The fate of nomadic cultures reveals particularly clearly the spirit of (state) capitalism: the forced incorporation of nomads into social structures that privilege sedentarism is closely linked to the expropriation of land and labor. The destructive nature of this system is evident in the impoverishment of former nomads, as well as the erosion of their values and practices that would allow for a different, sustainable form of labor and climate production, as artist and researcher Shuree Sarantuya argues in her contribution to the BG text series “Allied Grounds,” which explores the struggles of nomadic peoples in China, Mongolia, and Russia.
The fable “Three Little Pigs” tells the story of three pigs and a big bad wolf who attacks their houses. The wolf destroys the houses of the first two pigs, which are made of straw and sticks, but he cannot destroy the third pig’s house, which is made of bricks. The ideology underlying the fable is crystal clear: It supports the standardization of concepts such as homelessness and devalues nomadic logic, according to which nomads can never be homeless because their home always travels with them. Moreover, the fable’s ideology masks the racial capitalocene, which, by exploiting labor and nature as tools of assimilation, has enabled the terraforming of rangelands into unsustainable habitats and industries. Ex-nomads work extensively in labor-intensive sectors such as extractive industries, cultivation/plantation, and military services because of the promise of financial independence and integration into a sedentary society.
This has become the toxic framework in which the struggles of non-settler, ethnic minority, and indigenous communities take place. Today, the last nomadic peoples of South, Central, and North Asia live in yurts, teepees, or wooden huts while using modern technologies to achieve comfort and modernity. These techno-nomads can be mobile and autonomous, with unbroken connections to the human and non-human worlds. Nomadic land mobility is based on a skillful perception of the ecosphere and its resources. Thus, nomadic peoples base their reverence (for habitable land) on their knowledge of interspecies communication and an indigenous perception of deep time.
The ruling class has been able to exploit the coexistence of nomadic and sedentary societies by creating fears of non-modernity and promoting assimilation policies, monoculture economies, environmental racism, and neo-colonial issues. As we study the conflicts of the last nomadic or ex-nomadic peoples of China, Mongolia, and Russia, we must understand their complex history of sedentarization and colonization by communist and socialist movements in the last century.
Land loss and cultural assimilation in Inner Mongolia
Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region established by the Chinese Communist regime in 1947, has a long history of conflict between nomadic herders and sedentary farmers. In this conflict, the dispossession and enclosure of land is closely linked to cultural assimilation, as became clear after the Japanese occupation in World War II, when the region became a testing ground for the integration of Han Chinese and Mongols.
Inner Mongolia is not only known for its livestock, but also for its vast coal reserves. In 2011, the expansion of the coal mine into grazing land led to protests and demonstrations by herders in Bayannuur. The frustration and fear of losing their land continued in 2020, when the Chinese government planned to convert the grazing land in Bairin Left Banner into a nature conservation project.
Later that year, the “Second Generation Bilingual Education” policy banned the teaching of Mongolian in Inner Mongolian schools. According to the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, the ban will take effect in September of this year; it also prohibits teachers from participating in and organizing classes. The systematic assimilation of nomadic, indigenous, and ethnic minority peoples through the erasure of ecosystem and culture, most profoundly language and religion, is taking place not only in Inner Mongolia, but also in communities such as the Uyghurs (and other Muslim communities) and Tibetans.
Land degradation in Inner Mongolia occurred primarily due to the overconsumption of resources caused by increasingly excessive production cycles, accompanied by population growth and a shift away from nomadic herding. On the other hand, according to the land degradation assessment, Inner Mongolia achieved zero net land degradation between 2000 and 2020. Research on the impact of windblown dust shows that Inner Mongolia has an ecosystem that prevents dust dispersal and acts as an ecological barrier against land degradation.
Meanwhile, over-cultivation, mining, and industrialization have pushed nomadic peoples into a competitive economy where the lowest price wins the race. The traditionally remote minority groups are now concentrated in urban areas with a mono-economy due to environmental racism and forced integration.
Justice and sustainability in post-colonial Mongolia
After the Qing Dynasty’s colonization was abolished in 1911, Outer Mongolia came under Soviet control until the democratic revolution of 1990. This peaceful revolution led Mongolia to adopt a multi-party system, allowing for the participation of multiple political parties in the governance of the country.
However, the relentless drive for accumulation by the upper class and those in power has led to a corrupt economy and the exploitation of those in the working class who live paycheck to paycheck or debt to debt. The production of space expresses and exacerbates these inequalities: While the rural areas outside the capital are still underdeveloped, except for a few Shangri-La type communities that nestle around the extractive sectors, the capital itself is a neoliberal mix of yurt settlements and hyper-urban areas, resembling an “upside-down pot” (a Mongolian proverb meaning stuck in hell under a giant pot).
In December 2023, protests erupted in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, against the alleged “coal mafia” that stole 380,000 tons of coal for export to China. People expressed their frustration with violent outbursts, peaceful demonstrations, and sit-ins in minus 25-30 degree weather. They criticized state officials, blaming them for Mongolia’s stolen future.
As the people of Mongolia patiently await the prosecution of the coal thieves, an urgent question arises: Who do we hold accountable for the use of unethical fossil fuels to power the world’s biggest polluters? As part of Mongolia’s commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the country aims to plant 1 billion trees in desertification-stricken regions by 2030. With the donation from the mining conglomerate’s companies in southern Mongolia, people are eagerly anticipating the new employment opportunities that will come with the billion tree project.
Once adapted to the rhythms of their environment, some communities face challenges when confronted with the demands of the racial capitalocene and the lack of sustainable infrastructure. In their quest for stability and a secure income, many ex-nomads face the harsh reality of poverty or even a return to the days of colonial rule. Nomadic knowledge and traditions are seen as incompatible with a system that exploits labor and resources at unsustainable rates. The clash between nomadic existence and the imperatives of the racial capitalocene raises questions about the compatibility of different ways of life and the urgency of resisting a singular model of work and productivity.
Colonial legacies and environmental struggles in North Asia
Russia’s colonization of North Asia took its final form in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nomadic tribes who lived by hunting, herding, and fishing could now, with the help of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, finance their transition to sedentary lifestyles through mining, metallurgy, engineering, lumbering, and agriculture. Institutions were established to eradicate local culture, beliefs, and healing practices. At the same time, Russia’s government created protected areas for the indigenous peoples. However, the unsustainable methods of climate production are creating environmental disaster that affect all ecosystems surrounding North Asia and the Arctic regions.
The partial military mobilization of Russia’s population in 2022 called for high draft rates in ethnic minority communities, such as Turkic, Mongol, Paleo-Siberian, and Muslim communities. Russia’s autonomous regions consist of various ethnic groups, including nomadic (semi-nomadic) and indigenous peoples. These regions and krais are occupied by sedentary settlements that are remnants of the legacy of Soviet modernity. In areas such as Dagestan, Yakutia, and Buryatia, the combination criminalization of opposition to the war and economic instability has led to a situation where most men face a choice between fleeing or joining the military to contribute to the ongoing war effort. These indigenous men of Russia and their labor are valued in the context of war service, or even used as a possible scapegoat when there is a war crime to be blamed. Today’s racist governments and institutions that employ racialized and often marginalized groups in the war effort remind us not least that during World War I (and later World War II), African Americans served in the military in order to be integrated into society as model citizens.
It is obvious that this kind of population management is also closely linked to the expropriation and enclosure of land – and Russia’s current war of aggression is an all too clear reminder of the value that land (here valorized as “territory”) has acquired since the economic, financial and food crisis of 2007. The bottom line is that today’s economic growth favors a homogeneous civilization that places immense value on a labor force willing to sacrifice itself and/or its land.
Value of all beings, things, and entities
State-owned natural resource companies have significant control over the so-called rural areas of North Asia. An administration that disregards the value of uncultivated land has enforced the accumulation of power at the expense of ethnic minorities, nomadic groups, and indigenous workers, undermining their rights and threatening their way of life. According to research on Lake Bolshoe Toko, the footprint of industrial activity can be found in even the most remote areas of Russia. The ecological degradation caused by capitalist activity affects local communities, biodiversity, and the long-term sustainability of the land. Without indigenous practices of reclamation and ethical consumption, biotic and abiotic interactions will be irreparably disrupted, both in human time and in the time of globalization.
The pursuit of economic growth, often at the expense of marginalized groups and the environment, is a major political issue that exposes the destructive consequences of globalization and the erosion of cultural identities that are always related to alternative models of work and engagement with the environment. This process of destruction and erosion is presented as inevitable, also because of imaginary external threats. The story of “The Three Little Pigs” is an example of this tendency. The aggressive wolf is the animal that represents a danger from outside the system, not from within. And we are supposed to feel the instinctive need to protect ourselves from this predatory outsider, mirroring the desire to find security and shelter in our homes. But aren’t even birds living in their birdhouses these days because of territory loss and urbanization?
In former nomadic countries and communities, critical political voices stress the importance of welcoming alternative models that prioritize indigenous knowledge, ecological sustainability, ethical resource management, and convivial ways of working. By fusing indigenous practices of mutual care, symbiosis, and regeneration, we can foster a “Gaian” ethic of sustainable labor: one that recognizes and values the interconnectedness of diverse worlds. Achieving this requires the cultivation of transnational alliances that challenge the dominant paradigm of modernity and address the consequences of xenophobic policies that have left many communities in liminal conditions. In the relentless pursuit of hypermodernity, it is important to pause and consider the integration of indigenous perspectives. From such a stance, we can strive to develop a new relationship with our planet by recognizing and appreciating the value of all beings, things, and entities. This is a task we all must accomplish because, by reassessing our role as workers, it paves the way for sustainable climate production.
Editor’s note: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; the German version can be found here. For more content, visit the “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look: https://berlinergazette.de/projects/allied-grounds/