Written by: Ms. Urana Dashtseren, EMIRGE project, Global Communities, Mongolia
Here in my country, Mongolia is facing growing economic troubles from a continued slump in the minerals market and heightened global financial volatility The slowdown of economy hits everyone including me. Two years ago I used to take my family out and frequently eat at restaurants on weekends. Today we almost do not go out for dining. It became too expensive for us to dine outside when commodity prices have skyrocketed and national currency devaluated.
I am a member of the EMIRGE Mongolia cooperative team. I work with cooperatives in the Ger region of Mongolia. It’s often referred to as the ‘bread basket’ of Mongolia but the average growing season is just 90 days due to our extreme climate. The Mongolian slump has affected them too. I assumed that everyone who is experiencing these hardships would be impacted in the same manner but when I went out to work with the cooperatives, I realized that I had been mistaken. From what I observe, members of the EMIRGE cooperatives are more resilient or have ability to overcome economic slowdown compared to non-members. To me, I think the group membership has provided resources for difficult times. This has helped support them. .
When I work with cooperatives, I see that one of the benefits that separates members of cooperatives from individuals are the benefits of group cohesion. In the regions where I work, I see this most acutely in terms of families who benefit from human capital, social capital, and financial capital that result from the group or cooperative.
Let’s break that down a little. What do I mean when I say that Mongolian families are benefitting from human capital? I mean that the cooperative members have improved their knowledge and skills in farming through hands on group learning. Also, from working with these famers as a knowledge and learning specialist I realize that just the process of obtaining a new skill can lead to new aspirations and in belief that they can do more.
When we provide capacity building to a cooperative, not only do the cooperative members learn a variety of new skills in production and cattle reproduction but they then go on to teach their children who then replicate these skills. Understanding and knowing how to manage cows’ reproduction cycles in extreme temperatures allows each farmer to extend the milk production year round. This, in turn, can generate more on family income – especially during the harsh winter season when people need extra income the most. I recently spoke with Mrs. Khorloo, a member of the Zuunkharaa Bayalag dairiy cooperative, who had taught her new skills to her son. As a result, her son purchased six cows and started running his own cattle business. That’s a two generation impact and has peaked the interest of a young person in becoming a dairy professional in his own community. This is important because we see so many young people abandoning their land and moving to the overcrowded capital city. Perhaps more importantly, this young man sees himself as a businessman capable of growth rather than a traditional herder trying to survive living with a few cows.
Lots of people are talking about social capital these days but we see it every day in our cooperatives. Becoming and being a member of a cooperative is a commitment to a group. You pay a share price and you become a member owner. Ownership and investment are created but also because each member is equal it invokes a sense of belonging to a community group. When I spoke with members, many had been left unemployed when the socialist system collapsed and the state organizations went bankrupt. This group provides a sense of community where people who had resources were left with nothing. I have personally seen the bond that one vegetable producer cooperative feels towards another. I have listened to how proud the members of the vegetables groups are after sale in autumn. Farmers from outside our program area are calling vegetable growers to consult about variety of seed selection and cultivation technique. In fact, Zuunkharaa region vegetable farmers met after the hard work in spring, summer and autumn and celebrated their achievements through organization of sport and social events. The connection is very palpable and members feel connected and bonded to their community. It was visible to me how proud they are of their groups and they support each other outside of their market activities. These farmers are gaining recognition within their community that they didn’t have before. This has created demand for entry into cooperatives and for new technical training opportunities because other community members see new possibilities.
Finally, I wanted to share my observations on financial capital. Maybe it seems obvious that member financial capital has been improved but group production isn’t always a ‘magic bullet’. However, I have seen incomes rise among the cooperatives we work with because they worked together. I’ve seen Zuunkharaa vegetable growers pay off all their bank debts after taking advantage of the high demand for specialty vegetables they grew and sold together. Together, these farmers assessed the demand at the markets in Ulaanbaatar, and also practiced good management of their farms and herds through learning and working together, as a group. Even non-members see the impact on the satisfaction and achievements these farmers have had. This additional income provides opportunities for farmers to further invest in their personal businesses, make much needed repairs to their homes given the intensity of the climate, purchase better production tools that allow them to be even more productive, and pay his/her children’ lives. But this isn’t just about households becoming better off – the positive results reinforce the value of their cooperatives and keep them coming together. When I spoke with Mr. Tsoggerel, a leader of the Zamtiin Negdel Cooperative, he indicated that people who live remotely want to be connected, relate to each other and share with each other the issues of their lives. Mr. Tsoggerel has worked as a leader of his cooperative of 175 members for the last four years. For highly rural areas, where there may be miles between households, cooperatives provide a new opportunity for the rural individual to be a part of a community.
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