Mongolians ask: Why own when you can roam?

In the vast and verdant Darhat Valley, here in the northernmost province of Mongolia, generations of herdsmen have moved their livestock seasonally across the steppes, migrating toward the richest grasses. It is a tradition Batsuur and his family continue today with their herd of 300 sheep, yaks, cattle, and horses, as they pack up their ger - the felt-and-canvas tent they call home - and load their belongings onto ox carts.

But as they move across the valley, Batsuur fears this centuries-old way of life will soon fade into the tall grass. The government, throwing off vestiges of communist-era centralization, is privatizing and parceling out vast public lands in a bid to spur enterprise and modernize the economy.

Under a new land ownership program, every Mongolian citizen is entitled to a free plot of land. City dwellers may claim a 0.17 acre parcel, and rural citizens may claim a little more than half an acre.

While touted as a boon to Mongolian citizens - particularly urban dwellers who make up about 1 million of the country's residents - for nomads like Batsuur, the scheme seems about as helpful as being offered a free set of tires for one of his horses.

"We don't understand how this will work. We can't just get land in one place or there will be no grass left," Batsuur says. "You wouldn't be able to survive if you had to stay in one place. We'd need to be able to get land in four different places." While the land law doesn't permit that, an extended family perhaps could put together enough land claims for seasonal moves. But even then, overgrazing of the land eventually would result, he says. "As a nomad, you can move wherever you want, to wherever there is grass."

Until recently, all property in Mongolia was state-owned. Even the livestock herds were government property. But during the past decade the Mongolian government, like most former Soviet bloc states, has made increasingly bold moves toward privatization in its transition to a free-market economy. Urban dwellers have been allowed to buy their own homes and apartments, and nomads have been given their own herds of livestock.

Likewise, land reforms in other newly democratic countries have progressed in stages, and development continues, says Lynn Holstein, land administration specialist for the World Bank in Washington, D.C. "It's an ongoing process in all these countries in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Central Asia. It's an unfinished story." The World Bank acts as an adviser to governments that seek assistance in crafting private property policies.

"We obviously support the development of land markets," he says. "Property rights give people the incentive to make investments - of their own labor, as well as capital investments."

While Mongolia's land giveaway reflects the broader privatization trend, it's also a revolutionary development here, says Darius Teter, deputy country director for the Asian Development Bank in Mongolia. "It's an amazing thing that they're trying. This is the first time people in Mongolia can actually say, 'This land belongs to me.'

"From an economic standpoint, it brings in another mechanism for finance and trade," he continues. "An enforceable title to land is the building block of a stable economy. People are being given an asset. They will be able to invest their savings in a business, sell their land, or use it for collateral to get a loan."

Mongolia's economy has undergone a difficult transition since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. At that time, 30 percent of Mongolia's budget was funded by the Soviets, and when those funds vanished, the country's stable economy unraveled. Rebuilding from scratch, both politically and economically, the comeback has been slow, but progress is increasingly evident.

"Poverty is persistent here," says Mr. Teter, "but this place is looking up." He believes the land reform will spur on the process.

Under the plan, which went into effect May 1, it's estimated that only 5 percent of Mongolia's 604,247 square miles of land will go to private hands - at least initially. With a sparse national population of 2.5 million, the total land claims permitted won't equate to the great expanses of territory, and pasturelands will remain state-owned.

But there are signs of discontent with the policy, as well as the fairness of its administration. Published reports have detailed accounts of families being forced to leave land they have inhabited for decades because it was claimed by others.

Indeed, Dolzodmaa Purjav, a student in Mongolia's capital city of Ulan Bator, says the land scheme has been controversial since its inception, and she suspects it will be abused by those with power and connections. "It's hard to understand why we need to do this. We have enough space for Mongolians," she says. "It's not good for herders, and why do people in the city need a piece of land anyway?"

Other post-Soviet governments undergoing this transition are having a similar challenge applying a one-size-fits-all policy in countries where both modern and traditional lifestyles coexist, says the World Bank's Mr. Holstein.

He notes that in countries that had cooperative farms, some fields went unplanted in the absence of government telling farmers what to plant. Bulgaria in particular, Holstein says, is facing problems after the government began agricultural land reform before establishing any policy to decide what crops should be produced, and what role the government would play in fostering agriculture.

"Complication occurs when a modern law comes along, and the government doesn't take into due consideration the circumstances of rural lands," says Holstein

In Mongolia, unease with the reform program is particularly acute among rural residents, as the law's objectives are at odds with their pastoral practices. Dorj, the patriarch of an extended family of 70, doesn't intend to claim any land, but fears the program ultimately will breed strife where historically there has been none. "People will have to fight for the water, the land, the pastures," he says. "Maybe this is good for people in the city - it's hard to know. But for herders, it's bad."

However, in other nations undertaking such reforms, Holstein has observed that rural provinces tend not to enforce the law, thereby mollifying local concerns. "The nomadic people still go to their traditional lands," he says.

It's unclear whether this will be the practical result in Mongolia. To date, the program has posed more questions than it answers in the countryside.

In Renchinlhumbe, a permanent settlement that offers amenities to nomads who arrive on horseback, the town government has yet to hold any meeting on the land scheme, says Batsuur, and little information has been available. In provinces like this one, bordering Siberia, news transmission is by word of mouth. Electricity is rare, and there is no televisions or internet access. Ditto for newspaper delivery.

"Hopefully, [local officials] will hold a meeting and explain this law," Batsuur says.

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