Sustainable Development

In Mongolia, community-grown vegetables fill a big nutritional gap

Old traditions and erstwhile dependence on a centralized economy force an unhealthy reliance on milk and meat; a national campaign to grow more vegetables finds resonance in a grassroots gardening project.

ERDENBULGAN, Mongolia - Until about three years ago, 16-year-old Amartuvshin had never even seen such plants as sweet corn, pumpkins or squash - let alone considered that fresh vegetables might easily be turned into something worth relishing.

But today Amraa, as he is known, is striving to learn as much as he can about the process of preparing, growing and cooking vegetables. He has even invented his own recipe for a salad.

"I now like vegetables very much," said Amartuvshin, who, like many Mongolians, has only one name. "Vegetables are very important for good health, because they contain many vitamins and other nutrients. There are many different kinds of vegetables, each with different flavors, colors and shapes, and we can make many kinds of tasty dishes with them."

Last summer, Amartuvshin and his younger brother, Batuvshin, shared the responsibility - along with other members of this remote village in northern Mongolia - of making sure that an emergent community vegetable garden was staffed 24 hours a day. That meant frequently staying all night adjacent to the site in the small wooden house used to house tools.

Their commitment reflects the dedication and energy with which members of the small Bahá'í community here have thrown themselves into a local project to grow vegetables, an endeavor that stands at the forefront of a burgeoning movement in Mongolia to stimulate the production of vegetables, which are generally absent from the traditional diet, much to the dismay of health specialists who see incipient signs of vitamin deficiencies and growth stunting because of their absence.

Although the effort in Erdenbulgan has produced only a few hundreds of kilograms of fresh vegetables for families here, the project has nevertheless become something of a model for the region, demonstrating that vegetables can indeed be easily grown in many parts of Mongolia. It is also a showcase for the sort of wider community development that can emerge from just such a locally originated and operated undertaking.

"Many people such as the elderly, children and youth have been involved in this project," said Davaadulam, a teacher in Erdenbulgan and a member of the local Bahá'í community. "The project has helped people to learn how to consult together, to work in harmony and to be united with one goal."

Against tradition

The growing season throughout most of Mongolia is very short - and that is especially true here in the northern province of Khovsgol, nestled among the fingerlike extensions of Siberia's Sayan Mountains, which lie just to the north.

The combination of a high latitude (50 degrees north) and high elevation (about 1,200 meters above sea level) pushes the last frost of spring into June and brings fall's first frost as early as the first week of September - sometimes even mid-August.

But the climate is not really the biggest impediment to agriculture here or elsewhere in Mongolia. Tradition is perhaps the main reason that crops are grown on less than one percent of the nation's land area.

Historically a nomadic people, Mongolians continue to rely on animal herds for most of their food, exploiting the vast grasslands that compose the famous Central Asian steppes. The result is a diet for the average Mongolian that consists chiefly of meat and dairy products.

More recently, the legacy of dependence on a centralized economy, acquired during the Soviet era, has reinforced the limited diet. "During the years of socialism, the diet was better and more diverse because more support was coming from the state," said David Megit, a Canadian agricultural specialist who works with the Mongolian Development Center in Ulaanbaatar, the nation's capital. "But of course that whole system collapsed in 1990. And so over the last eight or nine years the availability and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables has declined quite significantly."

The 1997 Human Development Report for Mongolia, published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), echoed this analysis, saying: "At an average national level, the dietary balance has worsened substantially, with much of the improvements over the 20 years prior to transition being undone in just a few years. Vegetable and fruit intakes have been cut dramatically." A lack of vegetables and fruits contributes to an absence of essential vitamins and minerals that may cause "diseases and disorders, many of which are not reversible," such as stunting, the report says.

Governmental and non-governmental organizations are keenly aware of the problems posed by the limited diet. The national Government proclaimed 1993 as "food year" and has been promoting more large-scale production of crops like wheat, said Maitar Tsend, the director of the Mongolian Horticultural Society, an independent NGO which has also launched its own campaign to encourage small-scale vegetable gardening. The city government of Ulaanbaatar has given financial support to the Society in the campaign.

In Mr. Tsend's view, the Erdenbulgan project is a model for all of Mongolia because of the way it has educated and empowered local people. "The whole Erdenbulgan population is much encouraged by the successful implementation of the project," he said. "And this is very important because it reflects a deep psychological change that is going on. Before, during the Communist period, it was prohibited even to have a garden, because it was regarded as private initiative. So people don't think they can grow vegetables themselves or they think that growing cabbage is more difficult than raising sheep. But now things are changing very quickly, and the Erdenbulgan community has demonstrated this."

An isolated region

Erdenbulgan is an isolated village with a population of about 3,000, located about 650 kilometers from Ulaanbaatar. No formal roads lead to Erdenbulgan and access is by rough track through forested and mountainous terrain. Electricity is only available at certain hours on certain days, and water for every household must be carried from the river. Food is mostly limited to locally produced meat, milk products and flour.

The Bahá'í Faith came to Erdenbulgan in 1994, when a young student who had become a Bahá'í at college in Ulaanbaatar returned to her home and told her family about the Faith. Many others in Erdenbulgan soon embraced it, attracted to its progressive social principles, its harmony with the region's Buddhist heritage, and its emphasis on unity. By 1995, a local Bahá'í governing council had been elected and, presently, there are about 100 Bahá'ís, including children, in the village.

In deciding to create a vegetable garden, the Erdenbulgan Bahá'í community started from the premise that they must undertake activities that contribute to and serve the wider community. In May 1995, the community began to talk about undertaking some sort of local social and economic development project, coming up with a list of possibilities that included establishing a bread bakery, erecting a cultural center, sponsoring English classes and starting a vegetable garden.

After further consultation, the Bahá'ís decided in 1996 that the vegetable garden was perhaps the easiest to undertake immediately - and perhaps the most needed. They got permission in 1997 from the municipality to fence off a quarter hectare of land near the Eg River. And knowing it needed help, the community reached outside itself, asking the national Bahá'í office in Ulaanbaatar for advice and assistance.

Officials at the national office knew about the presence in the region of Mr. Megit, a Canadian agricultural specialist who is also a Bahá'í and who had been working in nearby Ulan Ude, Russia. They invited him to travel to Erdenbulgan and consult with them, which he did in April 1996. Partly because of what he saw, Mr. Megit decided to relocate to Mongolia in late 1996, where he joined the staff of the Mongolian Development Center (MDC), a national-level non-governmental organization established by a group of Bahá'ís to provide various forms of technical assistance to local communities.

"In the first year, it was more of a pilot project," said Mr. Megit. "Mongolians, particularly those in the countryside and in small rural areas, have had practically no experience in growing vegetables, so in many ways it took a certain degree of courage and conviction for the local Bahá'í community of Erdenbulgan to initiate such a project and to have enough perseverance to see it through the growing season."

Nevertheless, he said, those who became involved with the project not only quickly acquired a taste for the new foods but became committed to the process of community-building that the project seemed automatically to entail.

"The vegetable growing project is not seen as an end in itself - as simply a way to grow vegetables and possibly supplement one's income, as important as this might be," said Mr. Megit. "It is an important, albeit small, building block in the development of the community. It is one way that the community members can put into practice the principles of development they believe in. It can help them learn to consult together better and generally increase their capacity for collective action, so that in the future larger, more complex development activities can be undertaken based on the experience gained from this initiative."

The project quickly gained acceptance among the people of Erdenbulgan. At an end-of-the-summer festival in 1997, held to honor Erdenbulgan's "Great Mothers", a number of salads and delicate vegetable dishes were displayed on the central table along with the traditional meat and dairy offerings. People had an opportunity on this occasion to sample what for many were entirely new foods. On other occasions, demonstrations have been held for the community at large at the garden site.

"It was amazing and great to see how many vegetables the Bahá'ís had planted and how they had grown," said Dorjisuren Tseden, a former local leader. "Big turnips, potatoes, many kinds of cabbages, and so on - many sorts of vegetables had been grown, which showed the result of hard work and unity. This project started a year before [the program] promoted by the Mongolian government, and it was a big lesson and an example to people in Erdenbulgan."

So far the only inputs from outside have been the training and advice provided by Mr. Megit and several hundred dollars worth of seeds sent over from Canada by an individual Bahá'í who heard about Erdenbulgan's desire to undertake such a project and offered to support it with a small amount of money.

"The climate is similar to Regina, Saskatchewan - a short hot summer with lots of sunshine - so we send over seeds identified for that climate," said Jim Collishaw, a planning consultant in Cambridge, Ontario, who has been buying and mailing the seeds. "And what we are trying to do is to be sure as well that we are sending open pollinated varieties, so they can be trained in saving their best seeds and the varieties will begin to adapt to the specifics of the climate."

The project is set to begin again this spring with training in April and planting in May and June. The Erdenbulgan community is preparing to erect a windmill to pump water from the river into a storage tank near the site, which they hope will help save in the labor that is currently expended in carrying water from the river to the site.

"People around the area see the example set by the Bahá'ís," said Soninbayer, a 36-year-old Erdenbulgan woman who embraced the Bahá'í Faith in 1994. "Before the implementation of this project some people grew a few vegetables and plants, but many people now are planting many different varieties. So it is not only the Bahá'ís who have benefited from the project."

- with reporting from Lois Lambert

More project photos below