Notes from the Field

Citizen Engagement Key to Saving Mongolia’s Natural Resources

February 2, 2011

Mongolia has an abundance of natural resources, from vast grasslands and forests to endangered species and enviable reserves of minerals and energy resources. This abundance underlies the country’s rich cultural heritage, wild beauty, and potential for economic prosperity.

But the very same resources that provide Mongolia such potential are at grave risk: According to Mongolia’s 2008 State of the Environment report, 3,526 hectares of land near rivers were contaminated by industrial waste and mining; 14,565 hectares were damaged as result of mining explorations; and 200,000 hectares were polluted by mercury or cyanide. Increased industrial activity has unleashed a range of water quality issues, such as surface water pollution and altered water distribution.

Mongolia's Toson Zaamar

As mining companies contend with Mongolia’s unstable investment climate and inadequate infrastructure, adopting responsible mining principles may be low on the priority list.

Mongolia’s government agencies struggle to effectively monitor Mongolia’s river quality due to its expansive territory, large number of rivers, and lack of overall capacity. As mining companies contend with Mongolia’s unstable investment climate and inadequate infrastructure, adopting and implementing responsible mining principles may be low on the priority list. While a small number of mining companies are taking the lead to develop international best practices in community engagement and in reclamation, the majority of companies have yet to break ground in these arenas.

How Mongolia’s government and civil society work together will affect whether this trend continues. The country’s extraordinary mineral wealth has the potential to underpin sustainable and broad-based development. But, if developed irresponsibly, and without involving Mongolian citizens, these very resources could become a “curse,” as has happened in other developing countries facing similar challenges with governance and corruption.

Although nearly 550 non-governmental organizations working on environmental issues are registered in Mongolia, many groups are grappling with how to improve their capacity, attract funds, and best target their important activities in a systematic and sustainable way. Several groups including the Mongolian Nature Protection Civil Movements Coalition (MNPCMC) and the Mongolian Environmental Civil Council (MECC) – both formed in 2008 – are working to advance cooperation across environmental NGOs and appropriately engage with the government.

While civil society is highly interested in environmental issues related to the mining industry, such as over-withdrawal of scarce water resources, it is still seeking effective means to engage constructively in decision-making with the government to address local concerns. And, although licensing information is made public and mining companies are required to conduct Environmental Impact Assessments, citizens remain under-informed about their rights and responsibilities and how mining might affect their communities.

Recently, however, things are looking up for civil society and the environment here in Ulaanbaatar. On January 26, the Environmental Parliament – set up by a group of NGOs and supported by the Ministry of Nature, Environment, and Tourism – conducted its very first meeting to provide a mechanism for debate on environment-related issue in the country. The Asia Foundation’s “Engaging Stakeholders for Environmental Conservation” (ESEC) program will provide much-needed support to Mongolia’s civil society and grassroots organizations in these efforts by supporting this mechanism, among others, and by building the capacity of NGOs to advocate effectively toward strengthening the policy and legal frameworks for responsible resource use. As a neutral facilitator, the Foundation will continue to work with the government, industry, and civil society at both the central and local levels toward responsible resource use. To date, key actors in these sectors, including the Water Authority and the Mineral Resources Agency, have expressed hope that such activities will continue to build the momentum for constructive engagement by civil society in environment issues. This is by all measures a step in the right direction for the preservation of Mongolia’s natural resources – and its livelihood.

Read more about The Asia Foundation’s environment program in Mongolia.

Angie Woo is The Asia Foundation’s environmental conservation program director in Mongolia. She can be reached at awoo@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Angie Woo

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