with herders enjoying a large measure of independence throughout many centuries.  It is interesting to note that intercommoning by nomadic people is still a feature of life in Mongolia but was eliminated in England perhaps as early as the medieval period.

            David Sneath (2000) has also suggested that religious values that predate Buddhism influenced attitudes to land in Mongolia during much of its history.  Herders believed that spirits known as gazariinezed were the owners of the land rather than humans.  These spirits were treated as high dignitaries and were given offerings in ceremonies known as oboo.  Typically, the tsagaanluu or white dragon had to be presented with white food such as dairy products and rice.  Such ceremonies were followed by sporting festivals that included wrestling contests.  Today communal use remains a hot political topic with the land issue differentiating new liberal parties in Mongolia who seek land privatization and more traditional and left opponents who oppose this.  In Chinese controlled Inner Mongolia, mining is displacing herders and indigenous people causing conflict.  The conflict between communal agricultural use of land or hunting and the needs of high growth economies to extract metals, minerals and fossil fuels is played out in many parts of the world.

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