Tuesday, July 05, 2005

At What Price Progress? Land Privatization in the Land Without Fences

One of the singular impressions I have of Mongolia is the ability to simply walk anywhere and everywhere and not encounter that most ubiquitous of American institutions, the fence. This creates a number of interesting scenes: cows meandering through Erdenet's downtown streets being one of the most distinctive. But more than that, it creates a very open society charactarized by community, liberality, and shared effort.

Which makes the question of land privatization such a distressing one. Reporter Jehangir S. Pocha wrote about just this problem not long ago in a very well-researched and illuminating piece:
Before the freewheeling 1960s, before Mao led China to revolution in 1949 and before the Soviets took control of this country in 1921, Mongolia was already one giant commune.
"Land here never belonged to anyone; it belonged to everyone," said Davasuren, 50, a self-described "retired nomad" in this tiny village 30 kilometers, or 20 miles, south of Ulan Bator, the capital. Like many Mongolians, he uses only one name.
Despite the reputation for violent acquisitiveness that Mongolians acquired when Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde forged the world's greatest land empire in the 12th and 13th centuries, Mongolia developed as a communal land-sharing system long before capitalists and Communists clashed over the principles of property and ownership.
Every herding clan led its animals across a specific seasonal grazing route established by the clan's ancestors, and the right to this path was respected by others through an unwritten code based on honor and mutual cooperation.
"But"--and there is always a but--
as the modern world has encroached on this remote country, Mongolia has been trying to reinvent itself as a free market democracy.

Many local politicians and economists now say that Mongolia's traditional land regime is the core cause of its backwardness and want to replace it with a Westernized property management system under which land would be parceled out and privatized.

"Our plan is, every citizen gets some land free once, in one area," said Myagmarsuren Dechinlkhundev, consultant to the government's standing committee on environment and rural development in Ulan Bator.

In cities it might be just 0.3 hectares, or more than 0.7 acres, he said, but in rural areas it could be about 0.75 hectares.

"Doing this in rural areas," he said, "faces more difficulties, but we're determined to go ahead. Private land is the base for a free economy."

That is a view rooted in the developmental model that a Peruvian economist, Hernando De Soto, outlined.

De Soto, in his book, "The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else," contends that the problem often "is that people just aren't sure of what they own."

"Everybody who feels they have something of value," he said, is free to use it in trade, "either mortgage it, lease it, sell it, develop it, whatever."

But while this prescription made sense for agrarian countries in which feudalism
denied peasants ownership of the land they tilled, its economic efficacy seems less obvious in Mongolia, where more than a million of the 2.5 million people are herders.
The question of land-privatization is not a new one in Mongolia. David Sneath addressed the question from a historical perspective in a draft paper called "Notions of Rights over Land and the History of Mongolian Pastoralism" (2000). In this paper, Sneath speaks of historic and traditional Mongolian ideas of land ownership and their development and points out how land reform in the form of privatization has historically been met with strenuous opposition from herders. The emphasis of his article eventually becomes Inner Mongolia. Eventually, he concludes that the story of private ownership in Inner Mongolia (China) should warn us that market liberalism and land privatization (1) does not square with Mongolian sentiments with regard to land and (2) will ultimately cause environmental degradation (case in point, Inner Mongolia) because of the constraints that it places on traditional herding and grazing practices.

Whether what Sneath says is right or wrong, there are legitimate objections to land-privatization in Mongolia (or anywhere else) . To wit, there are (to simplify grossly) three: First, it goes against traditional Mongolian notions of land use. Second, it would create instability in the livelihoods the well over half of Mongolia's population that derives its subsistance from nomadic herding. Third, it would go a long way toward destroying an ancient, thriving, and irreplacable culture.

Of course, any good common sense fellow (of a free-market disposition) can immediately offer all kinds of rebuttals to these objections. In the first case, the Mongolians are just going to have to adapt to the way things work in the modern world, just as all advanced civilizations have. In the second, the instability is only temporary; when everything gets sorted out and the new system is in place, everyone will be much better off for the change, no matter how difficult. In the third case, one might note that countless "irreplacable" cultures have been lost in the passage of time (and that the Mongols did their share in making that happen) , and that one more should not get anyone's nose out of joint. Besides, one might suggest, just as old cultures are disappearing, new cultures always rush in to fill the void. Let's just be grown up about it, the pragmatist might say, perahs shed a few tears, but then pick up and move on.

Let's face it. It's easy to be dogmatic when facing such issues. But when you have a tie to the land, it's anything but philosophical. It's intensely visceral. For a man's land is inseperable from his land, his soil, his hearth. And for the Mongolian nomad, that land, that soil, that hearth, is the entire steppe as it billows and rolls under the the eternal blue sky.

The beauty of blogging is that it's always a work in process. Just like my view on land-privatization in Mongolia. What makes Mongolia so beautiful in many regards is the fact that the land is for all intents and purposes communal (where the word communal carries no political baggage). Quite literally, it's possible to walk or ride from one end of Mongolia to the other without a fence getting in one's way. The kind of life and view on life that this creates (or was created by it) is breathtakingly unique. The only thing I can think of to parallel this phenomenon in my own experience is that of the American Indian or the cowboys and cattle-drivers in bygone American epochs (I grew up in Montana). I suppose there are snatches of such open space in other places throughout the earth--northern Canada, Alaska, Siberia, both poles. But there's no place quite like Mongolia where the wide open steppe and taiga and desert is so tied up with a living and widespread culture. The world, not least the Mongolians, would lose something of incalculable worth--their very historic identity--were their country to go the way of all flesh and chop its land into little parcels and hedge them about with barbed wire fences.

Yet Mongolia, if it is to survive and indeed advance, cannot remain a subsistance economy with matching land and property laws. As much as the romantic or idealist in us hates it, times have changed. Subsistance survival, whether by hunting, gathering, farming, or herding, is no longer the norm. Economic advance is. Baabar, a prominant Mongolian scholar, democrat, and commentator, put it this way in a recent editorial for the UB Post:
Traditional animal husbandry has turned into a sector that is nothing more then a tool of sustenance for those who are herding them. Occupancy of this sector, which is not even ј of GDP, will be decreasing significantly and there’s no alternative other then replacing it....
Though I don't know Baabar's explicit opinions on land privatization, this sentiment seems to be of a piece with, perhaps even complimentary to, De Soto's above-noted observation that "private land is the base for a free economy." Again, without clear-cut land ownership, De Soto maintains, people will not know what they own and thus not have much heart to sink time, resources, and personal effort into improving what may not be theirs in the end.

In the final analysis, an ownership society and with it land-privatization is apparently the only way forward for Mongolia. But at the cost of the culture? Of the land? Of this generation of Mongolians? They know and we know that there is a choice to be made. Unfortunately, there's no easy decision. We can only hope for the best as Mongolia plots its course for the future.


Anonymous yan said...

I don't understand why private land ownership should be crucial for Mongolia's development. Sure, many western world are more advanced, and they do have private property rights on land. But I don't really see the direct conection between the two (except that farming societies tend to be more advanced than nomadic societies, and farming societies do require a concept of land ownership). If you are not implying that Mongolia needs to change towards a farming society in order to develope, I don't see what private property in pieces of the mongolian countryside should be good for.
The case is different in cities, aimag and sum centers, of course. But the way those laws on land registration are implemented at the moment (at least in Khuvsgul) is that people try to grab the most scenic spots in national parks etc. in order to build yet another campsite. Who happens to know the people in the registration office comes first, of course.

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