Mongolia and Wyoming/Montana

Will regional development in Mongolia follow the model of the comparable areas in North America? The states of Montana and Wyoming ( and adjoining areas in Canada) are the only region outside Eurasia, with a comparable climate and population density. At present a 'third-world' pattern, of primate-city growth and rural decline, seems probable in Mongolia. Revised April 2001.

The comparison (between regional development in Mongolia and comparable areas) originally arose from a comparison with regional policy in Europe. At the website Lithuania-Ireland regional the regional history and policies of these two countries are compared. (They have almost identical areas and population, and both have strong nationalist, catholic, ruralist traditions). A website on proposed economic regions of Mongolia, no longer online, provided an extreme contrast in regional policy.

The term 'regional policy' implies that there are different possible regional futures (spatial, economic, cultural), and that there is a conscious choice between them. Is any regional policy even possible at the low population densities of Mongolia? Is regional policy (a pillar of the European Union) geographically specific to areas of relatively dense settlement? The question on the future of Mongolia can be summarised like this....

At present, about 40% of the population are nomadic herders, the highest percentage in the world. Standards of living in rural Mongolia are probably comparable with rural West Africa. The Soviet-promoted local industrial sector has collapsed: it was mainly in Ulaan Bataar anyway. The national economy is now dependent on the export of minerals, especially copper. Maintaining nomadic pastoralism is not a long-term option: it would mean permanent poverty. It would seem that in the long term (more than one generation), the rural areas will lose most of their population. The rest will go to Ulaan Bataar, the only large city, and some to the mining centres (although new mining technology will not require extra labour there).

In other words, at first sight, there is only one future scenario anyway: there is no point in having a regional policy. Now, does the economy and population distribution of 'comparable' areas represent an alternative to this scenario?

There are some similar regions adjoining Mongolia itself: in fact too similar to provide an alternative model. The best comparable area, in terms of climate, altitude, vegetation and population density, is in North America - especially in the states of Montana and Wyoming. There is no comparable region in the southern hemisphere (large, cold, high forest-steppe and semi-desert) - although there are parts of Africa with nomadic pastoralism at similar population densities.

Comparing Mongolia with Wyoming/Montana

MongoliaWyoming + Montana
area1 566 500 km2634 200 km2
population2 382 0001 362 000
density1,5 / km22,1 / km2
1997 GNP/capita$ 390US: $ 28 740
employment in agriculture40% to 45%6%
ethnic originindigenous Mongol
and minorities
almost entirely
post-1850 immigrant
minoritiesKazakh 6%American Indians 4,5%
Hispanic 2%
coal output5 million metric tons355 million tons

Statistics: Mongolia census 2000, World Bank, Fischer Weltalmanach, Statistisches Bundesamt Länderbericht Mongolei 1992, sources listed below
Density in both areas is very low by European standards. (In the European Union 8 inhabitants/km2 is the threshold for regional assistance to low-density areas). The Gobi desert is an empty area on any map of world population density. There are some almost empty areas in central Montana, and in semi-desert south-west Wyoming. Nevertheless, the rail infrastructure in the US is better than in Mongolia, and the local road network far better. The same will apply to energy infrastructure, and above all to the 'social infrastructure' such as schools and health care.

Increasingly, however, both regions have the same economic basis: mining. No major industry ever developed in Wyoming and Montana anyway: and in Mongolia the non-extractive industrial sector has collapsed. So there has been a certain convergence of the economic base - but that base is better developed in the two US states anyway. Although reports on Mongolia refer to the 'massive' Soviet-built coal mines, Wyoming produces far more coal (over 300 million tons). In reality Mongolia's coal production (and per capita use) is tiny, in comparison with the US. Montana has a 120-year history as a copper-mining state. Both states are also well ahead of Mongolia, in the development of hydroelectric power.

In Montana, agriculture is a larger sector than mining, - but part of the state has better climate and soils than any area of Mongolia. 18 % of Montana is arable land (concentrated in the north-east corner), compared with only 1% in Mongolia. Wyoming is, like Mongolia, about 75% grazing land.

General agricultural productivity on Mongolian territory is very low. Compare Mongolia with agriculture in Poland (still considered a low-productivity agricultural sector in comparison with western Europe). In 1997, total cereal production per km2 was about 525 times higher in Poland. Meat production per km2 was 50 times higher in Poland. These figures are for total land area, and reflect primarily the difference in climate, geography, and ecology. In fact much of Mongolia is 'agricultural land', perhaps more than in Poland, but only in the sense that herds sometimes graze there. It took about 40% of the population to reach even that level of meat production. Cereal production was concentrated on the Soviet-built state farms. It has collapsed since 1989, from 416 kg/person to 81 kg/person, despite the present cereal shortage. That suggests that even these farms were only viable with subsidies, and outside technical assistance.

The low agricultural productivity reflects the harsh climate of Mongolia. In fact the combination of cold and aridity is probably harsher than in Wyoming and Montana. In relation to the ecological limitations, the inhabitants had successfully adapted to these harsh conditions. The system of pastoral nomadism in Mongolia emerged over a period of thousands of years, along with others in the Eurasian steppes and deserts. It survived almost unchanged until about 1910. There was no similar range of pastoral nomadic cultures in North America.

In other words, there was in Mongolia a unity of culture, history, economy and society based on pastoral nomadism. There was a pastoral-nomadic economy, in a pastoral-nomadic society, with a pastoral-nomadic type of culture, and a history characteristic for Eurasian steppe nomads. Mongolia is still inhabited by people who are culturally familiar with this unity: for many of them it is still daily reality. People outside Mongolia are also vaguely familiar with it: at least, they can associate Mongolia with yak herds, nomad tents, and Ghengis Khan.

In contrast, the original inhabitants of Wyoming and Montana were militarily defeated, and marginalised for generations. (The Indian Reservations are known, even outside the United States, as examples of marginalisation). An entirely new society and economy was substituted for the existing version. The new population came primarily from rural Europe: for them, food production meant primarily the family farm. During the 19th century, the immigrants developed a cultural adaptation to the steppe/prairie zone: the cattle ranch. Although the cattle (and the horses) were imports from Eurasia, the system worked. But despite all the great cowboy mythology, the settlement of the American west was not primarily based on ranching. It certainly could not be based on ranching today: the ranch population is now a fraction of the state total.

Here is an attempt at a comparative employment table for Montana and Mongolia in 1998, from several statistical sources - see the Sources list. Definitions and categories are not fully comparable.

The table emphasises the huge gap between a poor agricultural country, and a rich service-based economy. But it is not possible, to simply swop the jobs in agriculture for jobs in services. If it was so easy, Africa would be a rich continent. Much employment in the USA is in the kind of jobs which provide growing Montana's job growth: retail sales, child care, waitresses, cashiers, cleaners, nurses, food preparation workers and secretaries. But that service economy is dependent on other high-productivity jobs, including those in industry. In theory Mongolians can employ each other, to sell options on their sheep: but that will never generate the incomes of US options brokers.

industrial12%manufacturing 6.1%
mining 1.4%
transport, communications4%5.3%
(with utilities)
(with utilities)
services 26.4%
trade 24.9%
finance 4.1%
government 1990: circa 15%19.3%

The geographical situation is different. To the east, Montana and Wyoming border on states with higher densities, and so on all the way to Chicago. There is no such gradient in Mongolia: it is separated from northern China by desert, even emptier than the steppe. In the other direction, it does border on the end of the continuous settlement corridor in Russia. However the distances are great: 6300 km from Ulaan Bataar to Moscow, about 8000 km to western Europe). Wyoming is one of the historical transit routes between the US east and west coasts, which partly explains the transport infrastructure. The first transcontinental railroad (Union Pacific) was built through Wyoming, two others through Montana. These rail lines had an important effect on the settlement pattern (more on this below). The rail lines were followed by transcontinental roads and motorways, gas pipelines, and the electricity grid. In contrast, the trans-Mongolia rail link was only completed in 1956: it is still single-track and, not electrified. There is only one ancient trade route through Mongolia (along this line), the so-called Tea Road.

Perhaps the single most important difference is that Mongolia is not part of a larger state - certainly not a rich one. Wyoming and Montana are part of the richest state on earth. How many people would live there, if there were no federal Government transfer payments into the area? Without federal money for roads, military bases, pensions, and educational or health funds, perhaps there would be only coal-miners. A large proportion of the population, in remote areas of the USA, are being 'paid to live there', in this sense - despite the ideological and cultural commitment to the free market.

It is generally accepted, that an underlying tendency of market economies is toward spatial concentration. The depopulation of the mountain zones of Europe is a classic example. Only the most intensely touristed regions avoided this. In the last generation national governments, and the EU itself, have generally subsidised, these regions, to stabilise the population. The US Government had a similar policy, though it was often disguised under other names. (The location of military bases was a typical means for remote areas to secure inflows of federal funds). In Mongolia there were substantial transfers from the Soviet Union until 1989, some also in the form of military base activity. They may have amounted to 30% of GDP. However that was still small in absolute terms. It was not enough, for instance, to allow construction of surfaced roads to the provincial capitals.

A second important factor is the cultural uniformity of the United States, which allows migration to remote areas. The Rocky Mountain states in the USA have the policy option of promoting leisure and retirement housing development, although often with negative side-effects. (See this example: the bare land lots from Realty Northwest). But future in-migration to Mongolia from high-income areas (western Europe) is unlikely. Language and cultural barriers are very great, and a so-called 'culture of mobility' will not overcome this. Even though US residents will move thousands of kilometres to new job or a retirement home, they are extremely reluctant to move to Mexico. And even if a Eurasian pattern of long-distance retirement or leisure migration did arise, there are many other high interior mountain regions in Eurasia, certainly more than in North America).

The cultural and social uniformity also facilitates tourism. Wyoming has about 7 million visitors a year: it contains the first national park in the world, Yellowstone national Park designated in 1872. The state therefore has a tourist development history of about 130 years. In contrast Mongolia had about 200 000 visitors a year in the 1980's, almost all from the Soviet Union. The recent-developed tourist industry for the western market is tiny.

Local government in Mongolia is probably more rational, than its equivalent in the western United States. The Constitution specifies a simple structure of Administrative and Territorial Units. Mongolia is divided into provinces (aimak). They are not of equal population, but the range is low: the biggest is less than three times the size of the smallest. There are 18 non-urban aimaks. Most have between 50 000 and 100 000 inhabitants, and typical areas of 50 000 km2 to 120 000 km2. Each aimak has on average 17 districts (soum, plural somon) with an average area of 4 750 km2 and average 4 700 inhabitants. One small new aimak (Govisumber, 12 000 inhabitants) has been created - presumably for political reasons. However, the local government fragmentation, seen in some eastern European countries, has been avoided. Below the soum level, are less formal non-administrative units (bagh, horoo): they have no elected assembly, but instead public meetings.

In Wyoming and Montana there are two distinct types of local government unit: the county, and the seven Indian Reservations. Towns are usually separate entities, but there is no size criterion. The reservations have far-reaching autonomy and deal directly with the federal Government, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Curiously, the United States and the former Soviet Union share this pattern, of non-comparable ethnic local government units. The Soviet Union had a standard provincial unit, the oblast, but also ethnic autonomous republics (and regions) of varying sizes. True, the system was under tight control of the Communist Party - but nevertheless the principle of ethnic government was accepted. It has survived into the present Russian Federation. This pattern was not imposed in Mongolia, although the Bayan-Olgii aimak was for a time treated as a Kazakh national aimak (Sanders, 43). The impact of Indian self-government in the United States is limited: the total Indian and Alaska native population is less than the population of Mongolia, see the statistics and projections (pdf). Montana population was 6% Indian in 1994, in Wyoming only 2% are Indian. They are not 'ethnically fragmented'. Probably the state borders are more of an obstacle to regional policy, than the presence of Indian tribal territories.

The future regional structure in Mongolia

At the 2000 population census, 32% of the the population of Mongolia lived in the capital Ulaan Bataar. In the last 10 years the city grew by 3,5% per annum: about 60% of that growth is caused by migration from the rest of the country. Another 6% of the population live in Erdenet and Darhan (industrial/mining towns), and about 15% in the aimak (province) centres. The aimak towns usually have between 20% and 30% of the aimak population. They are urban because they are the aimak capital - and not the other way round. They are administrative and service centres, built up since 1930 by the national government, under Soviet influence. There is no indigenous urban tradition in Mongolia, although some large monasteries were quasi-urban settlements. Below the aimak towns is another level of service centres, one for each soum. They have a typical population of 1000 - not 'urban' by normal definitions.

Rural densities are determined by the carrying capacity of the pastures: as low as 0,1 persons/km2 in the Gobi, 2 persons/km2 in the forest-steppe zone. Low density does not mean 'evenly spread'. Half the population lives in the three northern aimaks, containing the three main cities Ulaan Bataar, Erdenet and Darhan - on just 11% of the territory. A larger central zone has about two-thirds of the population, on one-third of the territory: it includes the ecologically favoured Khangai region. This concentration appears to be accelerating, with faster growth in the rural aimaks there. In contrast, the desert zone along the southern border with China is empty: so is most of Dornod aimak. There are also some empty areas in the mountains along the northern border, such as the Hentii range north-east of Ulaan Bataar.

Population Census: 1989 and 2000
Administrative unit1989 popsharedensity2000 popsharedensity


Inside each province, there is also an uneven distribution of population. The 1990 National Atlas shows, that even a nomadic population is concentrated in favourable areas. That means primarily along river valleys, and in the foothills of mountain ranges. In the highest mountain zones (in the west), population is concentrated in the valleys, and in some classic oasis settlements. The soum centres are located approximately at centres of these clusters of population. In line with Soviet practice, most aimak towns are also located at a central point in the aimak - although there may be no concentration of population there.

The population of the Gobi and eastern steppe regions is low in absolute terms. But these are also the areas of the great mineral and coal deposits (and possibly oil). Mining development could create enough employment to limit out-migration, at least at aimak level. Inside the aimak, however, the existing population distribution would disappear. The population would shift into mining towns. The existing population clusters in zones of good pasture would disappear, and the soum centres would lose their function. The population near the existing mining towns Erdenet and Darhan might also stabilise, if mineral revenues are used to finance diversification.

In summary the entire pattern of settlement is both artificial and dependent on a base population of herders. It there is no nomadic herding, then there is little reason for anyone to live in zones of natural pasture. It the clusters of nomadic herding population disappear, then many soum centres then lose their reason for existence. In turn, most aimak centres exist primarily as second-tier service centres, and if the base population migrates, their local economy would also collapse.

The Gobi population is small enough, in absolute terms, to fit into a few mining and oil towns. In contrast, the forest-steppe zone will probably lose much of its population. Why this prediction? It is extremely unlikely that the nomadic pastoral lifestyle will survive for another generation: overall productivity is extremely low. If a high-productivity form of meat production replaced nomadic herding, the rural population might be partly stabilised. If not, then the rural population will have the choice of staying where they are, as the poorest people in Asia - or migrating. Given the predicted growth of the Chinese economy, and the demographic labour shortage in Russia and western Europe, emigration will probably be easier than at present. A special case is the Bayan-Ölgiy aimak: the population is mainly Kazakh. There has already been some migration to Kazakhstan: an oil boom there might attract much of the remaining Kazakh population.

The table shows the artificial urban hierarchy of Mongolia, compared to that of Montana and Wyoming together. The populations for urban centres (1997/1998) are from Mongolia population statistics table 14.1, Montana by numbers and Wyoming Population Estimates. The US populations are for the legal entity 'city', the real urban area may be bigger.

The exceptional status of Ulaan Bataar is obvious. The industrial centres Darhan, Erdenet and (on a smaller scale Choibalsan), are the result of planned concentration of investment. They were created by decisions at national level. That is also true for the aimak centres, with primarily a service function. Industrialisation of the aimak centres seems improbable. They are remote and relatively small, with no existing industry, except processing meat and hides. Their 'gross product' is comparable to agricultural villages in western Europe. They will probably be much the same size in 2025 - about 15 000 to 25 000 inhabitants.

That leaves Ulaan Bataar. The most reasonable prediction of the future population distribution is that the majority of Mongolians will live in one city. At present the best example of 'primate city' growth is Tirana in Albania. That is also a country with extreme rural poverty, and a collapsed industrial sector. Tirana has doubled (perhaps tripled) its population in a decade. However Albania also has a rich neighbour, Italy, and an extremely high rate of illegal emigration. And it has an urban tradition in the coastal regions, and an existing urban hierarchy with regional centres. Mongolia's medium-term future is extreme rural poverty, little emigration, and 100% concentration of development in Ulaan Bataar. That suggests massive movement to the capital.

668 700UlaanbaatarBillings91 750
71 400DarhanGreat Falls56 395
63 500ErdenetCheyenne53,618
38 600ChoibalsanMissoula52 239
27 400HovdCasper48,718
26 500UlaangomHelena28 306
25 600MoronButte-Silver Bow33 994
24 300UliastaiBozeman29 936
23 300BayanhongorLaramie25,775
22 300SuhbaatarRock Springs19,522
21 000OlgiiGillette19,236
20 700ArvaiheerKalispell16 089
18 500AltaiSheridan14,803
18 100TsetserlegGreen River13,086
17 700SainshandEvanston11,741
16 000OndorhaanHavre10 015
15 600BulganAnaconda-Deer Lodge9 999
15 300ZuunmodRiverton9,963
14 700Baruun-UrtRawlins8,951
12 600DalanzadgadCody8,794
10 900MandalgoviMiles City8 685

It would be difficult to build up regional centres, as a balance for this trend (the classic French 'growth pole' model). In the west the only candidate is Hovd, and it could only serve the 3 western aimaks, with 267 000 inhabitants. In the east Choibalsan is the largest centre, but much of the region is completely empty. If it grew, it would not be a regional centre, but an isolated city in the steppe. The aimak centres in the Khangai are the best candidates, for a 'regional' centre (with service functions above aimak level). Although Arvaiheer is a small town, it already has a paved road to the capital, and it is growing faster than other aimak centres. But for all these Khangai towns, the problem is the same. Density is low, transport infrastructure is oriented to the capital, there are no transverse routes. If people must travel two days in winter to reach a small regional capital, then they will probably travel in three days to Ulaan Bataar instead. The 'regional pole' policies in Europe moved a selected city upwards in the urban hierarchy, to become the regional centre. This logic applies inside a well-developed urban hierarchy, but not in Mongolia.

More realistically, the aimak centres might retain their present population, typically 20% to 30% of the present province total. In 10 to 15 years a typical pattern might be: 25 000 in the aimak centre, 25 000 outside it. The rest (and all the increase in population) would have gone to Ulaan Bataar. All in all, at least a doubling of the Ulaan Baataar population seems probable, and at least a 40% share of national population, probably ultimately 60%. The UN medium variant projected 2050 population for Mongolia is 4 398 000 so that would mean a city of 1,7 million or 2,7 million. That is is not unusual for Asia: some cities in 'Inner Mongolia', part of China, are already in this size range.

With this scenario in mind, look again at the economy and population distribution in Wyoming/Montana. What makes it different? Why don't 500 000 people live in Billings, Montana, for example? With US standards of living, they can certainly afford it. Why are they living in small towns instead, and what work do they do there? This is the usefulness of the comparison: it allows a possible alternative for the 'Ulaan Bataar scenario' to be formulated.

From this perspective the comparison with Canada is less useful. The Province of Alberta seems the closest correspondence in terms of climate, landforms and vegetation. However, this table of the Alberta urban hierarchy (from a report of the Electoral Boundaries Commission) indicates why Alberta is not a good comparison: it is more urbanised, and population density is almost 3 times higher.

With the urban population criteria used here (10 000 inhabitants), Mongolia is substantially less urban, about 50%. The higher population density reflects the large area of arable land in Alberta, and 40 years of oil and gas exports.

Municipality 1995 Population 1991 Census
Calgary 749,073 710,795
Edmonton 626,999 616,741
Lethbridge 64,938 60,974
Red Deer 60,023 58,145
St. Albert 45,895 42,146
Medicine Hat 45,892 43,625
Sherwood Park 39,614 35,576
Fort McMurray 34,706 34,706
Grande Prairie 29,242 28,271
Sub Total (Larger centres) 1,696,382 1,630,979
Airdrie 14,506 12,456
Camrose 14,121 13,420
Leduc 14,117 13,970
Spruce Grove 13,076 12,908
Fort Saskatchewan 12,313 12,092
Wetaskiwin 10,771 10,657
Lloydminster 10,042 10,042
Drumheller 6,277 6,277
Sub Total (Smaller centres) 95,223 91,822
Total (Urban centres) 1,791,605 1,722,801
Total (Alberta) 2,615,527 2,554,779
Percentage (Urban/Alberta) 68.5% 67.4%

Small-town Montana and Wyoming

Sheridan, Wyoming is a random example. The population is 14 800, the size of the smallest aimak centres in Mongolia. Another 10 000 live in the surrounding Sheridan County. Even a glance at the the Sheridan Directory website shows the vast difference between life in a remote region of a rich country and in a remote area of a very poor country. Sheridan is 215 km from Billings, Montana, the regional centre. It is 700 km from Denver (Colorado), the nearest large city. The Chamber of Commerce profile shows it has 33 doctors and 16 dentists, 6 libraries, 3 swimming pools, 2 golf courses and 13 tennis courts, 4 local radio stations, 38-channel cable tv, and 7 banks. There is not just piped water and electricity, but a sewage system, sewage plant, and even separate storm drains. A rail line, and the Interstate Highway I-90 (Chicago-Seattle), run through the county.

But what are the employment sources? This is the 1996 Chamber of Commerce list:..

Name Product or Service Employees
Dept. of Veterans Affairs Medical Center Medical 435
Burlington Northern Railroad 284
Sheridan Co. School Dist. #2 Education 514
Decker Coal Company Mining 290
Sheridan Co. Memorial Hosp Medical 411
City of Sheridan (Estab. 1888) Government 144
Sheridan College Education 825
Wyoming Sawmills Lumber 200
Spring Creek Coal Company Mining 129
County of Sheridan (Estab. 1888) Government 115
Wal-Mart Retail 182
Holiday Inn Hospitality 308
So the major employers are related to the transcontinental transit function (railroad, motels), or to 'regional development' in the form of federal facilities (Veterans Administration hospital), or nationally funded government services (local government, schools, hospitals). The extractive industries are also represented, mining, wood processing. In turn this supports an extensive retail and personal services sector.

Transit functions in Sheridan are still important. But when the railroads were the only long-distance transport, they were probably even more important. That leads to the issue of their influence on settlement. And this seems the key to the population distribution in Montana and Wyoming. Of the 21 largest settlements (see table above), 14 are on a transcontinental rail line. According to the Montana Groundwater Atlas, "most of the population is concentrated along major stream valleys, and many of the state's urban centers are near large rivers." Logical, because the rail lines followed these valleys, and in dry conditions agriculture was best possible there. Population distribution was clustered, from the start of European settlement. The infrastructure is concentrated along east-west routes, and a few transversal links: this makes a radial pattern around a single centre less likely.

A good comparison with Sheridan is the smaller town of Riverton, Wyoming, located off the main transcontinental routes. Although it only has about 10 000 inhabitants (35 000 in total in Fremont County), it has a very good range of services, listed at the Chamber of Commerce site: 1 Ophthalmologist, 32 Attorneys, 7 Architects/Engineers, 5 Veterinarians, 8 Dentists, 5 Optometrists, 1 Psychiatrist, 5 Chiropractors, 23 Physicians and Surgeons. It also has 15 motels with 498 rooms, 5 tennis courts, 9 public parks, a swimming pool, 4 radio stations, and a local airport.

More than in Sheridan, the major employers are government-funded, or service the local market...

Major Employers: Product Employees:
School District 25 Education 444
DH Print Dot Matrix & Laser Printers 248
Columbia Memorial Hospital Health 229
Central Wyoming College Education 150
Wal-Mart Department Store 142
K-Mart Department Store 100
Bonneville Transloaders Trucking Firm 120
City of Riverton Municipal Services 86-100
Smith's Food Drug Food Products 78
The dot matrix printers are the only recognisable 'export item' here. In fact Riverton's regional economy seems dependent on irrigated agriculture, small oil fields, and (for about 30 years) on uranium. The irrigation was a government project, see Riverton history information: even in such a remote area, the external economy and government intervention have created high-productivity employment.

The state employment profile emphasises the service character of the economy in Wyoming...



Total employment.


Percent of small business

Total - All Industries





Eating & Drinking Places





Health Services





Oil & Gas Extraction





Hotels, Rooming Houses, Camps & Oth. Lodg.





Auto. Dealers & Gas Service Stations





This gives the impression, that the state's inhabitants live by selling each other hamburgers and petrol. However, a realistic assessment would compare the net product of the various sectors, including taxes on oil and gas extraction. The state website is more accurate:

"Wyoming's economic well-being revolves around three industries-the extraction of minerals, tourism and agriculture. The 1994 valuation of minerals produced in 1993 was $3,523,774,856. Tourism brought in an estimated $1,566,683,935 while agriculture also had a total economic impact on the state's economy of nearly $1.5 billion.

Small-town Mongolia

In contrast to the high standard of living in Sheridan and Riverton, rural Mongolia is still firmly in the Third World. The normal conditions of life are, by US standards, acute poverty. According to the 2000 population census, half the countries households still live in a ger (the traditional nomads tent). Two-thirds of the rural population have no electricity, only 2% have a telephone. This extract from a World bank report on vulnerable groups (Harper, 1994) is illustrative:
Old Age, Zuunmod Aimak Center
Several elderly women were met: they all loved alone in slum conditions. Two lived in wooden sheds on the outskirts of the aimak center. They survived from the aimak soup kitchen and from begging. One woman salvaged a stove and collected dung so she had some heating. They had families but had been abandoned.
Unemployed, Zuunmod Aimak Center
Several families had been made destitute after being made unemployed or as a result of worsening economic conditions. Approximately 10 families lived in a derelict government building on the outskirts of the aimak center. Each family inhabited one room. All inhabitants had moved there when their wooden houses had fallen into disrepair....The residents claimed the heating system had been 'privatized' and thus there was no heating. The conditions were unsanitary and dangerous.

There is a social security system in Mongolia: however benefits are very low, on the scale of a few dollars per month. In rural areas it seems that only those who have successfully continued (or returned to) nomadic herding can avoid destitution. And even those only survive, no more.


Some simple conclusions are possible from the comparisons here. The first is that the areas are less comparable than at first sight. In particular, Montana and Wyoming seem to have more energy and mineral resources. These have been developed for a longer period, so that there is a good local technical infrastructure.

Second, Mongolia seems so disadvantaged for agriculture, that not even Montana and Wyoming are a good comparison. And this position is unlikely to be reversed, because food production elsewhere can be more easily expanded. China already produces 265 times as much meat as Mongolia. In other words, a 0,4% improvement in productivity there, means more meat than a doubling of Mongolian output. The money needed to transform Mongolian agriculture, into something like Wyoming agriculture, can almost certainly be better spent elsewhere. And even Wyoming-style rural development would still mean that most of the rural population migrate to urban areas.

Third, a related issue: farming areas of Wyoming and Montana were settled by Europeans under very different agricultural conditions. When population was growing faster than the increase in output per hectare, the only way to feed more people was to use more land. In the last generation, that necessity has disappeared. In the European Union, huge areas of agricultural land, created in the last 1500 years, will be abandoned in the next 25 years. Market forces will probably lead to a similar transformation in the USA. Zones of marginal productivity are abandoned first: as with many of the uplands of the EU. However, that does not necessarily mean total depopulation. The EU openly subsidises such areas, the United States does that more indirectly. US mountain communities still have votes and political influence - enough to get some federal projects diverted to their area ('pork-barrelling'). And they still receive pensions and health care. This hidden transfer funding slows the population mobility, for which the US is famous. It tends to fossilise the existing settlement pattern.

Mongolian herders have votes too, but there is no 'pork barrel' for them. No rich federal government will build expensive projects in small provincial towns. The despised Soviet Union was the only state which funded places like Baruun-Urt and Mandalgovi. It is hard to imagine Japan or the EU paying to maintain such settlements - if there is no direct economic advantage.

A fourth conclusion is that Wyoming and Montana have benefited from the multiple transcontinental routes. In Mongolia there is only one, and it passes through Ulaan Bataar anyway. It will not decentralise development. The road route from Barnaul through the Altai will probably never have the same status: the alternative route to the south (through Urumqi) is much more convenient. In fact that route, through the Dzungarian Gate, is the easiest Europe-China land route. There is no Eurasian geographic equivalent, of the single north-south barrier of the Rocky Mountains in North America.

A fifth conclusion is about a false idea: that Mongolia can go through a social/technological phase similar to 19th century Wyoming and Montana. In other words, that it can transform itself into something like 20th century Wyoming/Montana - and yet maintain the unity of culture, economy and society associated with the centuries of pastoral nomadism. But there were no indigenous pastoral nomads in Wyoming/Montana. In the 19th century, no immigrant pastoral nomads came to Wyoming/Montana either. There was no switch from pastoral nomadism to ranching. The American Indians did not make a successful economic transition to ranching, or indeed anything else. They were sent to Reservations, and an entirely new culture, economy and society was built up around them by immigrants. Wyoming and Montana are suitable historical models for an invasion of Mongolia, not for its regional development.

A sixth conclusion is that 'economic regionalisation' of Mongolia is difficult, in both senses of the term. It is difficult to define the economic regions, and regional policy is difficult to formulate. The economic-spatial structure of Mongolia is, in simple form, Ulaan Bataar plus pasture land. One city at one location, and 33 million head of livestock spread over 1,5 million km2. Of course, that is an exaggeration and a distortion - but less so than in more densely populated and urbanised countries, where there are more centres and networks of all kinds.

The general conclusion from the comparisons here is: a Wyoming/Montana pattern of settlement and regional development in Mongolia is unlikely. A third-world flight from rural poverty into slums around Ulaan Bataar seems the probable future. The elimination of poverty in that city will probably be dependent on industrialisation - on the model of the Chinese inland cities to the south. Romantic ideas about a 'sustainable' rural development (promoted by some western activists), are not just unlikely, but unethical. There can be no 'return to tradition' here, because the country has far more people than in the traditional period. (In 1918, before the changes, there were 650 000 inhabitants, a quarter of the present population). So-called 'sustainable' herding would condemn the rural population to permanent poverty, since the inherent productivity of the land is so low. If such a lifestyle were subsidised by rich countries (directly, or through tourism), it would transform the rural areas into a 'Mongol Heritage' theme park. No population would voluntarily and permanently choose either of these alternatives: they would evade them by emigration (legal or illegal). If these were the only futures for a majority of the population, then they could only be enforced in the long term, by closing the border and making the country a prison.


Mongolia WWW Virtual Library: several sites are related to the fascination in New Age circles for the Mongolian combination of Lama-ist Buddhism and Shamanism. Few have any useful background information.

Landeskundliche Informationsseite Mongolei, a much better introductory page, with useful links (most to English-language pages).

Mongolei-Links: deutschsprachige Links, English-language links, links in Mongolia.

Mongolia World, over 150 links: especially educational, cultural, development agency and NGO sites.

Library of Congress / Federal Research Division / Country Studies / Area Handbook Series / Mongolia compiled in 1989, mostly out-of-date.

Population census 2000, results in English and Mongolian. Includes a dot map of the population density, compare it with the precipitation map.

Mongolia Human Development Report 2000, UNDP. The complete PDF file is difficult to access.

Index of UN reports on Mongolia

UNDP Capacity 21: Mongolia

Zud 2001 website
DZUD 2001: UN / Mongolia Appeal for International Assistance, PDF file.

Mongolian National News Agency MONTSAME

Mongolei - Vergleich volkswirtschaftlicher Zahlen 1989 - 1998, the transition in statistics:
unemployed 1989: 14 800
unemployed 1998: 221 400
child hospital beds 1989: 6 285
child hospital beds 1998: 2 549
murders 1989: 87
murders 1998: 1 123

Wirtschaftsjahresbericht Mongolei, Deutsche Botschaft Ulaanbaatar, 2000.

Statistics Mongolia, with main Statistical Indicators.
As well as the 2000 census results, it includes older population statistics, and statistics on the economy, agriculture and territory. Some sections are under construction, this table is from the older version of the site:

Table 13.3, SECTORAL COMPOSITION OF GROSS DOMESTIC PRODUCT, at current prices, percentage









100, 0

100, 0

100, 0

100, 0

100, 0

100, 0


32, 7

35, 6

32, 4

20, 6

24, 1

24, 1


15, 5

15, 2

36, 7

36, 8

33, 5

32, 8


6, 1

5, 0

2, 7

3, 8

3, 4

3, 5


10, 4

10, 2

3, 4

4, 7

5, 2

5, 3


1, 6

1, 8

1, 2

1, 1

1, 4

1, 4

trade and material technical provision

19 0

19, 4

12, 3

18, 3

18, 5

18, 9


13, 4

11, 5

11, 2

14, 7

13, 9

14, 0


1, 3

1, 2

0, 1




Mongolian Chamber of Commerce and Industry with economic statistics and overview of economic development.

Mongolia's export promotion opportunities, report for the UN by UNITRA. With statistics on main exports, 1990 to 1998.

The Mineral Industry of Mongolia (PDF), US Geological Service.

MONGOLIA country profile, AGENDA 21

Natural and Climatic conditions of "State farm ORHON"

Precipitation map of Mongolia, PDF

Die geographischen Waldgesellschaften der Mongolei, with map

Mongolia:Overview of Economic Sectors and Companies to be Privatised, sectoral information

Wyoming Coal, coal industry propaganda.
The section What is Wyoming coal used for? once included the absurd claim that... " Each person in the U.S. uses 20 tons of coal every day!" This is now amended to a more accurate "20 pounds of coal every day".

Coal production graph, Northern Rocky Mountains (Montana, Wyoming)

Tumen River Area Development Programme

Bureau of Indian Affairs FAQ

What Is the Relationship Between the United States and the Tribes?
The relationship between the tribes and the United States is one of a government to a government., This principle has shaped the entire history of dealings between the federal government and the tribes, and is lodged in the Constitution of the United States.

What Is the Relationship Between Tribal and State Governments?
Because the Constitution vests authority over Indian Affairs in the federal government, generally, states have no authority over tribal governments., Tribal governments are not subordinate to state governments... The Tribal-to-State relationship is also one of a government to a government.

federally recognised tribes
Maps of Indian Lands, Bureau of Indian Affairs / Geographic Data Service Center (GDSC).
The tribal nations of Montana

Montana Department of Agriculture
with agriculture statistics.

Montana Department of Commerce with links to latest census data (March 2001).

Montana County Decennial Census Resident Population 1990 and 2000
Total Population, Population Density, and Land Area for Montana Counties: some of the counties have densities comparable to the lowest in Mongolia, at 0,1 persons / km2.
Indian Reservations Population 1990 and 2000

Montana 1997 Economic Census PDF file.

Montana, Census of Agriculture 1997

Job Projections for Montana's Industries and Occupations: 1996 - 2006
Job projections ranked by total growth 1996 to 2006, top ten....

Montana population density map

Facts about Montana

Wyoming: history

FAO: Livestock grazing systems & the environment, Grazing systems of the arid areas (Africa). Although there is very little crop farming in Mongolia anyway, these negative effects could emerge there....

FAO: Grazing systems in temperate zones....

Mongolia- Society:Pastoral Nomadism from the 1989 Area Handbook on Mongolia.

High Reliability Pastoralism Center for Sustainable Resource Development. Discussion Paper No. 3, Emery Roe, Lynn Huntsinger, and Keith Labnow. This paper supports the 'maintenance of pastoralism', without any consideration of the ethics of deliberately keeping people in poverty. (There is a racist undertone here, and some other literature on pastoralism).

Ecogers, Mongolia as eco theme-park...

NREL Research in Mongolia, Colorado State University (Dennis Ojima, Chuluun Togtohyn, Jim Reardon-Anderson, Larry Tieszen, Bruce Wylie)....

Print sources, in reverse date order

Szynkiewicz, Slawoj (1998) Contemporary Mongol concepts on being a pastoralist: institutional continuity, change and substitutes in J. Ginat and A. M. Khazanov (eds.), Changing Nomads in a Changing World. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.

Brunn, Ole, And O. Odgaard (1996) Mongolia in Transition: Old Patterns, New Challenges. Richmond: Curzon.

Germeraad, Pieter and Z. Enebisch (1996) The Mongolian landscape tradition: a key to progress. Nomadic traditions and their contemporary role in landscape planning and management in Mongolia. Rhoon: published by the authors.

Jones, Schuyler (1996) Tibetan Nomads: Environment, Pastoral Economy and Material Culture. London: Thames and Hudson. See Chapter II: High altitude pastoralism and the pastoral nomad economy.

Mearns, Robin (1995) Community, collective action, and common grazing: the case of post-socialist Mongolia. Brighton: Institute for Development Studies.

Harper, Caroline (1994) An assessment of vulnerable groups in Mongolia: strategies for social policy planning. Washington: World Bank. (Discussion Paper 229).

van Leeuwen, Carel (1994) Nomads in Central Asia: Animal Husbandry and Culture in Transition (19th-20th Century). Amsterdam: Royal Tropical Institute.

Akademiya Nauk (1990) Mongolskaya Narodna Respublika Nacionalny Atlas. Ulan Bator: Akademiya Nauk.

Sanders, Alan (1987) Mongolia: Politics, Economics and Society. London: Pinter.

Sanders, Alan (1968) The People's Republic of Mongolia: a General Reference Guide. London: Oxford University Press.

Murzaev, E. M. (1954) Die Mongolische Volksrepublik: Physisch-geographische Beschreibung. Gotha: VEB geographisch-kartographische Anstalt.

Urban and European planning