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Mongolia Gold Rush Destroying Rivers, Nomadic Lives

Stefan Lovgren, along the Onggi River, Mongolia
for National Geographic News
October 17, 2008
 
A mining boom in Mongolia is threatening to devastate the country's rivers and is forcing nomadic herders to abandon their land and traditional way of life, local activists warn.

As mining companies scramble to extract Mongolia's vast deposits of gold and other minerals, government regulations—including laws stipulating that mining not be done next to rivers—are being violated or even ignored, environmentalists claim.

(See more photos.)

Extraction methods, such as dredging, river diversion, and the use of high-pressure water cannons to dismantle hillsides, have damaged rural landscapes along rivers such as the Onggi, which supports 60,000 nomadic herders and one million head of livestock.

Rivers now run dry in some areas, making it more difficult to find water for thirsty animals, according to nomadic herders. They say using the alternative water source—groundwater potentially contaminated by mercury and other mining pollution—is alarming as well.

"Our way of life is threatened," said Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, a Mongolian nomadic herder and National Geographic Emerging Explorer.

From Herding to Fighting

In Munkhbayar, herders have one of their own to lead the way in the fight for clean, accessible water.

As a young nomad Munkhbayar used to herd yaks along the banks of the fertile Onggi River. During the harsh winters he skated down its frozen waters, often chewing pieces of aaruul (curdled sheep's milk).

In an effort to save his livelihood and heritage, Munkhbayar started the Onggi River Movement, which now has 1,600 members. The group spearheaded a large grassroots movement that includes several river-based organizations.

Together they have protested at mining sites and lobbied government officials to push for stronger enforcement of mining laws. Their efforts have yielded successes, according to Munkhbayar. A few years ago, pressure from his group led to the temporary shut down of many offending mining companies operating along the Onggi River, he said.

The Onggi River Movement has also pushed for mining companies to conduct environmental conservation work, including restoring soils and vegetation to sites that they have mined.

Future Mining Boom

But now the battle could intensify as a new pro-mining government settles in after a June 2008 parliamentary election.

More than twice the size of Texas, Mongolia is the world's least densely populated country, with less than 3 million people. But it has some of the Earth's largest untapped gold, copper, and uranium reserves.

Worth an estimated U.S. $660 million per year, the mining industry makes up two-thirds of Mongolia's export revenues, with most of the gold going to neighboring China, according to Mongolian government officials.

Mining industry experts say the mineral extraction business in Mongolia is at a nascent stage.

"Mining to date has been relatively small-scale," said Layton Croft, an executive with Ivanhoe Mines, a Canadian company with a massive copper and gold mine development project in southern Mongolia.

"The boom really hasn't yet started," Croft said. "The prospect of mining is what's on everyone's mind."

Mining rights took center stage during the election, as politicians from both leading parties supported amending laws to encourage more mineral extraction and therefore more national income.

The country is still recovering from the loss of Soviet support, which disappeared in the early 1990s after the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

D. Zorigt, Mongolia's new Minister of Minerals and Energy—a position created by the new government—told the press last month that one of his first tasks would be asking parliament to amend the minerals law and establish a legal framework to approve major mining deals.

According to local media, Mongolia's federal government is now busy drafting revised mining laws that will compensate Mongolians and assist displaced locals. Little has been said about the environment. The draft law is expected in mid-November.

No Enforcement

While environmentalists welcome new laws, it is enforcement that is the issue, they say.

"The biggest problem is that the mining companies largely disregard the mining laws that exist," Munkhbayar said. According to existing Mongolian law, mining operations cannot take place within 656 feet (200 meters) of a river's floodline.

However, just a few miles south of the central Mongolian town of Zaamar, the Tuul River has been completely altered from years of dredging by a Russian-Mongolian joint mining venture called Shizhir.

"The mining here has changed the direction of the river, which is in clear violation of the law," said Enkhtör, who leads Toson Zaamar, a local environmental group.

Ninja Miners

Adding to enforcement woes, many of the mining sites abandoned by larger companies because of local pressure or resource depletion have been taken over by small-scale miners known as "ninjas."

The green panning bowls they carry on their backs are said to resemble the shells of the cartoon characters the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Thousands of ninja miners have flooded the Ölt valley near the Uyanga township in the central Uvurhongai province, creating a frontier settlement reminiscent of the Wild West.

"These newly formed camps are not supported by government social programs, and this unregulated mining furthers the environmental concerns with illegal use of mercury," said Bob Harris, who sits on the board of directors of the Tahoe-Baikal Institute, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Russia.

Mercury has historically been used in hydraulic gold mining to separate gold from the gravel. Its use is now banned. Two years ago one Chinese mining firm was shut down in Mongolia after it was found to have leaked the pollutant into a local river.

Rehabilitation

To claim the land along the lower Onggi River before the mining companies, Munkhbayar has started several farms that grow sea-buckthorn, a hardy plant that produces berries used to make juice.

The plants retain water and may help keep downstream sections of the river intact when a mine settles in upstream, he said.

Munkhbayar and his colleagues have support among a few of Mongolia's newly elected parliamentary leaders, but face an uphill battle given the government's overall pro-mining stance, industry observers say.

If peaceful campaigning fails, Munkhbayar warned, he will defend his principles at any cost. "I'm willing to die for this cause," he said.

But there is hope for the rivers and nomads. Farther up from the township of Saihan-Ovoo where Munkhbayar grew up, a once-dried up section of the Onggi River is flowing again—though it is far from being as full as it once was.

"I want my children to one day be able to skate down the Onggi River again," he said.
 

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