Shifting Livelihoods: Trends of Pastoralist Drop-Out and Rural to Urban Migration in Mongolia

Originally published


1) Summary

“Pastoralist drop-out” – an abrupt cessation of traditional pastoralist livelihood activities, whether dictated by circumstance or more voluntary in nature – and the subsequent rural to urban migration that it entails has been rapidly increasing in Mongolia over the past two decades. This relatively new phenomenon is accompanied by profound and comprehensive demographic, socio-economic, and socio-cultural changes. This increasingly apparent and problematic shift is sure to have lasting implications for Mongolian society.

Mongolians have been “a mobile people” for millennia. Virtually every aspect of the established Mongolian society has been influenced to some extent by a strong tradition of nomadic-pastoralist livelihoods. Modern diets, social ceremonies, cultural identity, and even the tourist industry all have their roots in a longstanding nomadic lifestyle.

More recently, however, “Mongolian mobility” has taken on a new dimension. Rural to urban migration has been one of the defining demographic trends of Mongolia for nearly a half century; however, during the two decades since the end of the socialist era, the rate has increased enormously. While rural to urban migration in more industrial countries may be linked to economic development and rising affluence, Mongolia’s trend in urbanisation is much more strongly correlated to increasing vulnerability resulting from a progressive deterioration of rural livelihoods systems, most notably the livestock sector. In a sense, rural to urban migration is driven by long-term, slowonset stress migration, resulting from a lack of viable livelihood options in rural areas.

The declining productivity of the pastoralist livelihood system is frequently amplified by natural disasters, most notably drought and dzuds, which result in periodic surges in rural to urban migration rates – most recently following the dzuds of the late 1990s and early 2000s and again in 2009-2010. With 1.3 million currently living in the capital, or just under half of the entire population, the city is continually expanding as “ger districts”, the Mongolian form of slums, spread haphazardly into the surrounding hills. Ulaanbaatar’s growth rates were miniscule through the 1940’s. The first major wave of rural to urban migration did not occur until the late 1950’s (due to the socialist state’s need for certain human resources in certain sectors) and the numbers of new arrivals has continued to rise in every decade since.