Insights and Analysis

In Mongolia: Culture and Conservation set to Clash

June 20, 2007

By William Foerderer Infante

Citizens across Mongolia are expressing increasing concern about water quality and water quantity accessible to them. Herding has been a Mongolian cultural and economic tradition for centuries, if not millennia, and many herders are community advocates. They commonly emphasize the need for conservation and responsible use of resources. Paradoxically, these herder-conservationists may exacerbate water quality and quantity concerns.

A dry winter and spring is fueling fears that rivers will fall further, and that more streams will vanish. If summer rains, which typically arrive in late June or early July, come late or not at all, Mongolia’s herd of more than 35 million animals could be devastatingly affected.

Although the contribution of livestock and livestock products to Mongolia’s gross domestic product has been diminishing, herding remains a major source of employment. If this industry suffers severe losses due to drought, another wave of herders may flock toward the dangerous and polluting artisanal and small mines that pockmark the countryside.

The legion of artisanal, or “ninja,” miners is growing, impelled by higher gold prices. Ninja ranks have swelled to more than 100,000, according to reliable estimates. These numbers will continue to increase rapidly with gold hovering closer to $700/oz, and particularly if herding is hard-hit this summer.

Ninja mining is dirty and hard work, but in a country where per capita income hovers barely over $1,000, ninja mining is salvation where alternative employment is non-existent. Men, and oftentimes adolescent boys, are lowered down shafts tens of meters deep, but barely large enough across to accommodate the buckets they fill with soil and hoist to the surface in the hopes of finding trace flecks of gold. Others use cyanide and mercury in deadly processes that are literally killing them, their families, and their communities.

This summer may see culture turn against conservation if the summer rains fail to arrive and herders continue to view artisanal mining as the only plausible alternative for their future livelihood.

William Foerderer Infante is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Mongolia.

Related locations: Mongolia


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