The Social Conditions of Wildfire in Mongolia

(IFFN No. 21 - September 1999,p. 75-80)


The increased awareness in the 90s of "natural disasters" and their effects on the human population has been widely publicized. The destruction which wildfires pose in various parts of the world has not escaped the media's attention. Yet, seldom reported are the effects which anthropogenic activity has on the natural environment surrounding human populations. There exists a two-way street rarely spoken of. As pointed out by Machlis (1995) the conservation movement has come to recognize that biophysical and social systems are "inextricably intertwined". Not only are humans effected by natural catastrophes but, to some extent and without intention, even affect them. Hence, the global wildfire trend in many parts of the world is only an example of the effects of human activity in anthropogenically engineered landscapes. It is undeniable that human and social conditions potentially play a critical role in the shaping of the natural environment.

Mongolia, like other countries having abandoned a centralized command economy in the early 90s to embrace an open market one, is currently undergoing the effects of this transition. In addition, the challenges to adapt to political changes from a socialist system to a democratic one in 1996 requires the element of time. Both political and economic level transitions are effected by, and bear consequences at the social level. Similarly, changes at the social level often have a direct impact on the surrounding natural environment. It is with this awareness that plans for the implementation of changes must be considered if they are to be successful in alleviating anthropogenically induced environmental disasters.

Based on the recognition of an inherent symbiotic relationship between the social and natural environments pertaining to the wildfire problem in Mongolia, a four month intensive research study was conducted under the auspices of the GTZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit) to identify the underlying reasons for increased wildfire occurrence, particularly acute in Mongolia since 1996. The research findings were extensive, touching upon all aspects (political, economic, and social) of Mongolian culture as they pertain to wildfire. This article, for purposes of brevity, will therefore only summarize some of the more particular social conditions relating to the current wildfire problem in Mongolia.

Mongolia's Current Wildfire Situation

Though Mongolia's forest types are naturally adapted to fire, the increase in fire frequency and intensity within the past few years has disturbed this naturally occurring cycle. Forests cover approximately nine per cent of its territory (Valendik et al. 1998). This would amount to approximately 17.5 million ha of land. Since 1990, more than one half of the forested area, has been effected by fires, while 10.7 million ha of this amount was burnt in 1996 alone (Tsedendash 1991). In 1996, 368 fires occurred effecting 14 aimags (provinces), more than doubling the figures for normal years of fire occurrence (Mongol Messenger 1998). The continuing trend of fire in Mongolia has been highlighted post 1996 by the fact that 239 fires occurred in 1997, and the latest figures indicate that more than 3.1 million ha were burned during the spring fire season of 1999. All of these fires are thought to be anthropogenically caused. The general belief among those interviewed is that there is a definite correlation between the increase in fires within the past three years and the current economic situation. It is felt that the rise in anthropogenically caused wildfires is a direct result of changes to the country's socio-economic conditions.

Mongolia's Current Social Condition

The basic fact is that since the transition to democracy and open market economy Mongolia has, and continues to, develop rapidly. Domestic economic instability in 1991 provided the challenges of inflation and unemployment, plus a large deficit inherited from the absence of Soviet budgetary support. In addition, the country's economic growth has since this time been largely stagnated perpetuated by its small population, poor transport and communication networks, the existence of few industrial establishments, poor infrastructure, lack of domestic markets, increased poverty, and high unemployment (the most notable change).

Since the beginning of the transition period, open unemployment emerged for the first time in Mongolia (Schmidt 1995). In rural areas some estimates of unemployment run as high as 80-90 per cent. The lack of income among the increasing number of poor in Mongolia and the limited options available to better the situation has meant a turning toward the only alternative possible under such conditions - dependency on natural resource utilization. The collection of natural resources for both personal consumption as well as sale is often seen as the only option for survival.

Hence, dependency on natural resources for means of subsistence has led to dramatically increased pressures on natural surroundings and protected areas. It was reported that there is generally no choice for people but to use natural resources for subsistence survival. Some people have exhausted their numbers of livestock by selling them off for food and clothing and have in the process become very poor with little alternative but to gather and sell natural resource products. Particularly the young are forced to sell these products to support their families. Some of the main activities conducted for purposes of income generation include logging, fuelwood collection, hay making, hunting and fishing, and, most importantly, the collection of non-timber forest products (deer antlers, pine nuts, berries, herbs and grasses). As alternatives for income diminish, so does the concern for nature in general: "People are interested in nature in order to find a profit, instead of protecting it. Because Mongolians export deer horns and deer tail at high prices" (personal interview). It was said that the past three years has been particularly "bad" in terms of the numbers of people going into the forest due to everyone's current need for a means of acquiring an income.

Physical Mobility: A Move for the Better?

To accentuate the problem of increased human activity in natural areas is the general trend in increased migration patterns. Increased human activity in more natural areas is contributed to by the general increase in physical mobility, as people more actively move about in the hopes of improving current social conditions. Not only is the rural population dependent on natural resources, but so also the urban population. Hence, the impact of physical mobility on wildfires is said to be significant as urban dwellers travel to natural areas and are believed to, out of inexperience and carelessness in dealing with nature, cause the occurrence of wildfires.

Significantly contributing to the rise in physical mobility is, in particular, the return to the traditional occupation of livestock herding. The basic reason for this shift to a pastoral way of life is largely, if not solely, due to the current economic downturn since the onset of market economy. Many feel that raising livestock is the only sensibly viable solution against increasing unemployment, poverty, and inflation. However, this trend has significant impacts on the shaping of, not only the communities or social environments which it effects but also, the natural environment, upon which the communities depend. Against the backdrop of uncertain economic times, a large portion of the population are no doubt merely trying to survive. However, this means of survival cannot be deemed sustainable if the current trend is to continue. As is the case in many developing countries, a compromise is currently being made, whereby human subsistence is weighed against humanly dependent natural areas.

A direct result of these additional pressures, connected to the trend in occupational herding, is the increasing potential for anthropogenic wildfire occurrence through increased factors of risk. Risk factors include intensive natural resource utilization and rangeland preparation - possibly with the use of fire. Hence, it is to be expected that an increase in occupational herding, unless better controlled, will inevitably have a significant impact on the future of the environment and fire management strategies.

Impediments to the Reduction of Anthropogenic Wildfire

Measures to alleviate the wildfire problem has been said to have been hindered by the challenges dealing with environmental law implementation and enforcement. It was said that law enforcement improvements should be the onus of the people to not only be more careful with fire, but also be more responsible in the appropriate implementation of environmental laws. Since the jobs of law enforcement officers is seen to be difficult, it was expressed that local citizens must assist them by informing them of activities in the forest. However, difficulties in social conditions is said to be largely responsible for the inability of local citizens to act responsibly in enforcing the laws.

 24 KB

Fig.1. The rural communities in Mongolia face difficult living conditions after the political and socio-economic changes in the country.

24 KB

Fig.2. Mongolian herdsmen at the highly flammable steppe-forest interface of Mongolia. Photos: Soo Kuen Ing

The problems of weakening social controls has been associated with the transition to democracy and market economy. The attitude expressed by many is that, for most people, "watching over our livestock is our only concern" (personal interview). People tend to show a lack of interest in getting involved with the dealings of others during difficult times, as was expressed by a local in this way: "if one of them were my acquaintant, I would not automatically betray him to the police. Since it is a small soum (county), there are only a few people, so we do not automatically betray each other" (personal interview). Law enforcement is hindered as empathy for the other is high in the face of current economic hardships.

In addition, the general lack of knowledge on laws was blamed on poor information dispersal since democracy. Though it was said that radio and television stations do, on occasion, broadcast laws, many citizens have no access to either source. It was often mentioned that newspapers and other methods of obtaining information are also difficult for rural citizens to acquire, coupled with a general lack of interest on legal issues. Those who had some knowledge of environmental laws claimed the inappropriate implementation of some of them. An example mentioned was the 1997 issued Order by the Minister of Nature and Environment which prohibits people to enter the protected area from 10 March - 1 June (since this time period coincides with the spring fire season). However, as this time of year also coincides with the period for antler collection it was voiced to not be in conformity with the needs of the people, resulting ironically in increased wildfire risk: "If we allowed people to go they would not cause a fire. If we forbid people to go then they would go secretly. If they happen to see us going to do our usual check up in the forest they run away after causing the fire" (personal interview with forest ranger). Hence, there is a clear problem noted in regards to the appropriateness of the Order. Whereas people used to go with permission (enabling monitoring and control), the new Order no longer allows the issuing of permission during this period, resulting in people stealthily entering the forest. The implementation of the Order is, therefore, inappropriate and counterproductive to meeting objectives to reduce wildfire risk.

The breakdown in law enforcement effectiveness is thought to rest upon the general weakening of responsibility at the federal and provincial levels. It was expressed that if these levels of government were to tighten up on law enforcement controls then local law enforcement would also improve. In cases pertaining to violations of environmental law it is usually the rangers and the environmental state inspector who enforce the law. However, as law enforcement officers in natural areas are limited in their means and authority to better control the situation legal structures are additionally weakened. Law enforcement is largely ineffective as for some no "real" punishment can be issued for illegal use or entry into the forest, since often the only risk is confiscation in the amount of fee payment. Permits for forest use and prohibition laws are often of no use and not enforceable under the difficult living conditions. Persons who cause fires cannot be penalized when the individual, as is true in many cases, has no means of paying fines. To make matters worse, enforcement officials are in a position where they are unable to properly enforce laws, as social conditions are drastic and the number of those breaking the law greatly outnumber officials. Due to governmental constraints in funding, patrolling must be currently done with privately owned modes of transportation (e.g. using one's own horses). Even articles for purposes of self defence are the private property of officers. Hence, environmental law enforcement is weakened to the extent that it is not fully supported by higher government levels resulting in haphazard, largely inefficient, and non-standardized practices.

Toward a Holistic Socio-Ecological Understanding of Wildfire

With closer examination, it becomes obvious that the current wildfire problem in Mongolia is complex. The basic underlying reasons for the increase in wildfire occurrence, particularly noticeable since 1996, are directly related to the effects of the fundamental issues of poverty and inappropriate development. These issues are at the heart of most of the potentially negative trends.

Increased herding practices supplemented by lowered education, resulting in an increase in natural area and resource utilization, and the elevation of anthropogenic wildfire risk must be broken in order to effectively and sustainably tackle the problem of recently increased anthropogenic wildfire occurrence. Alternatives addressing the above social issues is necessary to counter the trend in lifestyle change. Sustainable herding practices would mean a reduction in the numbers of herders and the creation of a better infrastructure to provide avenues for business and trade, while education, particularly targeting male youths, must become more accessible in preparation for other occupations.

Urban to rural mobility has a great impact on the increased numbers dependent on natural resources. As support measures to rural areas become limited or absent due to governmental constraints employment or development opportunities continue to decrease thereby increasing poverty, and further promoting dependency on natural resources for locals' subsistence and income. When life becomes unaffordable in urban centres people are forced to move into the country where subsistence often does not depend on money but rather on resources for trade and barter. In addition, if local statements indicating an increase in the use of rural environmental areas by urban dwellers for purposes of income generation are accurate then fire management plans need to address this issue with increased and more widespread active prevention programs within more urban areas as well. Due to the obvious correlation between poverty in rural areas with the amount of dependency on natural areas and their resources, physical mobility trends must be more fully understood so as not to become immense barriers to the successful implementation of fire management plans in the reduction of anthropogenic wildfire occurrence.

As poverty is one of the main reasons for the heavy reliance on natural areas and their resources, the development of rural areas is crucial for the alleviation of current pressures. Unemployment and the current trend in the uneven distribution of wealth and opportunity since the transition to market economy only further emphasizes the need to address these problems. Under the present situation, rural development would require conscious efforts to be made in the creation of incentives focusing on decreasing human dependency on natural areas. Living conditions to address the level and extent of poverty must be improved. Only through these changes can both physical and social mobility patterns hope to be altered as social demands on natural areas be reduced to minimalize anthropogenic wildfire risk and potential occurrence.

Some of the research's findings, as given here, illustrate under which social conditions the occurrence of wildfire are dependent for its reduction or increase. Though it is often assumed that the problem of increased wildfires is the result of decreased awareness through reduced propaganda or education warning against fire, the study has revealed that a general awareness of the dangers of fire does exist, but that out of general need, people are currently not in a position to effectively eliminate the occurrence of anthropogenic wildfire. Social needs must first be addressed. Hence, awareness, though it does play an important role, is not the key issue to be addressed for the long-term reduction of wildfires. Education is not enough as measures must be taken to ensure a more stable social environment. The true problems must be recognized before they can be suitably addressed. Resonance of the state of the social environment goes on to effect the surrounding humanly-influenced "natural" environment. The uncovered trends revealed in the research serve to assist in the recognition of the wider social conditions currently having an impact on the recent increase in anthropogenic wildfire for the areas of Batschireet and Mongonmort.

Support for the conservation of nature must be accompanied by a valuing of it at all levels - individual, local, national, and global. In Mongolia, this issue is a sensitive one. Current social conditions have caused an overvaluing of the natural environment for its resources resulting in an elevation in wildfire risk and occurrence.

It is hoped that the results of this study will assist in addressing pertinent social issues before they become unsurmountable and cause irreparable damage to the natural environment upon which the social environment in Mongolia so greatly depends. If not addressed, the social problems revealed in this research study will continue to exist regardless of whether wildfire occurrence continues to be the symptom. It must be remembered that wildfire occurrence is only one expression, one symptom of larger underlying problems prevalent within the social environment. Human activity and its effect on natural surroundings can no longer be denied. To ignore the social issues as noted would only result in the generation of new, recurring, and / or continued existence of current undesirable symptoms within the environment around Batschireet and Mongonmort - natural or otherwise. Action must be taken or irreparable damage to the natural environment through wildfire occurrence could very well be nature's final means of addressing the problem for us. A socio-ecological balance must, therefore, be sought after. Improvements need to be made to the area of law implementation and enforcement. The trend toward a breakdown in social controls is but yet another symptom of the serious concerns which need to be confronted within society. Poverty, inflation, and unemployment are some of the major societal ills which need to be addressed.

Environmental lawlessness is born out of the survival needs of the people who are currently living in difficult economic times. Should the above mentioned problems be reduced or eliminated, the consequence could very likely be a turn to the adherence of laws.


The study revealed that the current problem of wildfire in Mongolia is largely a result of the causal relationship which exists between the social conditions now existent in Mongolia and the activities which are born out of the needs of the people. According to those interviewed, it is a fact that the increase in the number of wildfires since the mid-1990s corresponds to changes in social conditions.

Recognition of the symbiotic relationship between social conditions, human activity in natural areas, and the occurrence of anthropogenic wildfire stresses the importance of each of these components for the effective minimalization of the current anthropogenic wildfire problem in Mongolia. Since both natural and social environments are so closely interconnected and interdependent of one another for a healthy existence, a fragile balance must be strived for to ensure the well-being of both. There is a very strong anthropogenic component to the seemingly "natural" wildfire problem in Mongolia. In recognizing the importance of this relationship, it is necessary to address the problem of wildfire in Mongolia holistically and in accordance with social scientific values. Local needs and sustenance requirements must be considered since natural resource utilization is bound up with these needs. If the basic social and economic requirements of the local population were to be adequately met then future pressures on these environmental areas would be reduced as a direct consequence. An awareness of the symbiotic relationship which humans share with their environment is of fundamental importance in understanding the causes and effects of this interaction in order to alter the current negative wildfire trend.


Machilis, G.E. 1995. Social science and protected area management: The principles of partnership in expanding partnerships in conservation. Island Press, Washington, D.C., 45-57.
Mongol Messenger. 1998. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. March 11.
Narangerel. 1997. Some factors of forest fires in temperate forest conditions. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Unpublished.
Schmidt, S. 1995. Mongolia in transition. The impact of privatization on rural life. Verlag für Entwicklungspolitik. Saarbrücken, Germany.
Tsedendash, G. 1991. Forest Features of Mongolia. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Unpublished report.
Valendik,E.N., G.A.Ivanova, Z.O.Chuluunbator, and J.G.Goldammer. 1998. Fire in Forest Ecosystems of Mongolia. Int. Forest Fire News No. 19, 58-63.


Soo Kuen Ing
Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC) & Fire Ecology Research Group
Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, c/o University of Freiburg
79085 Freiburg

Fax:  ++49-761-808012

Country Notes
IFFN No. 21