Casey Beck is a graduating senior at Tufts University, where she majored in Peace and Justice Studies. This is Beck's first report for FRONTLINE/World and she worked as an intern at the FRONTLINE offices in Boston last year. She has been active at Tufts and abroad as a photojournalism student and filmmaker, working most recently in Kenya and Mongolia. Beck plans to spend the summer in Kiribati, an archipelago nation in the Pacific, where she will create a photo and video archive for residents of these islands, which are sinking due to rising sea levels.
The spring of my junior year in college, I went to Mongolia anticipating little more than being bitterly cold. While the weather lived up to my expectations, I also encountered a culture so rich and a people so strong they exceeded anything I imagined.
Half of Mongolia's two million population still practice the ancient tradition of nomadic herding. Families have kept these herds -- mostly goats, sheep, and horses -- for generations, and parents often bequeath hundreds of animals to their children.
Through my study-abroad program, I found myself living and working with such families, experiencing their grueling lives for a few weeks at a time.
Nomadic Mongolians devote most of their waking hours to tending to their animals. Visiting in spring, I helped with all the daily chores; combing the goats for their prized cashmere, milking them for food, and helping to bring newborns into the world. The animals are central to survival here; not just for the livelihood they provide but for something as basic as food. Each night, I sat down to a supper of gritty meat stew -- sometimes goat, sometimes camel or lamb -- and marveled at the peace with which my new friends live their lives.
Yet internal and external forces threaten the nomadic lifestyle -- something I wanted to capture in my story. Herding families keep hundreds of animals, but there is not always sufficient nourishment from the land to support them. Western influences have also infiltrated the nomadic existence. Satellite television has spread across this desolate plateau and some nomads have swapped horses for motorcycles to get around.
But in recent years, it's an unforgiving climate that has most threatened the herding way of life. A devastating winter storm in 2001 killed millions of animals nationwide, leaving thousands of herders destitute. With few professional skills, many herders took up artisanal mining, working depleted industrial mining sites with picks, shovels and pans. I spent long days with these small mining teams, sifting through sun-baked rubble hoping to find a few specks of gold. A few miners have begun new herds with their mining income, while others have left herding for good.
Many families are torn between the love of their herding traditions and the necessities of survival. Such is the story of my host, Erdenchimeg.