Mongolia's nomadic lifestyle is under threat – but Australian graziers could help



July 13, 2017 15:56:12

Across the vast plains of Mongolia there is a quickening population drift to the towns and cities, and it is sweeping away the traditional life of nomadic livestock raising.

“There has been a big shift in Mongolia from herder lifestyle to urbanisation,” explains photographer Jerry Galea.

“Lots of herders are leaving that lifestyle behind and moving into the city.”

In the 1950s the country was 20 per cent urban. Today it is about 70 per cent, far higher than the average in Asia.

Galea, a former press photographer, first visited Mongolia in 2001.

Instantly captivated by the beauty of the country and the richness of its culture, he took hundreds of photos.

However, when he returned in 2015, he was astounded at the rate and degree of change.

From a country that till recently had very few cameras, it now has all the technological trappings of the Western world.

“Photography was everywhere,” Galea said.

“People had smart phones and digital technology with cameras, and people were able to take photos. I was quite interested in that process and what photography means to them now.”

As part of his PhD, Galea organised a cultural exchange program for a young Mongolian photographer to visit Australia.

A fundraising exhibition held at Melbourne’s Magnet Gallery last year provided enough money for a month-long visit by emerging social documentary photographer Davaanyam Delgerjargal.

The duo set out to document the closest thing Australia has to a nomadic livestock-raising lifestyle — alpine cattle grazing in Victoria’s high country.

“Mongolia is a herder society essentially and they love their animals and they’re quite connected to their animals, their horses, their cows, their goats, and there’s a real connection, a spiritual connection actually,” Galea said.

Delgerjargal’s ancestors were nomadic herders.

“Because Mongolian people are nomadic people, every season we tend to move to a different place, then live at another place where it has better grass,” Delgerjargal said.

Through his often gritty images Delgerjargal has already done much to document the enormous social changes occurring in Mongolia, a country of 3 million people landlocked between Russia and China.

The big picture

His visit to Australia was far more than merely trying to take good photographs.

Delgerjargal visited rural communities and leading cattle growing properties to gain insights into how rural communities in Mongolia might become more sustainable.

“I really see the farming and the lifestyle, how the farmers live, along with their cattle in Australia is very fascinating,” the 28-year-old said.

“Really the main thing that I want to take back home is how fascinating I have found the farming life in Australia and through my work I’d like to express it because of the great rate of country people shifting into the city.

“There are certain possibilities how we could sustain even a better life at home without having to move to the city. And of course it is not an easy task or an issue that can be solved easily but at least I want to get people thinking about how it is possible to still live a great life in the countryside.”

In future the photographs taken by Galea and Delgerjargal will be exhibited in Melbourne and Mongolia, and there are plans for a more unconventional public art showing in Victoria’s high country.

“We might actually blow up mural sized images and put them onto old shearing sheds and so forth,” Galea said.

“So it’s a bit of taking the art back to where it comes from, as opposed to having four walls and exhibition space, so we want to take the art back to the people.”

Galea’s research is also exploring how cameras are now being used in Mongolia.

“I’ve actually given cameras, previously, to people who live nomadically as herders and now live in urban centres … I’ve given them cameras, I’ve asked them to photograph their own lives and I’m really interested in how they use cameras, what they take photos of and culturally how they use their photographs in Mongolia,” he said.

It is hoped sales of photographs and sponsorship will give another young Mongolian a similar opportunity to visit Australia next year.

“His images are quite different to mine but he’s really captured an essence of the people and the landscape,” Galea said.

Delgerjargal hopes his art can be a powerful means to slowing the rate of rural change, to “show the people that there are possibilities for us Mongolians to live in a way that the Australians are doing”.

“So maybe instead of shifting to the city excessively we could still maintain our life in the nomadic way, if not in the nomadic way, still in our countryside and amongst our beautiful wildlife,” he said.

Tim Lee’s story Mongolian Beef screens on Landline this Sunday at noon.












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