The IUAES-WAU World Congress occurs every five years and is one of the biggest international conferences bringing anthropologists from around the world together for a week of meetings, side events, conference panels and keynote speeches. This year the conference was held at the University of New Delhi in India from 15 to 21 October 2023. The Commission on Nomadic Peoples hosted 11 panels over the course of the conference, covering a wide range of themes and regions. The PPIA project convened the panel titled, “CHANGE AND CONTINUITY OF INNER ASIAN PASTORAL SOCIETIES OF AFFECTED BY EXTERNAL FACTORS” on 17 October 2023 at 2:15 pm. The panel consisted of two sessions with 7 talks spanning digital pastoralism and social influencers and pastoralism and small scale dairy production in Mongolia. Key themes covered in the panel included research on food security, the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on household organization and pastoral economies, and critical engagement with understandings of wellbeing and nourishment.

Outside the conference and campus, beyond the chai wallah selling milky masala tea was the great anthropological atmosphere of India, so different from the UK or Japan. As we walked from the sleek subway through the chaotic streets life unfolded in front of us. The rickshaws, street stalls, booksellers waving Marx, tempting chili snacks, smells of history and humanity, vibrant sounds of talking, honking, kids playing and birds chirping all welcomed us. At first we tried to make sense of it all, then relaxed into the Delhi pace of life. Actually, the host city and daily circumstances were a natural home for 5 days of talks on people and the lives they live.

Most of the panelists met for a quick cup of Indian chai outside of the Conference buildings for an energy boost before ducking into the large lecture room reserved for the panel. Takahiro (Taka) Tomita started the panel with his research focusing on small-scale diary production in suburban Mongolia. The audience was surprised to learn that 1 in 5 Mongolians do not have access to enough dietary energy, making the food security situation the worst in East Asia after North Korea. With inflation further affecting food security issues, Tomita’s talk addressed the problem of how Mongolia is addressing the food security issue through food and agricultural policy, and what the potential for small-scale dairies are. More specifically, his research examines the characteristics and sustainability of local dairy supply chains in suburban areas and unpacks the possibilities and problems of local diary production, distribution and consumption. Tomita introduced Mongolia’s recent resolution on food security in 2022 which highlights the importance of strengthening food supply chain issues. However, the anthropology of food security tends to ignore the contribution of informal marketing systems for meat and dairy products. After World War II, Mongolia began to produce dairy products in factories for domestic and foreign urban consumers. At the time, there was a co-existence of local consumption and external supply including an expansion of cream and dried cheese sales in local markets. The rise in urban populations has led to the increase in channels for milk and dairy product sales. Today in the regions of Orkhon and Selenge, it is difficult to sell raw milk but more feasible for households to process milk into diary products which lasts longer and attracts a higher price on the market. Small-scale dairy production at the household level is also influenced by the size and composition of herds, as well as the cultural significance of milk where dairy production maintains and reproduces social relations. In this sense, dairy products are needed to maintain relations such as hosting guests and giving gifts to relatives and acquaintances. Tomita also found that the main portion of herder income comes from the sale of livestock, raw cashmere and dairy products only sold in particular seasons. Small-scale dairy production is also constrained by labor restricted primarily to household members and Tomita emphasised the importance of the local supply chain.

Tomita’s presentation was followed by Munkh-Erdene Gantulga’s talk titled, “The Pastoralist Influencer: Parallel Economies, Entrepreneurship and Social Trust in Rural Mongolia.” Seeing the title on the screen reminded me of the boisterous scenes outside. In every hand was a mobile phone. Street hawkers, prim bus ladies and the banana guy were creating complimentary interactions. Munkh-Erdene started the presentation by highlighting that most influencers are urban young people and this story is focusing on pastoralists influencers on social media in Mongolia. He first raised the question of, ‘who are pastoralists in Mongolia?’ In the Mongolian context, there is a specific term for herder – Malchin, though there are many different types of pastoralists, including assistant herders and part time herders. Over 700,000 people in the country own livestock with around 200,000 pastoralist households. The term Malchin was a construction from the socialist period and part of a broader discourse of social stratification where society was referred to as groups of herders, workers and intellectuals. During Qing Dynasty in the 16-17th century there were specific profession called Suregchin – a herder who bred horses or camels for the Qing Dynasty court. In this presentation, Munkh-Erdene highlighted his interest in other income sources for pastoralists, or parallel economies, which co-exist and supplement pastoralism. Pastoralism is one economy with huge diversity. Livestock are not the only economic source. Mongolian pastoralists are doing many things along with herding livestock. They are doing things related to pastoralism such as milking, crafting, riding, herding and so on. They are also doing things not related to pastoralism such as trading, working in cities, renting apartments, driving coal trucks between Mongolia and China. If we study the additional activities that pastoralists do, maybe we can make a bigger picture about pastoralism in Mongolia.  For this presentation, our hero is Naba – a 100% full time pastoralist. But he is also doing a lot of social media influencing and is a content creator. He posts stories, Facebook live video – about livestock-related things and non-livestock related things. He holds lotteries and is doing lots of advertisements about 2nd hand cars, apartments in UB city,  and also posts about berries and nuts from his region. There is also a lot of content not related advertisements; for example, he is producing art – songs, poems and doing mixed martial arts with another guy. The mixed martial arts is pay per view. Yet officially he is a herder or pastoralist. The 2nd example of pastoralist influencers is shop owner in Bayanhongor who has a UK style travel van. He is one of the richest men in this county but he is still doing livestock husbandry. In spring/summer he becomes a full-time herder. Is it his hobby? Also, there are still many illegal gold miners. One of them is the state herder champion of Bayanhongor. From May-June and October, he is buying goats from illegal gold miners and trading to Ulaanbaatar. In Winter/spring with an assistant herder, he becomes a full time herder again. Using these examples, Munkh-Erdene asks, how can we study economic activities in pastoralists life and moving beyond traditional pastoralist studies portrayals of pastoralist economies?

Troy Sternberg’s talk on ‘Women Herders Changing Role in Gobi Pastoralism’ followed Munkh-Erdene’s talk about pastoralist influencers. Women herders hight be represented as milkers, mothers and household managers. The study was inspired by Byambasuren who they met in Bulgan during Covid-19. Byambasuren attended an event in Kenya and gave a presentation about Mongolia. During this event, Bymabasuren began to question her fellow pastoralists hosts about the role of women in pastoralist life. This inspired further research on understanding womens daily lives and roles. They developed many questions on everyday life and did interviews in the summer of 2023. They found different perspectives between elders and young people, with younger women making more decisions about finances management than the older generation. One herder said “when girls leave for town they don’t come back.” The research also revealed the significant investments that herders make in educating their girls. Whilst the words droned my eyes wandered out the windows – what was the situation for Indian women? They were intriguing, busy, on their way to somewhere. Did girls have the same chances as Mongolians for education?

Takahiro Ozaki gave a talk on ‘Comparison between Pastoralism of Suburban and Remote Pasture in post-Covid-19 Pandemic Society’. Here Ozaki emphasized how Mongolian herders strategies for pastoralism has been changing. In the 1990s, Mongolian pastoralism relatively unique. In the year 2000, after a major dzud there was lot of investment in Mongolia from outside (mainly focusing on mining). Since then, Ozaki has observed a transition of pastoralism into more suburban pasture use around provincial centers. The Covid-19 pandemic as a social disaster in Mongolia which was similar to post-socialist economic disaster. Using a case study in Bulgan there is a trend of change where less than half of households remain in the countryside and there is more tendency to enclose pasture and build a sedentary house recently.  A case study in Ongon, Sukhbaatar also demonstrated that multi-household herding camps almost vanished. People said that Covid-19 was a key reason. In sum, older pastoralists move to the aimag and soum and there is more use of suburban pasture. There are some differences between remote and suburban pastures. Many livestock like horses are kept in remote pastures, while the labor force is not enough to take care of all 5 types of livestock.

Joana Roque de Pinho presented next on meat camps amongst the Maasai in Kenya during Covid-19. During the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, children were brought from boarding school back to their homes. There was no travel, markets, stores churches and schools remained closed. People said that “Men ran away from the villages to the bushes” – they went to meat camps. The research investigates the pastoralists experience through collaborative remote ethnography including lots of handwritten notes, photos, phone messages etc. The meat camps narratives used to focus on very masculine discourses such as war, brotherhood, and preparation for battles and war. However it became apparent that the meat camps also were a space for learning, knowledge exchange and mediation. Women authors have provided more feminist analysis of the camps including how they are a space for praying, community building, and constitute a form of care.  

The question was raised, were meat camps like a ‘war’ against Covid-19 or something else? What they found is that meat camps were more like wellness retreats where different participants (with the exception of married women) were allowed. Motivations for joining meat camps including building immunity and consuming herbs that target Covid-19. There was also a psychological dimension to fight idleness and to socialise across ages and groups. Here solidarity, food sharing and hospitality were important elements that supplemented a more spiritual dimension focusing on physical and mental wellbeing and re-connection with pastoralism.

Hilal Ahamd War offered a talk titled, “Continuity and change of the Pastoral Societies in the North-West Himalayas: A Study of the Impact of Ecotourism on the Pastoral Communities in Kashmir region, India.” Hilal provided a detailed explanation and analysis of the impact of eco-tourism on the pastoralist communities of Kashmir, including a government eco-tourism project. Increasing tourism has brought about commercial residential growth and the development of roads. Livelihoods have shifted to engage and adapt to tourist activities and demands, including the sale of pastoral products such as milk, butter and cheese. The establishment of roads has increased access to health care facilities and increased connections with other regions, expanding health treatments beyond the traditional healing systems. Tourism has also impacted pastoralist grazing areas, with land use shifting to buffer zones, which has introduced new challenges. 

The final panel presentation was given by Moe Terao, focusing on well-being, food and meat-eating practices in rural Mongolia’s Uvs province. During the pandemic, the new Coronavirus was not a major threat for herders living in rural areas as most cases were present in bigger settlements and urban areas. Since some herders emphasized a reluctance to be vaccinated with many feeling the vaccine was harmful to their health, this presentation asked what did herders do to feel secure during the pandemic? One way that was apparent was herders cooking and consumption of energetic food in the form of dairy and meat. Health and medicine also include other aspecs of peoples understanding of wellbeign. Food practices including the production, cooking, and eating contributes to the concept of nourishment. In Mongolian food culture, both meat and milk are involved in ritual offerings. Meat is divided into hot and cold types. During the pandemic, herders made ‘khuchtei khol’ which means strong or energy-filled foods, usually consisting of food with a lot of fat and heavy. Two types of khuchtei khol include bituu shuul or sealed soup, where meat soup is cooked inside of a dough-sealed bowl. Also fried meat dumplings like Khushuur are used as a compress when hot. The presentation highlighted the link between food, energy, heat and ideas of well-being and nourishment.

The IUAES conference was intriguing and informative, diverse and higgledy-piggledy at the same time. Some of the stimulation came from the vast array of sessions and speakers. Equally, life outside the lecture halls provided new experiences, sensations, imaginings and maybe illusions. Was that really a monkey staring in from our balcony? What did the cacophony of the textile market mean? How many spices could we buy, teas drink, new foods try and transport  take, all to end up at a Bhutanese meat restaurant in a busy jumbled market? We had brought Mongolia to the University of Delhi. We were going home with sprinkled charms of India in our pockets.


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