Mongolia Establishes Support Program for Reindeer Herders

After four years of lobbying the Mongolian government to recognize the threats facing the indigenous nomadic Dukha reindeer herders, Cultural Survival’s Totem Project has achieved a significant victory. Project director Dan Plumley reports that in November the government established a Program to Improve the Life Standards of the Reindeer Herding Citizens and Reindeer Farming, a three-year, $300,000 commitment that will address most of the Dukha’s essential demands for support and services. The program will provide veterinary support for the Dukha’s reindeer herds, offer new veterinary training for the Dukha themselves and make available financial and technical aid for their native reindeer-antler craft and, increasingly, tourism-based economy. It will also give the Dukha direct access to medical checkups and offer preferred training to Dukha students pursuing a medical education. Furthermore, the government has agreed to support education in the Dukha’s own Tyvan language. The government has already established a national council to implement and oversee the program.

The program is the direct result of the Totem Project’s lobbying effort, which involved Plumley and his Mongolian colleagues bringing delegations of Dukha to the capital to meet with government ministers. Plumley and his associates helped the Dukha understand how to effectively lobby government agencies and how to make their case before Mongolian ministries, parliament, the president, and the press. The delegations explained their people’s circumstances and demanded that the government provide them the same kind of support that other Mongolians enjoy. The delegations kept notes of promises made by politicians, and called those politicians to task when they didn’t fulfill them. The regular contact and effective pressure gradually eroded the government’s indifference to the Dukha and led to the new program.

The Dukha are believed to be the first people to domesticate reindeer, in 2,500 BCE. They are nomadic hunters, using the reindeer as transportation and pack animals in the extremely remote and challenging mountain terrain along the Siberian border. They do not use the animals primarily for meat, but do use their milk. Their traditional way of life was disrupted during the Soviet period, when Mongolia adopted collectivization, and they have been trying to rebuild their herds ever since. Unfortunately, much of their traditional knowledge was lost, and when the Totem Project started, the herds were dwindling. Over the past eight years, the project has helped them double the size of their herd and also helped them develop a small but essential craft business built on carving reindeer antlers. It also has been working on health issues, with the project’s medical advisor Sas Carey conducting a health survey of all the Dukha and creating their first comprehensive health database—a tool that will play a vital role in the health care elements of the new national program.

The program is very welcome, but it does have one glaring flaw: an absence of Dukha involvement. “While it is heartening to hear from our colleagues about our unique role in realizing this potential sea-change program,” says Totem Project director Dan Plumley, “there is scarce time to rest on our laurels. Over the next several months, we must be working to insure direct representative participation by Dukha herders themselves on the national council. And we will need to promote the achievements and leading concepts from our collaborative work in Mongolia as a new platform for action across the border in Russia, where conditions for related native reindeer herders are far more bleak. Already Mongolian government leaders have asked for our direct assistance in implementing the new action program, while reindeer herders from Russia have stepped up their appeals to our Totem Project for support on similar cultural survival matters.”

CSQ Issue: