Natural Disaster, Mobility & Vulnerability in Mongolia


A review of Going on Otor: Disaster, Mobility, and the Political Ecology of Vulnerability in Uguumur, Mongolia, by Daniel Murphy.

In the winter of 2007-2008, natural disaster struck Mongolia. Drought hit first, then a brutal winter; herders began to suffer. For some, the calamity changed their lives forever. Many were trapped in degraded pastures, and, with nowhere to go, saw their animals perish. Others somehow survived unscathed; they negotiated an exit to fresher pastures, and when the worst came, they migrated out. The brutal weather pushed everyone, but only some experienced a true ‘natural disaster’ (zud). Two families, two outcomes: why would one suffer and the other survive? Why are some mobile and others vulnerable in modern Mongolia? What are the social roots of natural disasters?

Opening with these provocative questions, Daniel Murphy’s dissertation, ‘Going on Otor’ invites the reader into the fascinating world of post-socialist, rural Mongolia. The dissertation draws on over a year of anthropological fieldwork and represents an enormous achievement. His research site, Uguumur, is tiny; only 139 households belong to this rural community. Yet the intimate setting allows Murphy to paint a vivid picture of a small, but deeply fractured community. Even in the smallest of nomadic communities, deep social chasms separate neighbors – clefts of age, gender, ethnicity, and class. Mongolia’s recent ‘neo-liberal’ turn, Murphy argues, has only sharpened these old divisions: patriarchal and rich families are more mobile than ever; older, single-mother, minority, and poor families find themselves newly constricted.

The myth of the free and egalitarian nomad dies hard: no matter how many times we dismember this zombie theory, it rises again to attack the minds of students, scholars, and good-willed activists. ‘Going on Otor’ points in a less exotic direction: Inner Asia is profoundly integrated with global currents, and rural life can be more familiar than foreign. Modern pastoralism today is neither a quaint escape from city life nor an ‘enterprise of last resort’ (p. 100). In Mongolia, people are in it to get rich; everyone plays the market. The reader expecting a lost world inside the traditional Mongol ger will be disappointed: today’s nomads drive herds on blacktop highways, check spot prices by cell phone, and catch weather forecasts on satellite TV. The rural economy in Mongolia is booming, and since privatization began in 1992, the livestock population has risen from 27 to 44 million head. Meat and cashmere prices are rising, and competition is intense. Some herders succeed, others do not. Those without the necessary hardware, start-up capital, and connections are quickly driven out of the economy; many are forcibly ‘expelled’ (xuux) from the land by their neighbors.

The dissertation pursues three lines of inquiry: analysis of class formation and everyday inequalities; discussion of formal and informal controls over the pastoral economy; and case studies of household responses to the 2007-2008 zud. Each chapter opens with a brief historical outline, divided into pre-socialist, socialist, and post-socialist eras. Chapters 1 and 2 introduce the central problems, Chapters 3 to 6 examine household access to capital, labor, and land, and Chapters 7 to 9 explore constraints on mobility and individual responses to zud. Each chapter provides a wealth of new and challenging research, with telling quotations from field interviews, dozens of original GIS maps and quantitative tables, and added translations from Mongolian contracts and law. Indeed, one of the great strengths of Murphy’s study is his eye for detail. Another strength is its skillful navigation between local, regional, and global scales. The reader not only learns about life in Uguumur, but is ushered to the urban weigh-house, the Ulaanbaatar meat-market, and across the border to cashmere markets in China.

The heart of the dissertation, however, is in Uguumur, and the analytic focus is the production of vulnerability. Natural disasters have had a decisive impact on most rural families: in the three years between 1999 and 2002 alone, natural disaster destroyed one-third of Mongolia’s livestock population. Yet, as Murphy argues, such events are not anomalies; they are woven into the social fabric. Nor are they natural: there is no clean correlation between meteorological events and livestock mortality. Rather, following Bruno Latour, Murphy shows how natural disasters are rooted in social hierarchies and power dynamics. As the dissertation so convincingly argues, disaster is an effect, not a cause. Zud is ‘a product of history’ (p. 44).

Chapter 3 demonstrates, crucially, that the mortality of herds corresponds to herd size: the larger the herd, the lower the percent that die each year, and the greater number of calves born each spring. Before the collapse of socialism, herders were organized into collectives, and herd distribution was generally equalized. Today, the primary mode of acquiring livestock is inheritance, and yawning gaps separate rich from poor. The more livestock one has, in turn, the better one’s position at the marketplace. Wealthy households can wait out bear markets and specialize in meat or cashmere production; the poor can afford to do neither.

As Chapter 4 argues, the rich can also afford to hire surplus labor, a key but underappreciated ingredient for growth. Detailing the gender divisions and seasonal demands that define modern pastoral labor, the chapter emphasizes bottleneck periods when families depend on outside help. While many rely on family, increasingly households are turning to the labor market, where herders, milkmaids, shearers, cashmere combers, and butchers are all available. The chapter takes the reader through the complex employment process, from the job search, to contract negotiation, to the disciplining of hired hands. Contract laborers are often the talk of Uguumur: everyone knows who treats the help well and who poorly. The system has thus empowered wealthy households. Unlike kin-based employment, contracting allows households to respond more nimbly to market conditions, natural disasters, and poor performance; it also affords them greater control and leverage over hired hands, who lack connections within the family.

Chapters 5 and 6 shift the focus from livestock and labor to land. To control territory is to control people; in Mongolia, no ‘territory’ (nutag) is without a ‘master’ (ejen). Yet the principles governing access rights are complicated and often opaque. While sometimes herders use the state to support their claims, in practice rights are negotiated amongst herders themselves and solidified through informal mechanisms. Families dig wells, build permanent structures, spread gossip, and, when all else fails, forcefully evict intruders. No one agrees on what role the government should play in securing claims. Yet as the number of land disputes has risen since 2000, there is a growing sense that clearer rules will be necessary. On the other hand, NGO-led efforts to establish clear property standards have conspicuously failed. Crude assumptions about the communal nature of Mongolian herders haunted one local initiative, which only served to reinforce inequality: those with the most resources proved the most adept at leveraging the law.

The final chapters follow these lines of argument to explore how rich herders are more mobile than their neighbors. As Arun Agrawal, David Sneath, and others have argued, nomads are not simple, ecological creatures; they do not migrate in accordance with natural law. Rather, mobility reflects complex negotiations between people, and movement is inseparable from community and domestic politics. Focusing on the practice of otor, or temporary migrations during emergencies, Murphy outlines the process of decision making, from discussions between husbands and wives to negotiations with local administrators. Again, the state proves an inconsistent resource at best. During the zud of 2007-2008, the local government provided contracts that guaranteed emergency pastures to families going on otor. In practice, wealthier households successfully secured contracts and leveraged social networks outside Uguumur, while the poor struggled to obtain basic guarantees. The results on the ground were dramatic: the more mobile the family, the fewer the animals that died. The most successful families secured three emergency pastures and suffered a mere 2% mortality rate through the winter. Poor families, in contrast, were devastated.

Ultimately, no herder is autonomous, and all must negotiate access to resources with family, neighbors, independent contractors, NGOs, and the state. Yet in post-socialist, neo-liberal Mongolia, neighbors, the social safety net and the law are all unreliable. Despite the best efforts by NGOs and the central government, the rules of the game have grown increasing opaque and informal: neo-liberalism in practice means ‘uncertainty, instability, and insecurity’ (p. 71). In its place, Murphy research often shows how pre-socialist systems are making a comeback: as in the research of Caroline Humphrey and David Sneath, powerful families in Uguumur are resurgent, one’s inheritance is one’s future, and cash is once again king. Historians of imperial and Qing-period Mongolia will find a modern order that resonates with their own.

‘Going on Otor’ speaks to a wide spectrum of scholars in anthropology, geography, environmental studies, and history. It offers a fresh critique of neo-liberalism in the developing world, and adds new fodder to debates over rights, boundary maintenance, resource management, and pastoralism in practice. Further, with its emphasis on history in particular, the dissertation can serve as a useful springboard for dialogue between historians and anthropologists, as we continue to rethink the significance of commerce, rulership, and state formation in Mongolia. What produced vulnerability in previous eras, and what drove class differentiation? All scholars of Mongolia must contend with zombie tropes of the communal and ecological nomad. One hopes this richly argued and densely researched dissertation will hammer in the final nail in an increasingly nail-studded coffin.

Jonathan Schlesinger
Indiana University at Bloomington
Department of History

Primary Sources

Field Research, 2007-2008 Uguumur, Mongolia (Bayakhutag aimag)
Survey of 68 households, together with semi-structured interviews
Interviews of bag (sub-district) and soum (district) governors, administrators, extension agents, members of resource management institutions, elders, and prominent members of the local community

Dissertation Information

University of Kentucky, 2011. 610 pp. Primary Advisor: Peter Little.

Image: Photograph by Daniel Murphy

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