MAC: Mines and Communities

The hidden human cost of the 2012 Olympic medals

Published by MAC on 2011-11-30
Source: Sunday Mirror (2011-11-20)

The hidden human cost of the 2012 Olympic medals

By Richard Jones

Sunday Mirror

20 November 2011

For the elite athletes of the world it's a moment to dream of - standing on the podium to be crowned an Olympic champion.

London 2012 Olympic medals
London 2012 Olympic medals. Photo: Reuters

In all, 4,700 medals will be draped around the necks of competitors when the greatest show on Earth arrives in Britain next year.

Yet - as the clock ticks down to London 2012 - a Sunday Mirror investigation uncovers the human price people say they are paying for those precious medals.

Our exposé stretches 5,000 miles from the sparkling ­Olympic stadium to the Oyu Tolgoi copper mine in the sparse South Gobi desert in Mongolia, one of the world's last great wildernesses.

This place is home to nomadic tribes made up of ­some of the poorest people in the world. And deep in its ground is some of the gold and silver needed for the 2012 medals.

All of which is ­a heaven-sent PR ­opportunity for the operators of the Oyu Tolgoi mine, Rio Tinto Zinc. Rio Tinto is sponsoring the ­Mongolian Olympic team as well as ­trumpeting the use of Mongolian metal for its medal-making.

But here in the Gobi - freezing by winter, roasting hot in the summer - the Olympics are likely to pass ­unnoticed amid the daily battle for ­survival. Families live in "gers" - ­ramshackle tents made from sheep-wool felt. Their only heating is one central cooking stove. Wealth here is measured not in consumer goods and savings but in the number of animals owned.

People scratch a living much as they have done for hundreds of years, buying and selling livestock, bartering for goods and food.

Arriving from the developed world, it feels like a parallel universe. Visitors are welcomed in by children in dirty hand-knitted jumpers and offered salty camel tea that custom dictates you must drink, accepting with the right hand only.

A couple of miles from the mine, we meet the Sukh clan of nomads. With 300 camels and 400 goats and sheep between them, they are considered wealthy here.

But they, like everyone else, say they are ­desperately worried about shrinking water supplies linked to the Oyu Tolgoi mine project which will use 870 litres of water per second once it is in operation.

The water is needed to cool the drilling rods used in the process of extracting ore from the ground.

This ore - which contains gold, silver and copper - is crushed to a fine dust and water is added to create a paste to which chemical solvents are mixed in to extract precious metals.

Grey-haired Gombojav Sukh, 60, matriarch of the clan, says: "There has been a big change in the water levels in the last three years. They are digging a massive pipe and making holes every kilometre to take water to the mine."

She says they were offered the cash equivalent of 20 camels to leave the area, but added: "We just want to continue with our lives here."

In Hanbogd, the village nearest the mine, dust settles on the faces of kids as they drag water carts through dirty, dry sand. The bone-­breaking task is made tougher than ever because the six wells which used to serve the ­village have recently dwindled to just one, they say.

Another who says her family has been told to leave by local officials is 70-year-old Ru Jargalsaikhan. She says: "We were moved from the area where we grew up and our animals still try to go back.

"They came and said the mine has a licence for the area and that we have to move. We just accepted what they said."

She adds: "Water levels have dropped. Thankfully I have a natural well but my son has to walk a kilometre to get clean drinking water."

Just getting here requires a vast effort. I travelled in a four-wheel drive Soviet-built van for a 500-mile, 18-hour trip from the capital Ulan Bator across endless frozen grasslands and desert sands.

Rio Tinto, which is working in ­partnership at Oyu Tolgoi with Canadian mining firm Ivanhoe, says this will eventually be the fifth largest mine in the world, generating £221billion over the next 40 years - mainly through sales of coal and precious metal to booming China.

Rio Tinto have pledged to minimise the environmental impact of the mine. But concerns are mounting about levels of pollution around the site.

A huge black cloud of dust hangs above the road which runs past the mine, so dense it can be seen 10 miles away.

More than 2,000 trucks - transporting coal and metal - pass through the desert here every day, almost blocking out the sun. It is so dark that drivers leave their headlights on all day long.

The job of providing the gold, silver and bronze medals was awarded to Rio Tinto earlier this year. The Kennecott Utah Copper mine near Salt Lake City in the US will provide nearly all the metal, with just a smattering from here in Mongolia - but enough for the firm to make a fanfare about it. Rio Tinto says on its website that Mongolians should be "proud knowing metal mined from Oyu Tolgoi will be used to make Olympic and Paralympic ­medals".

However, the extraordinary scale of water use is worrying people well ­beyond the ­village of Hanbogd. Right across the region nomads blame the mine for dried up wells. From next year the mine will extract and treat saline water from a massive underground source 20 miles away to try to address water shortages.

The Sunday Mirror watched as hundreds of Chinese workers laid pipes ready for water-gathering. Dugersuren ­Sukhgerel of environmental action group Oyu ­Tolgoi Watch says: "Within a 500-kilometre radius of the mine water is scarce."

Last night a Rio Tinto spokesman said: "Rio Tinto has very high ethical standards. We were subject to strict checks to become the supplier of metal for the medals.

"We believe all of our mines should have a positive impact on the communities and environment.

"We are absolutely committed to working with herders in Mongolia to protect their way of life and the local environment and help improve their economic circumstances."

He said Rio Tinto has pledged not to use the herders' water sources, but will monitor them and mitigate their losses if they do.

And he added that a relocation agreement has been made and new wells will be built for herders who move.

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