Webcast: Mining in Mongolia 'Doesn't Come Without Environmental or Social Risks'
The mining boom started in the 1990s when Mongolia transitioned to a free marked democracy allowing foreign investments. Since then, the sector has had an oversized influence on Mongolia’s GDP, leaving behind agriculture as the economy’s former center piece. What are the main stages that have shaped the mining sector since the 1990s? How has the boom in mining transformed society? What answers do regulators and actors have to the toll mining has taken on the land, air, and the environment as a whole? And what role do Chinese investment and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) play? Watch the webcast with Dr. Byambabaatar Ichinkhorloo and Beibei Gu, moderated by Dr. Emilia Sulek.
Our key takeaways
The mining industry isn't a new phenomenon in post-socialist Mongolia. By the 1980s, numerous investments had already been done in geological prospecting. Joint ventures mined and exported resources to former socialist countries. Mining towns had been planned during this time as well, as opposed to simple mining camps with little to no infrastructure. For example, the Erdenet copper mine, which has been accounting for roughly 10% of its GDP the past decades, has been in operation since 1974.
A lack of other viable investments and high export demand drove the development of the mining sector after 1991. Government programs have since then supported mining activities with the intention of increasing economic revenue. The chaotic economy of the 90s created inequality and led to the emergence of private mining. Nevertheless, the Mongolian economy has seen five-fold growth and significant diversification since 1990. However, Mongolia has yet to build up processing infrastracture as all of its exports leave the country as raw materials.
Small-scale, artisanal miners in Mongolia – of which there are roughly 10'000, as opposed to the 58'000 employed in the mining industry – are called 'ninja miners'. The name is said to be derived from the visual similarity to the shells of the 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'. Originally, this name had a positive connotation, in the sense of 'heroic figures resisting injustice', as Dr. Ichinkhorloo says. Over time, the name took on a derogatory undertone, as they were increasingly seen as at odds with pastoral traditions. Crime, and social and environmental problems emerged, as well. Under pressure from mining companies, the government attempted to crack down on artisanal mining, which led to human rights violations. This continued until the late 2000's, when ninja miners started forming groups. However, attacks on artisanal mining are considered by some to be scapegoating to detract from the damage large mining companies cause.
China has been the largest importer of Mongolia's natural resources. In fact, it is the sole buyer of Mongolian copper and metallurgical or coking coal – coal that is used as a raw material in steel production. Even though road and logistical infrastructure is lacking at the border, large-scale shipments are still commonplace. This is despite the fact that China is still the largest producer of coal. However, Mongolia possibly has the largest untapped coking coal deposits that are very close to the border to China, which make the country very attractive for investments from its larger neighbor in the Southeast. As a consequence, the share of Mongolia in China's coking coal imports has been increasing. The Belt and Road Initiative is bound to further stimulate this economic connection between the two countries.
Dr. Byambabaatar Ichinkhorloo is a senior lecturer at the Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies, the University of Zurich and a co-investigator of "Gobi Framework" research project, the University of Oxford. As a social anthropologist, Byamba is studying how people make a living in Mongolia since 1990. His research mainly focuses on pastoralism, political ecology, and mining. Apart from his academic career, he worked as a research consultant in development agencies and interacted with different actors whose perceptions and opinions contrast sharply.
Beibei Gu is a sustainability and environmental policy specialist working for the Geneva based NGO Zoï Environment Network. Beibei contributed to the recently launched synthesis report Greening the China-Mongolia-Russia economic corridor. She has more than ten years of professional experience across international organizations (UNEP), multinational corporations and environmental NGOs, and is experienced in the global environment agenda including the United Nations (UN) Inclusive Green Economy, sustainable infrastructure and investment, China’s clean air policy, environmental transparency and green supply chain.
Dr. Emilia Sulek is a scholar of China, Tibet and Central Asia. She writes about contemporary Asian societies, shadow economies, development, state power, political conflict and environment, and gender politics. She is a member of ROADWORK: an anthropological research project about the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Photo by Daniela Kienzler.