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A Glimpse into Mongolia Mining Communities


The Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) particularly its Task Force on Women and Environment conducted a fact-finding mission on the mining situation of some communities in Mongolia on August 15-19, 2007 as part of its Food over Gold Campaign.

Participating organizations include Innabuyog of the Philippines, the APWLD convenor; Center for Human Rights and Development (CHRD) of Mongolia, Solidaritas Perempuan of Indonesia, Samata of India and the International Network on Women and Mining-Asian region.

The mission gave the participants the opportunity to have a closer look into the land of the beautiful, of blue skies, of herds and vast graze lands that is Mongolia. Mongolia used to enjoy a socialist system before the 1990s. Its national government is so much eager now to be part of the global market economy and thus had since been welcoming foreign investments and capital.

Among the investments and industries that its national government is aggressively selling out is gold mining, a mineral that this country is very rich of.

Mongolia was among the 72 countries which responded quickly to the World Bank's call to liberalize the mining industry in the 1990s. In 1997, Mongolia passed its Mining Law and the Government Gold Programme was launched. This signaled the beginning of intense mining in the country. The Mining Law favored foreign mining companies fully exempting them from taxes for the first five years and 50% for the next five years.

The national government of Mongolia expects economic growth to be gained by the mining industry. Most of the mines are operated by foreign mining companies.

For over 10 years of intense capitalist mining, poverty in the country remained and hunger increased. A n official study by the National Statistics Office of Mongolia (2003) shows that 36.1 % of Mongolians live below the poverty line. Simply stated, only one-third of Mongolia population is living with US$20 per month. The poorest 20% of the population that earns US$8 a month do not have enough income to buy adequate food.

Herding is the main livelihood of the people in the countrysides and of the country and 40% of the population is into herding and breeding livestock. Government policy on the mining sector and its implementation do not respect, promote or protect the rights of herding families. Currently, 45% of Mongolian territory had been given away for mining. In some provinces, 70-80% of the land is given to mining licenses.

While mining is looked upon by the Mongolian national government as a key economic survival for the country, herders and local people do not truly benefit from it. The right to livelihood and healthy environment of herders are being denied because of the tremendous destruction caused by mining.

Fact-finding mission results

In the areas visited by the fact-finding mission namely Khongor, Zaamar, Tsenker, Bat-Ulzii and Uyanga, vast tracts of pasture or grazing lands had been wasted as these had been turned into open-pit gold mines. A number of earth moving equipments run around the mine site digging the earth, turning everything upside down.

Water which is a very scarce resource in Mongolia is being drawn to the mine areas. Hundreds of rivers, lakes and springs through Mongolia have dried up and polluted due to gold extraction. Small-scale miners (called ninja miners) are being driven away when they come to take a small amount to sustain the day's survival.

Gold processing is only by water separation. There are no mills and only the water guns and washing area where miners separate gold particles from the soil are found. With no processing mills, companies proudly say they do not use chemicals like cyanide or heavy metals like mercury at all. Hence, it remains a question for the fact-finding mission what turns the water in the mine ponds blue-green. The question of chemical use will only be answered after a chemical test is conducted with the water sample taken by the mission.

Around 50% of gold yields is wasted because of the crude processing yet ninja miners are often chased away whenever they scavenge. The mine sites have provided quicker source of money for the ninja miners.

Children stop going to school, in some mine sites like in Zaamar and Khongor. Prostitution is visibly present in the mining areas.

Safety for the mine workers and of the ninja is left up to them. Gers (traditional houses) for the mine workers are all around the mine camps.

Potable water supply is hardly accessible and exposure to polluted water is evidenced by skin rashes and diseases of people around the mine sites and in dead livestock which are believed to have drunk from polluted water sources. Respiratory diseases are also observed in people.

Noise caused by the non-stop earth-moving equipment truly breaks the countryside serenity and beauty.

Political question and some recommendations

Why such destruction in its physical and social sense is happening, is a big political question to the Mongolian government. For as long as mining is done in the framework of profit and monopoly, no real benefit will reach the people. By the time mines close, herding as the long-proven sustainable livelihood of the Mongolian people will be impossible by then.

The Mongolian government has to review its mining policies, ensure safeguards for the environment and people's livelihoods and make mining most beneficial to the people and not to mining corporations. The Mongolian government should heed people's resistance to mining and should order the immediate closure of those mines. Rehabilitation should follow right away. Government should also ensure just compensation for damages caused by mining companies to people's livelihood, land and resources.

The people of Mongolia should engage into debates as to whether mining should be allowed or not.

What is inspiring is that there is local resistance, and awareness on the amount of destruction caused by mining is reaching the population. The added challenge for women's and people's or civil society organizations is to develop an effective information and education system regarding mining; strengthening and broadening formations/movements against destructive corporate mining, relate the mining issue with water, food and other real people's issues in Mongolia; build linkages in the national and international levels and talk about an alternative to destructive corporate mining. In such processes, the women and the youth should participate stressing the role they play in all spheres of development.

One team of the mission learned about this Mongolian value—"leave stones where they are". Gold is a mineral found in a precious stone called ore. Let us put across this Mongolian value to mining companies and to the national government of Mongolia. #

(Vernie Yocogan-Diano is currently the chairperson of Innabuyog, the Cordillera alliance of indigenous women's organizations.)

Published with financial contribution from the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation
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