Notes from the Field

A Green Model for Mine Reclamation in Mongolia

April 17, 2013

Mongolia sits on some of the world’s largest mineral deposits, primarily coal and copper, as well as rare earth and precious metals. While the country’s abundant resources have driven Mongolia to the top of Asia’s economic performers, the rapid growth has not happened without serious concern over the environmental impact from the country’s booming mining industry.

Mongolia mining

Artisanal mining offers traditional herders an alternative, viable income when they suffered livestock losses and thus economic difficulties during Mongolia’s catastrophic winter weather events. Photo/Matthew Pendergast

The good news is that Mongolia’s government is increasingly prioritizing green growth and environmental responsibility. In 2012, the government increased the mandate of the Ministry of Environment to include “Green Development,” and established a new National Green Development Strategy and action program to outline ways for each major economic sector to transition to a greener economy.

The formal mining sector in Mongolia is comprised of officially registered small- to large-sized mining companies that are conducting commercial operations and have obtained formal mining licenses from the government. The minerals extracted from the formal mining sector last year made up nearly 91.3 percent of all exports. Informal, artisanal mining, on the other hand, is made up of small-scale miners who have limited access to capital and/or technology but may obtain access to land to carry out mining activities. It is estimated that artisanal mining contributes $110 million annually to export revenues. Given the large-scale investments that well-resourced mining companies are able to make on environmental rehabilitation efforts, there are a number of excellent examples in Mongolia of best practices in environmental reclamation and rehabilitation efforts. Lesser known are the efforts underway in communities where small and artisanal mining is taking place.

Mongolia Mine Shafts

Mine shafts dug by artisanal miners in Mandal soum. Photo/Srabani Roy

Artisanal and small-scale mining in Mongolia started to evolve in the 1990s when the country transitioned from a centrally planned to a market economy. In 1993, the government initiated its “Gold program” to promote development of the formal mining sector. This subsequently led to growth in artisanal mining which drove down unemployment by offering traditional herders an alternative, viable income when they suffered livestock losses and thus economic difficulties during Mongolia’s catastrophic winter weather events (known as dzuds). The artisanal mining sector initially suffered from a poor reputation as it was often considered illegal and associated with environmental and social problems, such as soil and water pollution, mined land that was not being rehabilitated, and crime. However, in 2010, with support from development organizations and civil society, a more robust policy and legal framework declared artisanal mining a legal occupation, which meant that artisanal miners could secure mining land and formalize their operations into official partnerships.

Outreach among artisanal mining communities to promote the use of environmentally friendly technologies and reclaim environmentally degraded land has helped improve the public perception about artisanal mining as a viable alternative livelihood option. Indeed, it is increasingly seen as a greener and more socially responsible sub-sector.

The Asia Foundation has worked on responsible resource issues in Mongolia since 2006, but has primarily focused on industrial mining. However, over the last few years, we have been working closely with artisanal miners, to give them a greater voice and knowledge base. Now, these miners participate in multi-stakeholders groups (which also include local authorities, mining companies, and community members) that provide guidance on responsible artisanal mining and a place to discuss concerns.

One of the most critical environmental issues surrounding artisanal mining is the rehabilitation of degraded land, characteristics of which may include large unfilled holes and/or tunnels, compacted soils, lack of vegetation, and polluted water and soil. In 2012, we partnered with a local environmental NGO to help develop a model artisanal and small-scale mining land reclamation project in Uyanga district, Uvurkhangai province – one of Mongolia’s mining areas with a large amount of un-reclaimed lands 490 km from the capital, Ulaanbaatar. We provided a training course for the NGO to work with 45 artisanal miners and undertake technical and biological reclamation of a two-hectare site, rehabilitating the land in conformity with the government’s reclamation standards.

Although the site was relatively small, the project has created local enthusiasm for reclamation in the area and heightened awareness on how to conduct rehabilitation effectively. An added strength is that the district governor is upholding it as a model for mine reclamation. At his insistence, mining companies operating in the jurisdiction are now required to visit the reclamation site (with the NGO representatives) to learn what can and must be done to properly reclaim their operations. The NGO provides a letter for the governor confirming that the mining company has seen and understood the process and work involved in mine reclamation; otherwise, local permission to mine in Uyanga district will not be provided.

Increasingly, artisanal miners who we’ve met with are recognizing the need to improve their environmental responsibility in order to have their profession accepted in their local communities, and also so that local authorities will be more compelled to officially provide them access to local land to mine. While the sector faces many challenges, if the environmental and social impacts are effectively managed, artisanal mining has the potential to provide sustainable livelihoods for many rural citizens in addition to its significant contributions to the Mongolian economy.

The activities related to artisanal and small-scale mining under the Foundation’s Engaging Stakeholders for Environmental Conservation (ESEC) program are implemented with the generous support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

Meloney C. Lindberg is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Mongolia and Bolormaa Purevjav is the program director for the Foundation’s ESEC program there. They can be reached at mlindberg@asiafound.org and bolormaa@asiafound.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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