Celebrating Five Years in Mongolia

Charles Bedford, Regional Managing Director for the Conservancy’s work in Asia Pacific, has been going to Mongolia for many years and we recently caught up with him after his most recent visit to attend the Mongolia Green Development Conference in UlaanBaatar. Co-hosted by The Nature Conservancy, the Ministry of Nature, Environment & Green Development and the Business Council of Mongolia, the event was held to mark the 5th anniversary of TNC’s Mongolia program. Charles was also the recipient of the Ministry of Environment’s highest award as the industry’s “Best Worker/Nature’s Hero,” making him only the second foreign national to have ever received this honor.

horse_thumbAbout Photo: Charles Bedford, Director of The Nature Conservancy’s work in Asia Pacific, and Gala Davaa, Director of Conservation in Mongolia for the Conservancy, on horseback in Mongolia.

tnc.org.hk: How has Mongolia changed since the first time you went there?

Charles: Years ago, there was just a hint of change coming but now the mining sector is booming and the economy along with it. This poses great challenges for the people of Mongolia as they make the transformation from being a post-Soviet, recovering state to one needing to deal with the explosive growth of mineral rights. And as a highly literate and educated democracy, they are making the choice now between being the “Saudis of the Steppes” or traveling Norway’s path toward investing its mineral riches in sustainable development. The conservation movement is taking hold as well, due probably to the traditional connection between the health of the grasslands and the health and wealth of the people.

tnc.org.hk: To date, what has been the Conservancy’s team’s biggest accomplishment or success story in Mongolia?

Charles: There are three things that we’re the most proud of in Mongolia:

  • The government’s creation of 1.5 million hectares of protected areas, including a single 350,000-hectare tract on Mongolia’s fragile Eastern Steppes, based on our ecological plan for the steppes. These areas contain some of the world’s last, greatest grasslands, charismatic species and support the way of life of Mongolian herders.
  • Working with herders on managing the commons. The country’s constitution enshrines that all land belongs to all of the people but there has been a struggle to reconcile what this means in balancing the people’s traditional lifestyle with mineral development. Using science, TNC has played a crucial role in developing an eco-plan for grazing areas that supports Mongolia’s herders.
  • Last but not least, TNC has helped bring scientific analysis into the government’s land planning for the whole country, a big milestone achievement for us. We started by developing the eco-plan for the Eastern Steppe, which makes up a third of the country and were then asked to do the same for the Gobi area. Following the completion of the Gobi region’s assessment earlier this year, the government asked that TNC conduct an assessment for the rest of Mongolia. This will give a complete scientific picture of priority conservation areas across the entire country and form the underlying basis for the government’s national land development plan.

tnc.org.hk: What has been the most instrumental factor in furthering TNC’s great work in Mongolia?

Charles: The main factor in our success is that we have been incredibly lucky and fortunate to have our Mongolia staff, especially Gala Davaa, our Conservation Program Director in Mongolia, and Enkhtuya Oidov, our Mongolia Program Director,, who are the crème de la crème of Mongolia’s political and scientific establishment. Our people make the programs possible and successful.

Another factor is Mongolia’s enabling social environment that is hugely receptive to a science-backed planning approach for the government and its people.

tnc.org.hk: What would you recommend people see and experience when they visit Mongolia?

Charles: Mongolia is a big country and it’s kind of hard to choose just one thing, but the real magic and soul of the country is in the grasslands. Without having to go too far out of UlaanBaatar, you can visit the pastures supporting herder families and see the white dots of gers across the landscape. These families are following a lifestyle backed by a thousand years of history but are now equipped with solar panels for electricity and access to the wider world and other modern conveniences that make life a little easier. Experiencing the nomadic culture of Mongolia and seeing how that works for the people and how happy they are is essential in getting a good feel for the country. We once met an educated woman who had made the thoughtful decision to leave the city and go back to the grasslands for a healthier lifestyle and choices for her family. The beauty of Mongolia is in this integration and appreciation of the natural world. It’s inspiring.