Building merit—the moral economy of illegal resource extraction in the Mongolian borderlands
Date & Time
22. 4. 2020 11:00 AM
Although the widespread gathering and extraction of small-scale wildlife—like fish, medicinal plants, stone, animals, etc.—is formally illegal and contradicts historical pastoral treatment of the land, the province of Magtaal—the easternmost Mongolian township on the Mongolian/Chinese border—increasingly economically subsists off of these activities. Specifically, the town of Dalai Lake, a fishing hamlet on the Mongolian/Chinese border, communally sustains itself by illegally exporting fish to Inner Mongolian (Chinese) markets, making proceeds off of the market differential. In this talk, I discuss how these illegal(ised), cross-border, resource-extractive activities are partly an economic reaction to the real and perceived experience of economic and political abandonment from dominant modes of accumulation in post-1990 Mongolia. However, these practices are not driven by a logic of economic maximisation, but increasingly shaped by a ‘moral economy’—i.e. a shared consensus amongst the populace regarding the just and/or meritorious distribution of economic proceeds from natural resources—that locally justifies these activities as a form of mutual help. The strength and coherence of these local moral narratives is explained through the confluence of three factors: 1) the historical precedent of pastoral/paternal governance ideals; 2) the shared, class-based experience of ongoing economic abandonment vis-à-vis larger formal/state processes; and 3) a sense of general entitlement to the resources of the land (and their proceeds). Thus, although illegal, these resource chains enable participants to feel that they are behaving more morally and rightfully than actors within the dominant formal politico-economic system.