Western Mongolia is the most remote, ethnically diverse, and mountainous region of Mongolia, with thousands of years of history of human occupation. Its’ relatively intact and ecologically diverse landscapes provide habitat for seasonal migrations, predator-prey interactions, and natural river flow to occur that are all but lost in many regions of the world. They also support almost 38,000 nomadic and semi-nomadic herding families who rely directly upon the ecosystem services provide by the region’s sparsely inhabited grasslands.
Although mining is relatively less developed in the Western provinces, it is predicted to develop rapidly here in the future. Therefore UNDP and Global Environment Fund are to assist the Government of Mongolia to reduce negative impacts of mining on rangelands in the western mountain and steppe region. On December 09, “Land Degradation Offset and Mitigation in Western Mongolia” project was launched.
“- Land degradation is one of the greatest environmental challenges in Mongolia. Seventy per cent of its land already degraded, and a quarter has turned to desert. Climate change and human activity are destroying the country’s remarkable landscapes, threatening its ecosystems and wildlife. It is therefore crucial that Mongolia develops and applies policies to mitigate such damage, and rehabilitate its land. While mining is currently less developed in the Western region, it is likely to see rapid development in mining in the years to come, as the economy grows. But herder livelihoods depend – and will continue to depend – on these unique landscapes, rangelands and ecosystems. It is therefore vital to put in place a system to reduce and offset or compensate for land degradation in Western Mongolia now. It is also an opportunity to further develop good practices for working together on sustainable land use across the country in future” noted Beate Trankmann, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative.
“Land degradation offsetting”, which aims to ensure positive impacts of development activities is an emerging practice worldwide. Its introduction in Mongolia marks a major step forward in the country and will be a key part of this project, she said.
The project will focus on two components. The first component will support further development of the mitigation hierarchy and offsetting framework for land degradation in the planning and management system of mining concessions at the national level, in order to reduce threats to land and water resources and ecosystem integrity. It will emplace participatory and eco-regional assessments as the basis for integrated land use planning by the Government across 41.5 million ha of production system and natural habitat in western Mongolia.
This will be achieved by incorporating science-based mitigation hierarchy into mining concession planning and provincial land use planning and management of competing land use types, and setting aside ecologically sensitive areas from mining related development. Institutional and personnel capacity for mitigating and offsetting the impacts of mining will be developed for local level.
The second component will demonstrate application of mitigation hierarchy and offsets to mining impacts through integrated sustainable land management practices within selected pilot landscapes. Khotgor coal mine, Khushuut coal mine and Bayan Airag gold mine were selected as three pilot landscapes of the project. Local herders and farmers, as primary resource users, and local Government will implement landscape-level land use plans to address land degradation challenges from competing uses.
Specifically, the project will pilot best practice operationalization of the mitigation hierarchy and land degradation offset mechanisms in the selected landscapes by the mining companies. Integrated landscape management and offset mechanisms will be demonstrated covering at least 100.000 ha with prominent mining concessions and other competing land uses. Increased investments in sustainable land management actions in the landscape will help to rehabilitate lands and reduce the protected rate of land degradation and biodiversity loss. “-This project will reach across many areas. It seeks to strengthen the policy, legal and planning frameworks, to address the environmental impacts of mining. It will also apply the best practices for land restoration and enable cross-sector collaboration, for sustainable land use” said Mrs Beate Trankmann.
The western region, the project’s target area, stretches 700 km from north to south and comprises three major ecological zones: desert steppe (in the south), mountain-steppe, and steppe. To the east are the Khangai Mountains, while the foothills of the Altai Mountains run from North West to South East, rising in the west to panoramic glaciers and snow-covered 4000m+ summits. This mountain complex has exceptionally high levels of plant richness and endemism, including 2,500 vascular plant species with over 120 strictly endemic species. The basins of several great lakes are also situated in the region, including Uvs Lake, Khar Us Lake, Khyargas Lake and numerous smaller lakes.
The forest area in the western region is relatively limited at 3,555,700 ha of which about 70% is Saxaul forest. Several priority species such as the globally endangered snow leopard (Unica unica) and its main prey species the Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica), and the argali inhabit the Western provinces. Twenty four nationally protected areas covering 11.35 millionha have been designated in Western Mongolia as well as a further 196 locally protected areas covering a further 2.08 million ha.
These include LPAs such as “Gulzat” (126,772 ha) close to the Khotgor mining landscape in Uvs Aimag, which was established in 2006 to develop a model for sustainable community-based tourism and conservation. The economy in the western provinces is dominated by the livestock sector, although the number of herder households is declining. Cultivated areas are even more limited than in other parts of the country. Mining is relatively less developed in the Western Provinces (393 exploration and exploitation licenses covering almost 2.6 million ha. in November 2014).
With the project’s official launch, a MoU was signed between Governors and Mining Companies of three pilot sites of the project, along with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism so these plans translate into action. With this joint statement of intent, mining companies are showing their willingness to make Sustainable Land management as part of their businesses.
The article is featured in the Mongol Messenger's issue No. 50 for December 16, 2016.