Sunday, December 30, 2007

Excellent Mongolia Paper

Here’s an paper comparing development in Mongolia with that of Montana and Wyoming by the Dutch Neoliberal Paul Treanor. The analysis of economic life in both Mongolia and the American West is incisive, and the prescience of the 7-year-old article is gripping, as the predicted pattern of development is what has happened and is happening in Mongolia. The example of Albania is novel and illuminating. There is no fear here to label poverty as poverty; though the evidence provided for rural Mongolian living conditions is anecdotal, scant, and out-of-date, I wouldn’t contest the assertion. The bibliography and links are excellent. The whole paper is striking, but I’ve excerpted the keenest moments, which are numerous.

Treanor concludes that the two areas are not very comparable. I wonder that a worthy comparison might be made between Montana/Wyoming and Inner Mongolia, which is “part of a larger state” where the “original inhabitants” have been “marginalised for generations”: the point near the end of the paper about a model for invasion piques the substitution of “Han” for “Europeans,” and “Mongols” for “American Indians.”

"Mongolia and Wyoming/Montana

"Will regional development in Mongolia follow the model of the comparable areas in North America? The states of Montana and Wyoming (and adjoining areas in Canada) are the only region outside Eurasia, with a comparable climate and population density. At present a 'third-world' pattern, of primate-city growth and rural decline, seems probable in Mongolia. Revised April 2001....

"At present, about 40% of the population are nomadic herders, the highest percentage in the world. Standards of living in rural Mongolia are probably comparable with rural West Africa. The Soviet-promoted local industrial sector has collapsed: it was mainly in Ulaan Bataar anyway. The national economy is now dependent on the export of minerals, especially copper. Maintaining nomadic pastoralism is not a long-term option: it would mean permanent poverty. It would seem that in the long term (more than one generation), the rural areas will lose most of their population. The rest will go to Ulaan Bataar, the only large city...

"Comparing Mongolia with Wyoming/Montana

:: Mongolia :: Wyoming + Montana
[population] density :: 1,5 / km2 :: 2,1 / km2
employment in agriculture :: 40% to 45% :: 6%
ethnic origin :: indigenous Mongol and minorities :: almost entirely post-1850 immigrant
minorities :: Kazakh 6% :: American Indians 4,5% Hispanic 2%
coal output :: 5 million metric tons :: 355 million tons

"[B]oth regions have the same economic basis: mining. No major industry ever developed in Wyoming and Montana anyway: and in Mongolia the non-extractive industrial sector has collapsed. So there has been a certain convergence of the economic base - but that base is better developed in the two US states anyway. Although reports on Mongolia refer to the 'massive' Soviet-built coal mines, Wyoming produces far more coal (over 300 million tons)....

"General agricultural productivity on Mongolian territory is very low. Compare Mongolia with agriculture in Poland (still considered a low-productivity agricultural sector in comparison with western Europe). In 1997...[m]eat production per km2 was 50 times higher in Poland. These figures are for total land area, and reflect primarily the difference in climate, geography, and ecology. In fact much of Mongolia is 'agricultural land', perhaps more than in Poland, but only in the sense that herds sometimes graze there. It took about 40% of the population to reach even that level of meat production....

"The low agricultural productivity reflects the harsh climate of Mongolia. In fact the combination of cold and aridity is probably harsher than in Wyoming and Montana. In relation to the ecological limitations, the inhabitants had successfully adapted to these harsh conditions. The system of pastoral nomadism in Mongolia emerged over a period of thousands of years… It survived almost unchanged until about 1910....

"In other words, there was in Mongolia a unity of culture, history, economy and society based on pastoral nomadism....

"In contrast, the original inhabitants of Wyoming and Montana were militarily defeated, and marginalised for generations. (The Indian Reservations are known, even outside the United States, as examples of marginalisation). An entirely new society and economy was substituted for the existing version. The new population came primarily from rural Europe: for them, food production meant primarily the family farm. During the 19th century, the immigrants developed a cultural adaptation to the steppe/prairie zone: the cattle ranch.... But despite all the great cowboy mythology, the settlement of the American west was not primarily based on ranching. It certainly could not be based on ranching today: the ranch population is now a fraction of the state total....

"The first transcontinental railroad (Union Pacific) was built through Wyoming, two others through Montana. These rail lines had an important effect on the settlement pattern (more on this below). The rail lines were followed by transcontinental roads and motorways, gas pipelines, and the electricity grid. In contrast, the trans-Mongolia rail link was only completed in 1956: it is still single-track and, not electrified. There is only one ancient trade route through Mongolia (along this line), the so-called Tea Road.

"Perhaps the single most important difference is that Mongolia is not part of a larger state - certainly not a rich one. Wyoming and Montana are part of the richest state on earth. How many people would live there, if there were no federal Government transfer payments into the area? Without federal money for roads, military bases, pensions, and educational or health funds, perhaps there would be only coal-miners. A large proportion of the population, in remote areas of the USA, are being 'paid to live there', in this sense - despite the ideological and cultural commitment to the free market....

"(The location of military bases was a typical means for remote areas to secure inflows of federal funds). In Mongolia there were substantial transfers from the Soviet Union until 1989, some also in the form of military base activity. They may have amounted to 30% of GDP. However that was still small in absolute terms. It was not enough, for instance, to allow construction of surfaced roads to the provincial capitals

"A second important factor is the cultural uniformity of the United States, which allows migration to remote areas. The Rocky Mountain states in the USA have the policy option of promoting leisure and retirement housing development... But future in-migration to Mongolia from high-income areas (western Europe) is unlikely. Language and cultural barriers are very great...

"Local government in Mongolia is probably more rational, than its equivalent in the western United States. ...[T]he local government fragmentation, seen in some eastern European countries, has been avoided....

"In Wyoming and Montana there are two distinct types of local government unit: the county, and the seven Indian Reservations.... The reservations have far-reaching autonomy and deal directly with the federal Government, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Curiously, the United States and the former Soviet Union share this pattern, of non-comparable ethnic local government units. The Soviet Union had a standard provincial unit, the oblast, but also ethnic autonomous republics (and regions) of varying sizes. True, the system was under tight control of the Communist Party - but nevertheless the principle of ethnic government was accepted. It has survived into the present Russian Federation.... The impact of Indian self-government in the United States is limited: the total Indian and Alaska native population is less than the population of Mongolia... Montana population was 6% Indian in 1994, in Wyoming only 2% are Indian.... Probably the state borders are more of an obstacle to regional policy, than the presence of Indian tribal territories.

"The future regional structure in Mongolia

"There is no indigenous urban tradition in Mongolia, although some large monasteries were quasi-urban settlements....

"Rural densities are determined by the carrying capacity of the pastures: as low as 0,1 persons/km2 in the Gobi, 2 persons/km2 in the forest-steppe zone. Low density does not mean 'evenly spread'. Half the population lives in the three northern aimaks, containing the three main cities Ulaan Bataar, Erdenet and Darhan - on just 11% of the territory. A larger central zone has about two-thirds of the population, on one-third of the territory: it includes the ecologically favoured Khangai region. This concentration appears to be accelerating, with faster growth in the rural aimaks there. In contrast, the desert zone along the southern border with China is empty: so is most of Dornod aimak. There are also some empty areas in the mountains along the northern border, such as the Hentii range north-east of Ulaan Bataar.

"Inside each province, there is also an uneven distribution of population. The 1990 National Atlas shows, that even a nomadic population is concentrated in favourable areas. That means primarily along river valleys, and in the foothills of mountain ranges. In the highest mountain zones (in the west), population is concentrated in the valleys, and in some classic oasis settlements....

"The Gobi population is small enough, in absolute terms, to fit into a few mining and oil towns. In contrast, the forest-steppe zone will probably lose much of its population. Why this prediction? It is extremely unlikely that the nomadic pastoral lifestyle will survive for another generation: overall productivity is extremely low. If a high-productivity form of meat production replaced nomadic herding, the rural population might be partly stabilised. If not, then the rural population will have the choice of staying where they are, as the poorest people in Asia - or migrating. Given the predicted growth of the Chinese economy, and the demographic labour shortage in Russia and western Europe, emigration will probably be easier than at present....

"The exceptional status of Ulaan Bataar is obvious. The industrial centres Darhan, Erdenet and (on a smaller scale Choibalsan), are the result of planned concentration of investment. They were created by decisions at national level. […] Industrialisation of the aimak centres seems improbable. They are remote and relatively small, with no existing industry, except processing meat and hides....

"The most reasonable prediction of the future population distribution is that the majority of Mongolians will live in one city. At present the best example of 'primate city' growth is Tirana in Albania. That is also a country with extreme rural poverty, and a collapsed industrial sector. Tirana has doubled (perhaps tripled) its population in a decade. However Albania also has a rich neighbour, Italy, and an extremely high rate of illegal emigration. And it has an urban tradition in the coastal regions, and an existing urban hierarchy with regional centres. Mongolia's medium-term future is extreme rural poverty, little emigration, and 100% concentration of development in Ulaan Bataar. That suggests massive movement to the capital.

"It would be difficult to build up regional centres, as a balance for this trend (the classic French 'growth pole' model). In the west the only candidate is Hovd, and it could only serve the 3 western aimaks, with 267 000 inhabitants. In the east Choibalsan is the largest centre, but much of the region is completely empty. If it grew, it would not be a regional centre, but an isolated city in the steppe. The aimak centres in the Khangai are the best candidates, for a 'regional' centre... Although Arvaiheer is a small town, it already has a paved road to the capital, and it is growing faster than other aimak centres. But for all these Khangai towns, the problem is the same. Density is low, transport infrastructure is oriented to the capital, there are no transverse routes. If people must travel two days in winter to reach a small regional capital, then they will probably travel in three days to Ulaan Bataar instead. The 'regional pole' policies in Europe moved a selected city upwards in the urban hierarchy, to become the regional centre. This logic applies inside a well-developed urban hierarchy, but not in Mongolia....

"All in all, at least a doubling of the Ulaan Baataar population seems probable, and at least a 40% share of national population, probably ultimately 60%. The UN medium variant projected 2050 population for Mongolia is 4 398 000 so that would mean a city of 1,7 million or 2,7 million. That is not unusual for Asia: some cities in 'Inner Mongolia', part of China, are already in this size range.

"With this scenario in mind, look again at the economy and population distribution in Wyoming/Montana. What makes it different? Why don't 500 000 people live in Billings, Montana, for example? With US standards of living, they can certainly afford it. Why are they living in small towns instead, and what work do they do there? This is the usefulness of the comparison: it allows a possible alternative for the 'Ulaan Bataar scenario' to be formulated.

"From this perspective the comparison with Canada is less useful. The Province of Alberta seems the closest correspondence in terms of climate, landforms and vegetation. However, this table of the Alberta urban hierarchy (from a report of the Electoral Boundaries Commission) indicates why Alberta is not a good comparison: it is more urbanised, and population density is almost 3 times higher.... The higher population density reflects the large area of arable land in Alberta, and 40 years of oil and gas exports.

"Small-town Montana and Wyoming

"Sheridan, Wyoming is a random example. The population is 14 800, the size of the smallest aimak centres in Mongolia. Another 10 000 live in the surrounding Sheridan County. Even a glance at the the Sheridan Directory website shows the vast difference between life in a remote region of a rich country and in a remote area of a very poor country. Sheridan is 215 km from Billings, Montana, the regional centre. It is 700 km from Denver (Colorado), the nearest large city. The Chamber of Commerce profile shows it has 33 doctors and 16 dentists, 6 libraries, 3 swimming pools, 2 golf courses and 13 tennis courts, 4 local radio stations, 38-channel cable tv, and 7 banks. There is not just piped water and electricity, but a sewage system, sewage plant, and even separate storm drains. A rail line, and the Interstate Highway I-90 (Chicago-Seattle), run through the county.

"...[T]he major employers are related to the transcontinental transit function (railroad, motels), or to 'regional development' in the form of federal facilities (Veterans Administration hospital), or nationally funded government services (local government, schools, hospitals). The extractive industries are also represented, mining, wood processing. In turn this supports an extensive retail and personal services sector.

"Transit functions in Sheridan are still important. But when the railroads were the only long-distance transport, they were probably even more important. That leads to the issue of their influence on settlement. And this seems the key to the population distribution in Montana and Wyoming. Of the 21 largest settlements...14 are on a transcontinental rail line....

"A good comparison with Sheridan is the smaller town of Riverton, Wyoming, located off the main transcontinental routes.... More than in Sheridan, the major employers are government-funded, or service the local market... Riverton's regional economy seems dependent on irrigated agriculture, small oil fields, and (for about 30 years) on uranium. The irrigation was a government project: even in such a remote area, the external economy and government intervention have created high-productivity employment....

"Small-town Mongolia

"In contrast to the high standard of living in Sheridan and Riverton, rural Mongolia is still firmly in the Third World. The normal conditions of life are, by US standards, acute poverty. According to the 2000 population census, half the countries households still live in a ger (the traditional nomads tent). Two-thirds of the rural population have no electricity, only 2% have a telephone....

"In rural areas it seems that only those who have successfully continued (or returned to) nomadic herding can avoid destitution. And even those only survive, no more.


"Some simple conclusions are possible from the comparisons here. The first is that the areas are less comparable than at first sight. In particular, Montana and Wyoming seem to have more energy and mineral resources. These have been developed for a longer period, so that there is a good local technical infrastructure.

"Second, Mongolia seems so disadvantaged for agriculture, that not even Montana and Wyoming are a good comparison. And this position is unlikely to be reversed, because food production elsewhere can be more easily expanded. China already produces 265 times as much meat as Mongolia. In other words, a 0,4% improvement in productivity there, means more meat than a doubling of Mongolian output. The money needed to transform Mongolian agriculture, into something like Wyoming agriculture, can almost certainly be better spent elsewhere. And even Wyoming-style rural development would still mean that most of the rural population migrate to urban areas.

"Third, a related issue: farming areas of Wyoming and Montana were settled by Europeans under very different agricultural conditions. When population was growing faster than the increase in output per hectare, the only way to feed more people was to use more land. In the last generation, that necessity has disappeared. In the European Union, huge areas of agricultural land, created in the last 1500 years, will be abandoned in the next 25 years. Market forces will probably lead to a similar transformation in the USA.... However, that does not necessarily mean total depopulation. The EU openly subsidises such areas, the United States does that more indirectly. US mountain communities still have votes and political influence - enough to get some federal projects diverted to their area ('pork-barrelling'). And they still receive pensions and health care. This hidden transfer funding slows the population mobility, for which the US is famous. It tends to fossilise the existing settlement pattern.

"Mongolian herders have votes too, but there is no 'pork barrel' for them. No rich federal government will build expensive projects in small provincial towns. The despised Soviet Union was the only state which funded places like Baruun-Urt and Mandalgovi. It is hard to imagine Japan or the EU paying to maintain such settlements - if there is no direct economic advantage.

"A fourth conclusion is that Wyoming and Montana have benefited from the multiple transcontinental routes. In Mongolia there is only one, and it passes through Ulaan Bataar anyway. It will not decentralise development....

"A fifth conclusion is about a false idea: that Mongolia can go through a social/technological phase similar to 19th century Wyoming and Montana. In other words, that it can transform itself into something like 20th century Wyoming/Montana - and yet maintain the unity of culture, economy and society associated with the centuries of pastoral nomadism. But there were no indigenous pastoral nomads in Wyoming/Montana. In the 19th century, no immigrant pastoral nomads came to Wyoming/Montana either. There was no switch from pastoral nomadism to ranching. The American Indians did not make a successful economic transition to ranching, or indeed anything else. They were sent to Reservations, and an entirely new culture, economy and society was built up around them by immigrants. Wyoming and Montana are suitable historical models for an invasion of Mongolia, not for its regional development.

"A sixth conclusion is that 'economic regionalisation' of Mongolia is difficult, in both senses of the term.... The economic-spatial structure of Mongolia is, in simple form, Ulaan Bataar plus pasture land. One city at one location, and 33 million head of livestock spread over 1,5 million km2. Of course, that is an exaggeration and a distortion - but less so than in more densely populated and urbanised countries, where there are more centres and networks of all kinds.

"The general conclusion from the comparisons here is: a Wyoming/Montana pattern of settlement and regional development in Mongolia is unlikely. A third-world flight from rural poverty into slums around Ulaan Bataar seems the probable future. The elimination of poverty in that city will probably be dependent on industrialisation - on the model of the Chinese inland cities to the south. Romantic ideas about a 'sustainable' rural development (promoted by some western activists), are not just unlikely, but unethical. There can be no 'return to tradition' here, because the country has far more people than in the traditional period. (In 1918, before the changes, there were 650 000 inhabitants, a quarter of the present population). So-called 'sustainable' herding would condemn the rural population to permanent poverty, since the inherent productivity of the land is so low. If such a lifestyle were subsidised by rich countries (directly, or through tourism), it would transform the rural areas into a 'Mongol Heritage' theme park. No population would voluntarily and permanently choose either of these alternatives: they would evade them by emigration (legal or illegal). If these were the only futures for a majority of the population, then they could only be enforced in the long term, by closing the border and making the country a prison."

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


A hippopotamus skull.


Latin: “solus ipse
“myself alone”

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Alt Pitch

In your lifetime, virtual reality will become indistinguishable from physical reality.

Consider that. Now ask yourself: how can you know whether the universe you are experiencing right now is real, or immaterial?

The answer is: you cannot know.

After you have accepted this natural, essential, inescapable state of knowledgelessness. . .and hopelessness. . .what do you then do?

One man went out into the Mongolian steppe.

There, he found horror and glory.

- A mythical hero. -
- A spectacular story. -
- The true nature of existence. -

Melville -- “the sanction of the religion of the meek”

“Bluntly put, a chaplain is the minister of the Prince of Peace serving in the host of the God of War—Mars. As such, he is as incongruous as a musket would be on the altar at Christmas. Why, then, is he there? Because he indirectly subserves the purpose attested by the cannon; because too he lends the sanction of the religion of the meek to that which practically is the abrogation of everything but brute Force.”

--Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor (An inside narrative), 1891 (1924)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mongol Empire expansion and fracture

Biology (Wholphin)

photograph: wholphin on the bottom, with the two parents

"A wholphin or wolphin is a rare hybrid, born from a mating of a bottlenose dolphin Tursiops truncatus and a false killer whale Pseudorca crassidens (actually another dolphin species, taxonomically speaking)....

"The first captive wholphin was born in 1985 where a female bottlenose dolphin and a male false killer whale shared a pool. The wholphin's size, color and shape are intermediate between the parent species. Named Kekaimalu, she has 66 teeth - intermediate between a bottlenose (88 teeth) and false killer whale (44 teeth)."


Asian Gypsy blog

A blog:

Asian Gypsy - Musings of a Mongolian Wanderer
Daily musings and misadventures of Mongolians

An excerpt:

"This is Miss Mongolia with the most bizarre headgear I have ever seen, one that resembles mountain-goat horns, I presume. There's art, there's eccentric art and then there's just downright bizarre and ridiculous. But to her credit, she seems to be balancing this designer horn-fetish quite well."

Sunday, December 09, 2007


“The remnant of Indians thereabout—all but exterminated in their recent and final war with regular white troops, a war waged by the Red Man for their native soil and natural rights—had been coerced into the occupancy of wilds not very far beyond the Mississippi—wilds then, but now the seats of municipalities and States. Prior to that, the bisons, once countless in processional herds, or browsing as in an endless battle-line over these vast aboriginal pastures, had retreated, dwindled in number, before the hunters...”

--Herman Melville, “John Marr,” 1888

Sunday, December 02, 2007

PEN in Mongolia


"This is an announcement of and invitation to the first meeting about a Mongolian PEN Centre for Writers. The aim of a successful PEN Centre is the promotion of Mongolian literature and its translation and publication around the world. The meeting will be held at 2pm on Wednesday, December 5th at the Mongolian Academy of Traditions. The link to International PEN can be found here: if you would like more information. Please spread the word to anyone who might be interested!

"Thank you,

"Ming Holden
International Relations Advisor, Mongolian Writer's Union
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia"

The Miracle

Sleep is lovely, death is better still,
not to have been born is of course the miracle.

--Heinrich Heine, "Morphine"