MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Mongolia mines pose threats on several fronts

Published by MAC on 2011-07-18
Source: AFP

New herders' organisation pledges fight for change

A former Goldman Environmental Prize winner is set to take on the fastest-growing mining industry anywhere in the global South.

Mongolia's Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, a nomadic herder and leader of the "Fire Nation" group, wants an end to irresponsible mining operations it claims are threatening many peoples' livelihoods.

Munkhbayar is currently in jail, after he and mebers of Fire Nation shot at equipment at a mine in the southern province of Ovorkhangai.

Meanwhile, at least one damaging aspect of Mongolia's minerals rush is becoming more and more evident: increasing exploitation of sex workers forced to labour in unprotected conditions.

Mongolia's massive Oyu Tolgoi mine project, operated by Ivanhoe and Rio Tinto, purports to have a health programme which serves these women.

However, according to the woman in charge of the programme: "We're telling people to improve hygiene and use preventative measures -- but how much can we really achieve when there is no running water in hospitals?"

This raises an obvious question: Why haven't the two companies yet ensured that such basic facilities are in place?

Mongolia herder on mission to tackle mining firms

By Michael Kohn


6 July 2011

ULAN BATOR - The destruction of Mongolia's grasslands to access a wealth of mineral riches has sparked an anti-mining movement led by a nomadic herder who says force can be used to bring polluting firms to heel.

Tsetsegee Munkhbayar is the head of Fire Nation, a small group on a crusade to put an end to what they say are irresponsible mining operations in the resource-rich landlocked country that are threatening their livelihoods.

After failing to gain traction with the country's political leaders, Munkhbayar and his fellow activists reportedly took matters into their own hands and shot at equipment at a mine in the southern province of Ovorkhangai.

Now Munkhbayar -- who in 2007 gained national fame by winning the US-based Goldman Environmental Prize honouring grassroots activists for his work in cleaning up the Ongi river, one of the largest in the country -- is in jail.

"We will give the mining companies fair warning -- either they must cease their activities or incur our wrath," Munkhbayar, 44, told reporters shortly before he was detained late last month in connection with the mine incident.

"If they do not comply with our demands, then we will use our guns. We are not violent people but we will do what we need to do to stop these environmental polluters."

Munkhbayar's quest for justice began with his work on the Ongi river. It had run nearly dry due to unchecked mining activity as both local and foreign companies look to cash in on the country's mineral treasure trove.

He won the Goldman Prize after lobbying to shut down 35 of the 37 mines in the area, and has since used the $125,000 that came along with it to increase public awareness about environmental issues.

But he and his ragtag band of activist herders are finding it hard to keep up with the dizzying pace at which private mines are opening up -- and are finding their cause largely ignored in Mongolia's halls of officialdom.

In April, they charged onto the main Sukhbaatar Square in the capital Ulan Bator on horseback, calling for the government to clean up the mining sector and take more responsibility for environmental degradation.

"We wanted to speak to the president, to tell him that if he cannot do his job properly, then he should step down," Munkhbayar told AFP.

When top leaders spurned their requests for a meeting, the protesters responded Genghis Khan-style -- by shooting arrows at Government House. And then came the incident at the mine in Ovorkhangai province.

No one was injured and there was minimal damage to the equipment, but Munkhbayar is in police custody in Ulan Bator. Local media say he can be detained without charge for up to 30 days, until about July 24.

It was not the first time that Munkhbayar had resorted to violence.

In September last year, he and three other activists shot up a bulldozer at the Canadian-run Boroo gold mine in Selenge province, after the mining company refused to cease operations that he said were polluting local streams.

In China's Inner Mongolia region to the south, ethnic Mongol herders are similarly angry at what they say is rampant mining, and in May staged several days of protests over resource exploitation by powerful mining interests.

The confrontations highlight the rift between Mongolia's traditional way of life and new economic realities in the impoverished country.

Mongolia is setting itself up to be a global name in the mining industry, thanks mostly to its vast reserves of gold, silver, coal, iron ore, uranium and oil -- and the voracious appetite for resources in neighboring China.

Plans are being laid for a vast network of paved highways, rail lines, power stations and other infrastructure that will forever change the landscape of this sparsely populated nation of 2.7 million inhabitants.

Herders are already feeling the effects of the economic boom.

Many have lost their pastures and moved to Ulan Bator, where they have joined an army of urban poor in the shantytowns circling the capital.

Others have turned to "ninja mining" -- panning for gold in the tailings left behind by bigger mining companies. Small numbers have joined Munkhbayar in his campaign to fight the mining companies.

"They are not afraid to protest," Kirk Olson, a US biologist and environmentalist working on a World Bank-sponsored project in Mongolia, told AFP.

"They are starting to realise that all this unchecked mining is impacting their livelihoods and they are standing up and saying 'enough is enough'."

Olson says that in many parts of Mongolia, mining companies have drained water resources, destroying grasslands and depriving herders of their livelihoods. He said more cooperation was needed to end the problem.

The government has attempted to slow the destruction.

Last year, it enacted a law banning mining operations near rivers and forests and suspended more than 1,700 mining licenses in these areas. But activists like Munkhbayar have said the law is not being enforced.

Some politicians have proposed setting up a fund financed in part by the mines themselves to help rehabilitate spoiled land.

"Someone has to take responsibility for all this damage and if the mining companies have not done it, then the state has to step up," lawmaker Sanjasurengiin Oyun, a geologist by education, told AFP.

Until then, activists like Munkhbayar are facing an uphill battle.

"We are a small group of simple herders fighting powerful people," said Munkhbayar.

"It's not an easy fight but we cannot stand by idly and watch our land and way of life come to an end."

Mongolia mining success brings booming sex trade

By Kitty Hamilton


11 July 2011

ULAN BATOR - Pimps man the park across from the historic Ulan Bator Hotel, popular with foreigners. They are keeping an eye on their employees -- about 20 women working in Mongolia's quickly expanding sex trade.

"40,000 tugrik for one hour," says one young woman asked about the going rate -- the equivalent of about $30.

Prostitution is illegal in Mongolia, but the sex industry is booming, due in part to the explosion of the country's mining sector, which has spawned a huge mobile workforce of men far away from home.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) says there are almost 19,000 sex workers in the impoverished landlocked country with a population of just 2.7 million -- or one for every 140 people.

"Poverty and unemployment force women into the industry -- the government should be seriously concerned about it," Nyam Ultzii, who runs one of the few non-government organisations in Mongolia helping sex workers, told AFP.

While the park in front of the Ulan Bator Hotel is a notorious public spot to trawl for sex, the trade is gradually shifting out of sight to karaoke bars, hotels, saunas and massage parlours -- putting the women at higher risk.

"Because it's gone underground, we seek women in the most vulnerable places and offer services like access to medical professionals for health check-ups, or clean places to shower and wash their clothes," Ultzii said.

The flourishing sex trade is having major health consequences -- inadequate medical services, limited prevention campaigns and the cultural stigma linked with prostitution have led to a rise in sexually transmitted infections.

A 2010 assessment done by personnel at Oyu Tolgoi, a huge copper deposit being developed by Canada's Ivanhoe Mines and Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto, identified STIs as one of five major health risks in the south Gobi desert.

The rise in the number of men working at both Oyu Tolgoi and the nearby Tavan Tolgoi coal field has led to a spike in sex worker activity -- and increased risk, says Ariunna, who runs Oyu Tolgoi's community health programme.

Some truck drivers en route to the Chinese border "have no money, so they sell one or two litres of diesel to the girls in exchange for sex. They've come to be known as the 'diesel girls'," said Ariunna, who like many Mongolians goes by one name.

"They can't get access to health services, and because of the shame to the family, they often shy away from any help or support," she added.

Nationwide, HIV -- the virus that causes AIDS -- is becoming a concern.

Despite Mongolia's status as a low-prevalence nation, the infection rate has increased 17 times in the past six years to a recorded 95 cases. And officials at the National AIDS Foundation admit the real number is likely much higher.

"Mongolia is a country at high risk of an accelerated HIV spread due to its relatively young population, increased mobility, proximity to growing epidemic countries such as Russia and China, and the high level of HIV-related stigma and discrimination", said local UNAIDS coordinator Altanchimeg Delegchoimbol.

Mongolia is one of 49 countries and regions in the world which still have restrictions on the movements of those living with HIV/AIDS, adding to the stigma attached to admitting one's status and getting treatment.

In 2002, a young woman was murdered by her husband after a local newspaper reported she was HIV positive, according to media reports. It turned out to be a false positive.

But in June at a high-level UN meeting on the topic in New York, lawmaker Dagvadorj Ochirbat said the government was "in the process of eliminating HIV-related restrictions on entry, stay and residence".

Concerns about testing accuracy also remain a problem, especially in the impoverished countryside, as the health industry suffers from financial and professional deficiencies.

The huge population rise in the south Gobi region sparked by the race to exploit Mongolia's vast mineral resources is testing the country's already strained medical services.

In Khan Bogd, the town closest to the Oyu Tolgoi deposit, the local hospital has only 23 staff treating more than 3,000 officially registered residents, Ariunna explained. The only gynaecologist on staff is not certified.

Managers at Oyu Tolgoi are working with local authorities to bolster local health services, but they say authorities at both the national and local levels need to do more.

"We need support from the central government level. We're telling people to improve hygiene and use preventative measures -- but how much can we really achieve when there is no running water in hospitals?" Ariunna said.

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