Goatherds hit hard by row over bananas

THEY DON'T eat bananas on the Mongolian grasslands. But as the traditional nomadic herders shelter in isolated ger tents against the long winter, a tit-for-tat American-European trade dispute over the sub- tropical fruit is threatening the subsistence livelihoods of those who provide one-third of the world's cashmere.

Few nomads know that a US-Brussels argument over banana imports will hit life on the steppes. "I hadn't heard about the trade dispute," said Sereeter, a 40-year-old goatsman from Tuv province who sells his cashmere at the raw materials market in Ulan Bator. "I think it may cause some effect, but I do not know whether it will be positive or negative."

In the next few weeks, as the goats start moulting their winter growth, the herders will begin cutting the raw "greasy" cashmere that is destined to end up as luxury-priced sweaters and scarves on the other side of the world. But it is not clear who will be buying their wool. While attention has so far focused on the Scottish cashmere industry, the impoverished Mongolian nomads also look like being innocent victims of the "banana wars" because of a World Trade Organisation ruling this week that gave Washington the right to impose punitive 100 per cent import tariffs on $191m (pounds 116m) of European imports. On the threatened list of goods are cashmere products, many manufactured with Mongolian wool.

"The impact on the Mongolian herder unfortunately will be most extreme," said Ronnie Lamb in Ulan Bator, the executive director of Mongol Amicale, a US-Mongolian joint venture that last year processed 300 tons of cashmere, a large proportion for export to Italian companies, which re-exported finished fashion goods to the US. "Most of the Mongolian herdsmen here live below a sustainable level. They come out of a long, cold, hard winter and they have no savings, they have no contingencies, no reserves, they need to eat, they need to survive, and send their children to school and to clothe themselves." Mr Lamb, a Scotsman, splits his time between Mongolia and his company's Bradford firm, which sells on cashmere to end-users.

Mongol Amicale buys its cashmere direct from the herders, but Mr Lamb said the company might hold off on some spring purchases until the outcome of the trade dispute was clearer. "We've no idea that contracts we have in hand are actually going to be honoured."

It is a potentially disastrous situation for nomadic herders in one of the most isolated and extreme geographical regions on earth, where winter temperatures fall to minus 40C. And it is a "double whammy", said Mr Lamb, for the industry. Last year, the world cashmere price collapsed, with herdsmen receiving just $9 a kilogram - half the level of 1994-95 - because sales of cashmere clothes plummeted in Japan and South-east Asia, hard hit by the area's economic crisis. With the "banana wars", Mongolian cashmere sales to clothing manufacturers in Scotland and Italy are also in danger of evaporating, because the punitive tariffs will make European-made sweaters and scarves unsellable across the Altantic.

"It's a disaster for Mongolia," said John Napoleoni, the chief financial officer for Forte Cashmere, a US firm that processes raw cashmere in Ulan Bator. Cashmere is the country's second biggest foreign exchange earner, and Mongolia can ill-afford another economic shock. The country, for seven decades a Soviet satellite state, was left reeling in the early Nineties when Moscow's subsidies disappeared overnight.

Sereeter, who like most Mongolians uses one name, added: "Herdsmen with many animals live quite wealthily, selling meat, skins and cashmere. But the life of herdsmen with fewer numbers of livestock is not that good ... Animal husbandry is a risky business; harsh weather can kill your animals, or you have to slaughter them to get cash and food and clothing."

The ultra-soft cashmere fibres are a precious commodity in the West, but most herders have little notion of the price of the finished products. With each animal yielding just 200g to 380g of cashmere a year, Mongolia's 11 million goats will this year produce around 2,500 tons of the raw wool. About 90 per cent of Mongolia's cashmere wool is exported.

At worst, the "banana wars" may play into the hands of aggressive Chinese traders and smugglers, who tend to outwit the herders on price. "The Chinese may be loading their wagons anticipating a great windfall because the European manufacturers are out of the ballpark," said Mr Napoleoni.

Additional reporting from Enkhamgalan in Ulan Bator.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk