Weekly Insights and Analysis

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

April 2, 2008

By Matthew Pendergast

“Everything is connected. John Muir explored these very mountains and came to that same conclusion. That’s how we approach the environment in Mongolia — by understanding that everything is part of a system.”

We’re in the car descending into the magnificent Yosemite Valley in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Chris Plante, The Asia Foundation’s Director for Environmental Programs, is explaining to me why we’ve brought a group of Mongolian educators here — 13,000 miles from the arid steppes of Central Asia to lush rolling hills, almond orchards, old mining towns, and fir-lined granite mountains still packed high with snow. These teachers are here to learn about the importance of water quality monitoring, and how they can introduce simple experiential learning into their own classrooms in some of Mongolia’s most remote areas.

Thoughts of Mongolia conjure 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 (which took place along the very roads we now travel). 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; every river in Mongolia has its own song and its own religious significance. Hundreds of thousands of small-scale — or artisanal — miners now employ irresponsible practices, including using illegal chemicals like mercury and cyanide. These substances are poisoning people and livestock, and wreaking destruction on the land and its rivers.

Our group, which includes several teachers from Mongolia’s remote eastern and northern provinces, and two officials from the Ministry of Education, has come to learn from the common history of California and Mongolia. They are studying how mining practices used 150 years ago here can serve as lessons for Mongolia today, in order to avoid the mistakes of California and influence the development of mining in an environmentally responsible way for the benefit of all Mongolians. The Asia Foundation, through its landmark environmental project, “Securing Our Future,” has brought them here in the hopes of helping Mongolians find a way to accomplish this.

“Gold, copper, coal and other minerals can attract significant foreign investment and propel growth, and prosperity in Mongolia,” says Chris. “But mining has to be done in a way that is responsible and keeps the rivers clean.”

Rivers are a fundamental part of a natural ecosystem ” and are essential to industry, Chris explains. They are also an important benchmark of environmental health.

“Rivers and water quality reflect environmental health and human impacts on entire ecosystems” adds Jen Guarino, a team leader for the Water Quality Monitoring component of Securing Our Future, who is also riding with us. “Learn to read a river, and you’ll learn the land.”

People in Mongolia are in the early stages of learning about their democratic rights, and how individuals can influence policy and local-level decision-making. This should include involvement in the development of the mining industry, and all other resource-use decisions that affect communities.

Teaching water quality monitoring in schools involves communities in the conversation, making them informed participants in a dialogue that affects them directly. What’s more, 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.

And how do you teach water quality monitoring? By getting a little wet.

“Experiential education is a great way to teach this,” says Jen, as we skirt the picturesque Merced River. “Engaging students and communities directly in the process of examination and action research is a powerful educational tool that provides a lasting experience.” The teachers participating on the California trip are learning experiential techniques which are still relatively uncommon in Mongolia.

The group will also work with American high school students who are themselves learning to test water quality in Yosemite National Park’s rivers. Led by instructors from the Yosemite Institute, the teachers are literally getting their feet wet in the park’s crystal waters, learning how to engage students in the scientific process as they measure the abundance and diversity of certain benthic macroinvertebrates — aka bugs — whose presence or absence points to the health of a river.

They’ll then travel back to the San Francisco Bay Area’s Marin County, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, to study water ecology at the Headlands Institute before returning to Mongolia. Once back home, this pioneering group will be equipped to consider new ways of integrating experiential education into the Mongolian science curriculum. Their most important tool will be 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 — particularly its youth — a real stake in the country’s future.

“Really, we are facilitating a handoff to them,” says Jen. “My hope is that they’ll make it their own.”

Matthew Pendergast is based in San Francisco at The Asia Foundation’s headquarters, where he works in Communications. He can be reached at

Related locations: Mongolia
Related programs: Environmental Resilience



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