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Monday, February 24, 2014

What Green Means in Mongolia

Originally posted on Kiva.org on May 31, 2013

a massive silver statue of Chinggis Khan looms 40m high
on a snowy spring morning at Tsonjin Boldog, east of UB

Spring may have arrived in Mongolia, but for two Kiva staff who visited me in April, winter gave one last hurrah and dumped the largest snowfall I’ve seen since being here (a whopping 2 inches!).

If you’ve had a chance to read some of my past blog posts, you’ll already know that winter in Mongolia is a big deal—even for a Canuck like me. While precipitation is generally light in the winter, temperatures can range all the way down to -50oC (-58oF) in many parts of the country.

a typical Mongolian ger in Choibalsan (left),
kept warm in the winter with a coal-burning stove

So Mongolians must do what they can to stay warm. If you’re lucky enough to live in an apartment building in a city centre, your home is centrally heated. But if you live in the outer ger districts or in the countryside, the story is quite different: You must use a stove to keep your home warm. And to ensure you and your family stay warm all night long, someone—usually the mother—must get up several times in order to keep the fire stoked.

And it’s not just about keeping warm. Half of all the air pollution in UB is attributed to household heating in the ger districts, with an average family using approximately 4.5 tons of coal per year for heating and cooking (costing them about $565 USD annually). As a result, UB has been named the second most polluted city in the world, according to the World Health Organization, and one in ten deaths are attributed to cancers, respiratory illnesses, and other health problems related to pollution.

a not-so-clear winter morning in UB

Enter green loans

I had the pleasure of hosting Stev and Josh from Kiva’s headquarters here in Mongolia in mid-April. They came here for one week to work with one of our partners, Credit Mongol, and to learn more about their green loans program. Credit Mongol has been offering loans that support environmentally-friendly uses since the beginning of 2012, and these loans currently make up about one-tenth of its $11 million gross loan portfolio.

Credit Mongol’s headquarters in UB
(photo courtesy of Stev Witzel)

When Westerners think ‘green,’ we tend to think of solutions that involve some pretty sophisticated technologies and equipment. While the use of wind farms and solar panels does exist here and is gradually expanding, the reality in Mongolia is often much simpler. Green loans here can be used to purchase of low-emission, ceramic-lined, cast-iron stoves that are designed to have better airflow control and therefore improve combustion, allowing users to reduce coal consumption by 70-80%. The loans are also often used to help individuals purchase insulation and building materials (including double-paned windows) that reduce the amount of coal needed to heat the home, which has a positive impact both in terms of cost savings for the family and reduced pollution for the community. Another popular use of green loans here is for individuals purchasing hybrid or natural gas vehicles to operate taxi businesses, which provide an additional source of income for many Mongolian families.

So the Kiva team at Credit Mongol helped us plan a trip to one of their rural branches out in Dornod, the easternmost aimag (province) in Mongolia. Our mission was to visit some of Credit Mongol’s Kiva borrowers and to learn more about their green loans. And so the adventure began…

An epic journey

Less than 24 hours after Stev and Josh arrived from the other side of the world, we were off to an early start. Six a.m. was a bit too early for my liking, but we had 650km to cover, a journey we were told would take about 8 hours in Credit Mongol’s Land Cruiser.

As we started driving east, the city melted away but the snow remained, slowing us down. We took in the enormous Chinggis Khan statue along the way, and then continued driving until we reached the city centre of Khenti aimag 4.5 hours later. Though it was barely 11a.m., we stopped for lunch, as Batchimeg (Credit Mongol’s Kiva Coordinator) informed us there would be no other places to stop along the way.

Driving across the Mongolian steppes en route to Dornod – clockwise from top left: (1) sheep running from the sound of our car, (2) our driver Tumurbaatar and Batchimeg, (3) chilling with Stev and Josh as we take a break along the way, (4) seeing camels and other animals inhabiting the steppe

Not even hearing this prepared me for what was to come next. As we piled back into the car, Batchimeg joked cheerfully, ‘No more sleeping!’ What followed was something I could only describe as dune-bashing in Dubai meets the Mongolian steppe (or perhaps this is what Mongol Rally is all about). The paved road ended abruptly, and was replaced by a dirt road that was anything but smooth. For the next 6.5 hours, we bounced along in our SUV, getting hurled around in the back seats and even becoming airborne on multiple occasions. This is pretty much as raw as Mongolia gets! I thanked my lucky stars for the invention of Gravol.

you rarely see other people along the way as you travel across the steppes…

At first, the road was flanked by low mountains in the distance, but these soon disappeared and were replaced by the Mongolian steppes: Flat plains of yellow grass stretching out for as far as the eye can see. We spotted the occasional ger, probably belonging to a herder, but we witnessed far more animals than humans along the way. There were sheep, cows, horses, deer, and camels, as well as one monstrous bird that, standing at about 4 feet tall, made us do a double take.

No less than eleven hours after leaving UB, we arrived in Choibalsan, the city centre of Dornod, just as the sun was starting to set.

Introducing Kiva’s green loan recipients

The next day, fully rested, we set off to meet some of the Kiva borrowers. They all welcomed us warmly into their homes, and some had even been waiting around all day for our visit. We were grateful for their hospitality and had a blast connecting with these awesome individuals and their families. Here are their stories.

Iijuu’s potato farm

Iijuu has been farming for 22 years and grows mainly potatoes, carrots, and beets on the plot of land he owns with his family. With his Kiva Green loan, he purchased potato seeds and planted them in early May. All of Iijuu’s produce is organic, as is all agricultural production in Mongolia. In early September, Iijuu will begin harvesting his potatoes, and he will sell them at the local market. When asked if he had a message to his lenders, he said with a smile, ‘Thank you to all of you for enabling me to grow vegetables. I wish you all success in your work and your life.’

Iijuu telling us about his farm and how he used his loan

Gombosuren’s new family home

When Gombosuren took out his loan, he was living in a small wooden house with his wife and two sons. The house was old and in rough condition, with a roof that leaked when it rained. The house required ten tonnes of coal to keep it warm throughout the winter, thus contributing significantly to the air pollution. Since it would cost him just as much to repair his old house as it would to build a new one, he decided to take out a Kiva loan to build a new house that is warmer, more comfortable, and requires less coal to heat. He and his family are quite happy in their new home.


the house that Gombosuren built,
and the stove and materials that heat it in the wintertime


Gombosuren and one of his sons

Ariunbold’s move to the city

Ariunbold and his family used to live in the countryside, where they worked as herders raising sheep, goats, and cows. One unfortunate year, a harsh zud killed off most of their livestock, so they were forced to migrate to the city in search of employment. They moved initially to a place they rented adjoining a grocery store, but it was hardly a proper home. So Ariunbold took out a loan in order to purchase a traditional ger. With its felt-lined walls and stove, the ger will keep himself, his wife and infant son, as well as his parents, surprisingly warm during the cold and windy Mongolian winters. ‘Living in my own home certainly improved my living standard,’ he says.

Ariunbold, his wife, and their young son

Insulation for Enkhtuya

Enkhtuya, a retired cook, has big plans to build houses on her property to help accommodate her children’s growing families. She is currently working on one, and her Kiva loan has helped her buy insulation materials such as fiberglass, planks, and steel. Her husband explained to us how they use mud, grass, and water to make blocks which will line the walls of their house to keep it warm. These types of blocks have been used since ancient times and are known to have excellent insulation properties. Enkhtuya expects that the new house will keep her family, and particularly her young grandchildren, warm and healthy throughout the winter.

the new home Enkhtuya is building

Enkhtuya’s husband describing how he makes the bricks that will insulate his house

Tserennadmid’s salon

Tserennadmid was busy with her clients when we stopped by her salon, but she took some time out to talk to us. She is certainly a popular stylist! Having worked in her profession for the past 8 years, she has plenty of business savvy. She and her husband are now planning to open and operate a grocery store in their backyard. She has taken out a loan in order to install an electric-heated floor in the new store, which will help reduce the amount of coal they need to burn in the stove. Her businesses will continue to help support her two young sons and her mother.

Tserennadmid working on a Mongolian client

Байгаль орчинд ээлтэй (Baigal Orchind Eeltei): Being environmentally friendly in Mongolia

The next day, we were back on the rally-esque road for our long journey back to the capital. Before leaving Choibalsan, however, our colleagues took us to visit some of the war memorials. Outside the main city centre, the wind whipped around us and gave us a taste of just how cold it can get—and it wasn’t even winter anymore! The need for well insulated housing and clean-burning stoves in Mongolia became real to us in that moment.

Personal and business loans aren’t the only ways Mongolians are trying to have a positive impact on the environment. In UB, where traffic congestion is incredibly high, the government has instituted car restrictions since last September: Depending on your license plate number, people are only permitted to drive on certain weekdays. And one sunny day in April, Ulaanbaatarians poured out onto the streets as they walked about freely, enjoying the city’s annual No Car Day. And a couple of weekends ago, many of the city’s residents took part in Tree Planting Day, planting thousands of saplings throughout the Children’s Park and elsewhere.

pitching in to make UB a greener place

All of these efforts are important in the face of air pollution, desertification, and other environmental issues challenging Mongolia. Driving back across the steppes from Dornod, we took in the natural beauty around us. It wasn’t hard to imagine how green these landscapes would be in just a few more weeks. Hopefully the country’s various environmental initiatives, from the individual to the government level, will help to keep it this way.



Definition List:
  • "last hurrah": to finish something with a happy event
  • Canuck: a person from Canada, especially somebody whose first language is French.
  • precipitation: rain, snow, etc. that falls; the amount of this that falls
  • to ensure: to make sure that something happens or is definite
  • combustion: the process of burning
  • double-paned: Insulated windows are double glass window panes separated by an air filled space to reduce heat transfer across a part of the building
  • hybrid: a vehicle that uses two different types of power, especially petrol/gas or diesel and electricity
  • abruptly: sudden and unexpected, often in an unpleasant way
  • to hurl: to throw something/somebody violently in a particular direction
  • to flank: to have somebody/something on one or both sides
  • monstrous: very large, ugly and frightening
  • blast: [slang] to have a lot of fun
  • rough: not good
  • unfortunate: having bad luck; caused by bad luck
  • migrate: to move from one place to another
  • adjoining: to be next to or joined to something
  • client: a person who uses the services or advice of a professional person or organization
  • plenty: a lot, many
  • savvy: practical knowledge or understanding of something
  • congestion: the state of being crowded and full of traffic
  • sapling: a young tree
  • desertification: the process of becoming or making something a desert
Pronunciation MP3:
= hurrah
= precipitation
= ensure
= combustion
= hybrid
= abruptly
= hurl
= flank
= monstrous
= blast
= rough
= unfortunate
= migrate
= adjoining
= client
= plenty
= savvy
= congestion
= sapling
= desertification

Monday, February 17, 2014

How a Warming Climate is Changing Business in Mongolia

Originally posted on TreeHugger.com on May 31, 2013
by Chris Tackett

When I told people I would be going to Mongolia for work, the response was always a mix of excitement and confusion. "That's great! But what are they doing that is green?" my friends would ask. It is the answers to that question that make Mongolia such an interesting host for the 2013 World Environment Day.

Located between Russia and China, Mongolia is understandably not the first country one would think of when it comes to environmentalism, sustainable business or clean energy, but as I hope to witness in the coming days this land most known for the Gobi Dessert and its nomadic people is not only seeing its country change due to a warming climate, but they are adapting to meet the challenges of a changing business environment, as well.

Last year, during the World Environment Day festivities in Rio de Janeiro, Tsakhia Elbegdorj, the President of Mongolia, was among six individuals given the honor of being named 2012 Champions of the Earth Award laureates.

President Elbegdorj was honored for his role in making sustainability a key focus of environmental policies.

Here's a video on his work that was played at the awards gala last year.


President Tsakhia Elbegdorj (Mongolia) is awarded for delivering on promises to put the environment at the forefront of policies.

As its neighbor China has seen business growth booming in recent years, Mongolia has been along for the ride, becoming the world's fastest growing economy, according to NPR. But with this relationship to China, also come risks, as The Atlantic's Max Fisher highlighted last year.
Mongolia has vast natural resources -- copper, gold, uranium, and perhaps most importantly coal -- and few citizens among whom to divide the spoils. Though it's over three and a half times the size of California, it has a population of only 2.7 million people, fewer than live in just the urban center of Fuzhou, China's 30th largest city.
With China's increasingly insatiable appetite for exactly the minerals that its norther neighbor boasts in abundance, Mongolia is joining a small class of once-impoverished Asian nations that are getting rich by selling to Beijing.

As Fisher goes on to note, if China's economy fails, this growth in Mongolia could halt, as well. That is why it is so important to see the sustainable investments Mongolia is making.

As part of the World Environment Day festivities, I plan to visit the country's first wind farm, attend a conference on sustainable mining and renewable energy and learn how else Mongolia is planning for a sustainable future.

Sustainable development isn't just important for economic reasons alone. Climate change is hitting the country hard.

Thankfully, Mongolia appears to be forward thinking when it comes to adapting to climate change. With its dry climate and sunny weather, solar has big potential. Geothermal is promising, as well. There's much more to come on all of this.



Definition List:
  • sustainable: involving the use of natural products and energy in a way that does not harm the environment
  • forefront: [idiom] in or into an important or leading position in a particular group or activity
  • vast: extremely large in area, size, amount, etc.
  • spoils: the profits or advantages that somebody gets from being successful
  • insatiable: always wanting more of something; not able to be satisfied
  • to boast: to have something that is impressive and that you can be proud of
  • impoverished: very poor; without money
Pronunciation MP3:
= sustainable
= forefront
= vast
= spoils
= insatiable
= boast
= impoverished

Monday, February 10, 2014

Before you post something, T-H-I-N-K

Monday, February 3, 2014

Thai Women Don Monks’ Robes

Originally posted on Inter Press Service on Nov 1, 2013
By Simba Shani Kamaria Russeau
Buddhist bhukkhini (female monk) ceremony.
Cedit: Simba Shani Kamaria Russeau/IPS

NAKHON PATHOM, Thailand, Nov 1 2013 (IPS) - Thai women were among the first women in Asia granted voting rights, in 1932. However, when it comes to religion, women in Thailand continue to struggle for equality and social acceptance.

Rhythmic chanting fills the air just before dawn at the Songdhammakalyani Monastery in Nakhon Pathom, a provincial city located about 56km outside of Bangkok in central Thailand.

Unlike the 33,903 Buddhist temples that house an estimated 250,000 monks in Thailand, the Songdhammakalyani Monastery is the first temple built for women by women. The abbess, Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, is the country’s first fully ordained nun or Bhikkhuni in a Theravada monastic lineage.

The temple’s roots stretch back nearly five decades when Venerable Dhammananda’s mother, Venerable Voramai or Ta Tao Fa Tzu, became the first fully ordained Thai woman in the Mahayana lineage in Taiwan and turned their family home into a monastery.

“When my mother became interested in Buddhism she realised that in the Buddha’s time the Buddha gave ordination to women. Why were women never ordained in our country?” Venerable Dhammananda tells IPS.

“It was actually the Buddha who gave the ordination to his own stepmother and aunt and the whole story is in the Dhamma for you to read.”

Women account for an estimated 51 percent of Thailand’s population of nearly 68 million, according to a 2012 World Bank report.

Compared to neighbouring countries, women have made great strides in education and on the socio-economic front. However, women still earn 74 percent less than their male colleagues and hold a minority of high-level positions in business and politics. And when it comes to religion, women remain absent.

“A lot of the gender inequalities regarding salary and lack of female representation among the top-ranking members of our parliament are due to deeply ingrained cultural stereotypes of women,” Yad Prapar, associate professor of economics at Ramkhamhaeng University, told IPS.

“In Thai culture, they view the buffalo as a stupid animal that is hard-working. And they used to believe that woman was a buffalo while man was human. This is why women’s status in Thai Buddhism is far inferior to men because they are considered of less value.”

Under the current Thai constitution the ordination of women is permitted. But the Thai Sangha Council, a government-linked religious advisory group, maintains that only men can enter the monkhood, citing the 1928 Sangha Act that forbids Thai monks from ordaining women.

Women’s rights activists and religious scholars argue that legally recognising bhikkhunis (female monks) not only upholds the ‘Four Pillars of Buddhism’ but also provides a monastic community where women from all walks of life can practice among women.

“Women feel safer staying in a temple that is mainly run by women,” says Dr. Sutada Mekrungruengkul, a lecturer at Nation University. “If I had a daughter I would feel more comfortable sending her, during the summer months when there’s no school, to be part of a bhikkhuni sangha where she could be a youth monk for about ten days or one month without harassment.

“Also, with bhikkhunis I can discuss issues pertaining to my personal life or the Dhamma privately. Whereas with a male monk, people could accuse me of having an interest in him because he’s handsome or claim that I want something more than guidance. This is how women strengthen Buddhism.”

The Songdhammakalyani Monastery’s regular 12-week Dhamma courses and three-day retreats in Buddhist education fill a major gap left by male-dominated sangha communities with a curriculum that is geared towards a feminist approach to interpreting Buddhist texts.

“Despite being a Buddhist all my life, I didn’t understand the Dhamma of the Buddha,” 53-year-old Venerable Dhammasiri, who received ordination four years ago in Sri Lanka, tells IPS. “I didn’t practice from my heart because I was never told the meaning of the chants, or the reasons we bow or abstain from certain foods. I was merely a Buddhist by birth certificate.

“In Thailand, the monks only teach from their point of view. I feel more empowered after becoming a bhikkhuni because I’ve not only learned self-control but my eyes have been opened to the historical role women played in Buddhism, like the thirteen female arahants, the history of the bhikkhuni sangha and the respected status we held during the Buddha’s time.”

Currently there are over 30 bhikkhunis and an unknown number of samaneris or female novices living in monasteries throughout Thailand.

To support the bhikkhunis’ movement of establishing a thriving and legally recognised female sangha in Thailand, a coalition of civil society members, scholars and legislators have put forth several proposals to amend Thai laws. Their hope is that in five to ten years the government and the religious clergy will restore the rightful heritage granted to women by the Buddha.

“Women have always contributed to Buddhism because it is actually women who feed the monks. Go to any temple in Thailand, and 80 percent of the attendants are women, so they are actually the foundation to keep Buddhism going in this country,” adds Dhammananda.

“We are laying the groundwork for more women to pursue the ordained life, so that future generations don’t have to fight so hard.”



Definition List:

  • to grant: to agree to give somebody what they ask for, especially formal or legal permission to do something
  • provincial: connected with the parts of a country that do not include the capital city
  • to ordain (ordination: ceremony): to make somebody a monk, priest, minister or rabbi
  • stepmother: the woman who is married to your father but who is not your real mother
  • colleague: a person that you work with, especially in a profession or a business
  • inferior: not good or not as good as somebody/something else
  • harassment: to annoy or worry somebody by putting pressure on them or saying or doing unpleasant things to them
  • to empower: to give somebody the power or authority to do something
  • to restore: to bring somebody/something back to a former condition, place or position
Pronunciation MP3:
= grant
= provincial
= ordain
= ordination
= stepmother
= colleague
= inferior
= harassment
= empower
= restore