Genghis Khan's Descendents Face Poverty Crisis

July 9, 2006 — -- They are the proud descendants of the fierce warlord Genghis Khan, and make up one of the world's last great nomadic cultures. But now Mongolia's nomadic herders, who make up half the population, are facing a battle against nature and progress that they may not be able to win.

Like most Mongolian nomads, Sharkhuu could ride almost as soon as he could walk. His home is where he sets up his tent and tends to his cattle and sheep. He'll move to a new location three or four times a year.

But for Sharkhuu and thousands of other nomads in this vast country of Mongolia, the future looks very bleak. Several years of severe winters, including this year, have decimated their traditional herds and destroyed countless acres of grazing land, leaving many with only one choice: Head to the cities in search of jobs.

In the capital, Ulan Bator, nomadic families now make up half the population. Clustered in tent communities wherever they can find space, doing whatever work they can find, 65 percent live in extreme poverty. At the city's main garbage dump, many once-proud families now survive by scrounging for metal, glass and plastic to sell.

For a people who were so self-reliant, it is crippling to now need so much help, says Zanjan Fromer, an American who runs a community-based program that helps struggling nomads find education, job-training and health care.

"Honestly, it's really sad," Fromer said. "These great people are losing their essence."

Nomad families now face an epidemic of crime, mental health problems and alcoholism, not unlike the experiences of Native Americans forced onto reservations -- a comparison Fromer takes very personally, since he is a Native American.

"It's very personal to me because I come from an Alaskan tribe that's dying right now," he said, "and it wasn't until it was too late that the government stepped in to bring about opportunities."

One opportunity providing some hope right now is the global tourism boom. The nomads' ancient culture and unique lifestyle has become one Mongolia's biggest attractions. And some Nomads are sharing in the profits.

But once forced to the cities, very few ever return to real nomadic life.

It's nearly impossible to imagine a Mongolia without its nomads, its nomadic spirit. But there are those who fear this centuries-old way of life is in its dying days, and that includes aging nomads like Sharkhuu.

Sharkhuu says he has only one son to carry on herding. If he goes to the city, it will be the end of the only life his family has known as far back as Genghis Khan. Sharkhuu hopes he's not around to see that day.