The paucity of snow in Mongolia permits year-round grazing, and nomadic herding has been the major occupation for centuries. Animal husbandry is still the mainstay of the Mongolian economy, and Mongolia has the world's highest number of livestock per person. The growth in livestock populations in the 21st cent. has led to overgrazing and land degradation in some areas. Sheep and goats constitute most of the livestock, followed by cattle and horses; yaks are raised in the higher altitudes, and camels are extremely important in the desert and semidesert areas. Agriculture is limited since only 1% of the land is arable. Wheat is the chief crop, followed by barley, oats, corn, millet, rye, legumes, and potatoes.
Hunting is a source of revenue; the country abounds in wildlife, and sable, fox, lynx, marmot, snow leopard, squirrel, and wolf are all trapped for their furs. Mongolia has valuable timberlands, especially in the northern mountainous area; logs are shipped down the Selenga, Orkhon, and Kerulen rivers. Mineral resources are abundant. The extensive coal deposits have been exploited since 1913. Copper, molybdenum, tin, tungsten, gold, iron ore, fluorspar, uranium, zinc, lead, silver, and salt are also mined.
Industry, which was developed with Soviet aid, is centered chiefly in Ulaanbaatar. It is based largely on the country's livestock resources, with dairy products, packed meats, leather and leather goods, and woolen textiles and related items (clothing, blankets, carpets) the chief manufactures. The building-material, copper-smelting, lumber, and oil industries are also important. Choybalsan and Darhan near the Russian border have become industrial centers.
The country has one railroad line running north and south from the Russian border through Ulaanbaatar to the Chinese frontier, with a few spur lines to mining or industrial points. Although the number of motor vehicles is increasing, there are few paved roads and beasts of burden are still used, notably in the south, where camel caravans are common. There are also numerous airports.
Mongolia's main exports are copper, apparel, livestock, animal products, cashmere, wool, hides, fluorspar, and nonferrous metals; imports include machinery and equipment, cars, fuel, foodstuffs, consumer goods, chemicals, building materials, sugar, and tea. Most of its foreign trade is with China, Russia, the United States, Canada, and South Korea.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.