Subsistence Patterns Term Paper

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Subsistence Patterns

In today's modern, global market, many societies have altered their way of life to capitalize on technological advancements and new concepts of social structure and business. As the world has changed, most societies have adapted to the new situations and many have actually benefited. Some societies, on the other hand, have struggled to maintain their lifestyles and cultures in the modern era, and have continued to rely on traditions and customs of herding in order to sustain their economic, political, and societal patterns. The nomadic Mongolian pastoralists are one such group and their reliance on this subsistence pattern has created problems both economically and politically in the last few decades. Unless measures are taken, either by the Mongolian pastoralists themselves or by the government of Mongolia, the subsistence of the Mongolian pastoralists may be in jeopardy.

First, it is important to understand the subsistence pattern practiced by many of the Mongolian people, that of pastoralism. Pastoralism, according to Fratkin (1997), is the practice of human populations using the products of herd animals for survival in areas with scarce other resources. Jamieson (1985) further clarifies this idea by describing the basic components of a pastoralist society. He notes that, generally speaking, pastoralists rely far more on a single subsistence force, that of the herd animal, than either horticultural or fishing societies, primarily due to their disdain for horticulture as a means of subsistence. These animals provide food, shelter materials, milk, skins, and a source of economic income in some cases, if the herder sells the animal (Jamieson, 1985).

Jamieson (1985) also notes that most pastoralists are nomadic only between seasons, since the seasonal changes in their environments require movement to areas with grazing capabilities in any given season. These nomadic types are known as transhumance pastoralists, indicating a migration period between summer and winter months between two distinct areas. Usually, herders move their animals from the high upland pastures used in summer to lower pastures during the winter. It is primarily because of this nomadic necessity that some animals, such as cattle, sheep, and goats are most often used as the subsistence animal. Animals such as pigs are not as easily migrated (Jamieson, 1985).

For Mongolian pastoralists, the subsistence pattern of life revolves around camels, goats, and sheep in the Gobi Desert, and cattle, yaks, and sheep in the northern steppes. Horses are also herded in both areas (Fratkin, 1997). Mongolia is unique, in that while half of the population lives primarily in the capital of Ulanbaatar, forty percent of the population participates in pastoral production (Kratli, 2000). Prior to decentralization in 1991, this practice provided over forty percent of the country's exports, and over half of the nation's gross domestic product. Further, the country's inhabitants consume the highest amount of meat and milk per capita in the world, thanks to the vast number of livestock available from the pastoral populations (Fratkin, 1997). Estimates in 2001 placed the number of livestock belonging to the Mongolian pastoralists at roughly 28 million head, including all herd animals, with the human population at only 2.5 million (Fernandez-Gimenez, 2001).

Mongolian pastoralists are semi-nomadic, or transhumance, migrating between the seasons to allow their herds to feed. These populations use typically used communal rangelands in a sustainable manner, coordinating grazing throughout the years to allow regrowth of necessary grasslands (Bedunah and Schmidt, 2004). Each group usually has at least three established camps within specific pasture areas. In spring and winter, the pastoralists use previously set-aside pasture areas, since these seasons represent harsh, non-growing seasons, while during the summer and fall, grazing occurs as the herders move the animals to areas with proper food and water. Variations to these patterns occur based on quality of the pastures, water availability, and social consideration. In cases of drought or severe storms, the pastoralists move to the territories of other groups, who typically let them use the reserve pastures (Fernandez-Gimenez, 2001). In this way, the Mongolian pastoralists are able to consistently sustain the natural resources necessary to maintain their herds. Since those herds provide them with not only food, milk, clothing, building supplies and other sustaining products, but also provide them with a means of trade for any items the animals cannot provide, sustaining food and water for those animals is vital.

Jamieson (1985) also distinguishes between Mongolian pastoral societies and those of more simple societies, in that the Mongolians are more complex. As larger societies, these communities tend to use pack and draft animals to move their possessions to and from migration points, which allows them to own at least some material possessions. He points out that the Mongolian pastoralists of Central and Eastern Asia even build houses that are portable to allow their families to migrate with them and the herds (Jamieson, 1985).

Further, while many pastoralist communities are mostly illiterate, the Mongolian population had reached an almost 100% literacy rate by 1990. Considering that over 40% of the population is nomadic pastoralists, this literacy rate is astounding. However, Mongolian nomadic societies place a high value on education, since it is through these educational institutions that children learn of subsistence methods and modern technologies to sustain herds and lands. Thus, educational institutions complete with dormitories are established in almost every rural area, including the pastoral territories (Kratli, 2000).

Economic and political patterns of the Mongolian pastoralists have shifted in recent years, primarily due to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Prior to this point, Mongolia relied heavily on support from the Soviet Union, as communal cooperatives were encouraged. These cooperatives provided for the pooling of economic resources to build winter shelters, and increase herd counts. Further, the collective furnished transportation for the necessary moves during winter and spring, as well as provided for veterinary service and animal breeding (Fratkin, 1997).

However, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the government, previously involved in the pastoralist productions, was pressured by the World Bank to decentralize the nomadic societies and to push for privatization. As a result, the cooperative unions were destroyed, and the economic foundation of the pastoralist subsistence pattern was altered. Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, collectives owned over 68% of livestock. As early as 1994, over 90% were privately owned (Fratkin, 1997).

As mentioned, the economic subsistence of pastoral life revolves around the ability to care for the herd animals. This care involves migration to new territories for food and water, as well as the ability to maintain a large herd. With collectives, this was entirely possible. However, as Mongolia has shifted to privatization, migration patterns have diminished. According to Fernandez-Gimenez (2001), herders typically migrated 200 to 300 km per year under Soviet rule, but today's private owners typically have to confine movements to smaller areas within single ecological zones. As a result, Mongolian pastoralists must rely more and more on changes in elevation, rather than changes in territory, to maintain their economic stability. Consequently, the economic stability of this subsistence pattern has been reduced, and according to Mearns (2004), a third of the population has been living under the poverty line since 1995. Prior to privatization, poverty among Mongolian pastoralists was almost unheard of.

The political patterns, too, have changed drastically. As mentioned, the changeover from a Soviet leadership to a Democratic government has also meant drastic changes to landscape protections, an issue which directly affects pastoralist communities. Following the Soviet collapse, a number of vital grassland areas have been placed under national protection in the new democracy. According to Bedunah and Schmidt (2004), by the year 2000, over 13% of Mongolia was under federal protection. These restrictions mean fewer lands for herd animals, and with an increase in herding due to a loss of economically viable positions in urban areas, the results are a lack of sustainability and biodiversity within the existing rangelands.

Aside from these alterations to economic and political patterns, the previous way of life for the Mongolian pastoralists has also changed in the modern era. Herders previously virtually ignored by political parties are now more closely supervised by authorities, in response to increases in illegal grazing and territorial grazing conflicts. Migratory patterns are now preplanned, based on reports of graze conditions and varying weather patterns. Further, herding as a way of subsistence has been replaced in many cases with herding for profit alone (Bedunah and Schmidt, 2004).

Modernization, however, has not been entirely negative for these communities. Previously rough winters are now survived in herding camps, which are provided by the government with coal, generators, and even television and radios. Herding centers have become almost outposts, where assemblies and government elections can occur, ensuring that the pastoralists remain politically active. Hospitals, schools, veterinary clinics, repair shops, trading posts, and storage facilities, all previously inaccessible to most, are readily available (Bedunah and Schmidt, 2004).

There can be no question that modernization in Mongolia has drastically altered the lives and economic stability of the pastoralists. Higher numbers of herders with less land for grazing ha caused drastic price… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Subsistence Patterns.  (2005, November 7).  Retrieved December 15, 2019, from

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"Subsistence Patterns."  7 November 2005.  Web.  15 December 2019. <>.

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"Subsistence Patterns."  November 7, 2005.  Accessed December 15, 2019.