Spring 2008

Mongolian Gold, Sacred Rivers, and Hunting for Bugs in the California High Country

By Matthew Pendergast

Mongolia conjures images of nature in its pristine state: broad grasslands, wild horses, and a nomadic people deeply connected with the land. What is less known is that Mongolia is currently the site of a massive gold rush, similar to that of 19th century California. A legacy of irresponsible mining launched in Mongolia in the mid-1990s has polluted the rivers of a country and culture that for centuries has held water as a sacred resource. Hundreds of thousands of small-scale miners employ irresponsible practices, including using illegal chemicals like mercury and cyanide.

The Asia Foundation — through its landmark environmental project, “Securing Our Future” — recently brought teachers from Mongolia’s remote eastern and northern provinces, and two officials from the Ministry of Education, to California. The idea was to teach them about water quality monitoring, and how they can introduce simple experiential learning into their classrooms and involve their communities in a dialogue on mining development, helping them participate in a conversation that affects them directly. In a country as poor and sparsely populated as Mongolia, water quality monitoring — particularly biological monitoring which uses bugs as indicators of relative river health — is low-tech, inexpensive, and accessible.

This monitoring is relatively uncommon in Mongolia. Led by instructors from the Yosemite Institute, the teachers got their feet wet in the crystal waters of Yosemite National Park, learning how to engage students in the scientific process as they measure the abundance and diversity of certain benthic macro-invertebrates – aka bugs – whose presence or absence points to the health of a river. The group worked with American high school students who were themselves learning to test water quality in the park’s rivers.

The group then traveled to the Headlands Institute in Marin County to study water ecology before returning to Mongolia.

Once back home, it is hoped that this pioneering group will integrate experiential education into the Mongolian science curriculum. Their most important tool will be the understanding that simple science skills involving observation, action research, and basic bug identification can lead to more informed public decision-making, and give the public a real stake in the country’s future.

Matthew Pendergast is based in San Francisco at the Foundation’s headquarters, where he works in Communications.

Return to contents.