The Kazaks of Western Mongolia: A Pastoral Community in Transition

A Kazak family inside their yurt. The colourful decorations on the floor and along the walls are important markers of cultural identity, which distinguish the Kazaks from the Mongols, who inhabit the same area.

Western Mongolia is one of the last regions in Central Asia where pastoral nomadism still dominates people's livelihoods. The 20th century saw dramatic changes in the course of the establishment of a socialist system in the steppes. The collectivization and sedentarization campaigns were, however, never as rigidly pursued as in the neighbouring regions of the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China.
The largest minority in Mongolia are the Muslim Kazaks. Most of them settle in the western provinces of Bayan-Ölgiy and Khovd (Xovd) where they often form the majority of the population. The Kazaks are relative newcomers in Mongolia and with the proclamation of the independent state of Kazakstan in 1991, many of them left the country again. By 1994 almost 40 percent had moved to Kazakstan. The results so far have been not very encouraging for the others that remained. Growing disappointment and complaints of neglect by the state put an end to the migration movement and prompted many Kazaks to return to Mongolia.

A herd of cashmere goats tied together to be milked.
Starting in November, the plains in western Mongolia can be covered with snow. Winters are long and cold, and often claim a high toll among the herds.
This photograph shows runic inscriptions in Central Mongolia from the first Turkic empire of the 6th, 7th and 8th century. In the eyes of some Kazak intellectuals, they provide a historical legacy for Turkic presence in Mongolia.

Within Mongolia, the most significant event in the recent past was the privatization of the pastoral herds, which are the core economic resource for most households. Rather than a push towards a market-oriented pastoral management, the result was a partial retreat to subsistence production and local barter exchange. Reasons for this included the increased risk of livestock rearing, which now rests solely with the individual herder, and the almost complete collapse of any marketing structures. High transaction costs made a concentration on household needs and the investment in social networks appear more attractive than producing for the market.
Access to pastoral land is another key concern for every household in this part of the world. Traditional allocation patterns had to take into account the variability of the climate as well as the need for large and often overlapping territories to assure sufficient and appropriate fodder for every season. This system was partly modified during the socialist period. Today, after the dissolution of the collective enterprises, existing rules are often disregarded and sometimes openly disputed. This situation may in the long run increase problems of sustainable pasture use.
One reason for the lack of coordination is that traditional social institutions did not experience the degree of revitalization that many predicted. For decades state institutions and the omnipresent collective enterprises dominated economic and social life. This weakened the meaning of kinship, neighbourhood and local communities, which today face the problem that people have no experience of their reliability. Lack of trust and a limited degree of mutual help are therefore characteristic features of the post-socialist society.

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