Mining is a complex issue here in Mongolia. As such, I’ve decided to write a two part series on mining in Mongolia based on my experiences here in country. The first will be on nationalism and how it relates to mining, and the second will be on mining and the impacts on the environment.
The other part of the mining issue concerns the environment. Mongolians, by and large, feel very connected to their land. Despite not having an agricultural tradition that included farming, their herds (and therefore their livelihoods) relied on the land for survival. Thus, if they wanted to survive during the harsher months, they would need a land that was stable and provided enough grass at pasture.
Given the rapid urbanization and growing economy, the traditional lifestyle is becoming more difficult to maintain. Herders don’t make much money, and are foregoing teaching their children how to herd in exchange for getting them good educations in one of the aimag centers. Being a herder in areas where there is mining is taking place is increasingly difficult. There have been arguments over water tables, contamination, and misuse of the resources that puts the herders at a disadvantage. It’s hard enough for us, they say, without the mines making things harder. In Inner Mongolia, herders are taking a hit as well, as rapid urbanization and development driven by a mining boom pushes herders off of their pastures.
The recent surge in nationalistic feelings ties the Mongolian identity to the olden days: Herders, gers, being in harmony with nature. As such, seeing the harmony suffer from resource mining causes great concern for most Mongolians. They don’t want to see the land destroyed and nature ruined. Mongolian is already suffering from desertification, and most don’t want to see their pristine steppes and mountains damaged further by mines producing pollution and harmful waste.
The corporate mining has also produced illegal mining, where “ninja” miners go out and conduct their own prospecting without permits. They oftentimes use mercury to separate out their gold, creating further health problems for the communities near their operations. The desire for wealth is so strong, however, that the ninja miners simply move and setup shop elsewhere if caught.
There are many different perspectives and stakeholders in the mining debate: This article from the Washington Post speaks with many different people about Mongolia’s complex relationship with mining. Many see it as a way to strengthen Mongolia, while others see it as weakening the nation. In regards to mining, it will be a future full of difficult decisions for Mongolia. Hopefully, they will pick the ones that are best for the longevity of the nation, and not just the immediate future.