Mining and Human Rights in Mongolia: Gobi Herders speak out
“No power is vested to the local authorizes to protect the local government.” These words were spoken by Mr. Chandmani Dagva, the Governor of the Dundgovi at the “Mining and Human Rights in Mongolia” conference this week at the Blue Sky Tower in Ulaanbaatar, which ran from October 10-12.
At the height of the mining license boom, the Dundgovi province had 373 licenses which covered 50 percent of the aimag, according to Mr. Chandmani Dagva. He worked to reduce the mining licenses and has been somewhat successful, as now the licenses for the area are now down to 259. “From 2007-2012, on 48 areas the local government was against issuing [licenses], but those licenses were issued without involving the local government.” For all his lack of authority over his aimag, he spoke with a powerful sadness. The room—filled with herders, NGO representatives, government officials and parliament members—was quiet and attentive. The governor said license issues are centralized and registered at the capital, not locally. He also noted that there is a problem smuggling licenses from one company to another. “Also, the company changes names but not owners” as a way around the licensing issue. “The power of the local authority needs to increase.”
The governor also said that the road issue needs to be addressed. Five-hundred trucks use the roads on a daily basis in the Dundgovi. “We surveyed 1800 families who lived along the road. They moved to other places. We sent a letter to the National Human Rights Commission of Mongolia [about this issue].” The families moved due to ever-present dust and water shortage issues. Pictures displayed by power point showed a haze of dust so thick that you could only see a few feet ahead. “Listening to local voices is very important. From our side, we are ready for cooperation with others.”
A representative from the Special Inspection Agency said his agency has inspected the mining sector eight times, but the “methods of accountability are very weak at this moment.”
Mr. Ganbold Duvehigdemba, a civil society representative, was also on the panel and spoke with passion and anger about what he observed in the Omnogovi aimag, directly south of the Dundgovi. He said that ecological security should be incorporated into national security issues. He explained that the rapid pace of development has outrun the laws and government standards which are needed to balance development for the country with the needs of the local people. Mr Ganbold underscored that people who live along the roads live hard lives, explaining that he spent 20 days with them. “They lost their spring which they used for water and have to transport water from far away.”
The dust is an issue. Ganbold said “young people do not want to go back home [to Khan Bogd] due to skin irritations” from pollution and the dust.
Then his commentary got feisty. He said he “accuses the local authorities of taking money and hiding companies so they can continue to mine illegally and get money from them.” He claimed that even government inspectors have no access to the Oyu Tolgoi site. He concluded that Oyu Tolgoi has not been implementing the laws. “The company has more power than the government.”
Though Ganbold did not seem moved by the governor of the Dundgovi’s discussion on the problems of regulating mines locally, others were. A woman came up to the microphone and expressed appreciation for the limitations that Chandmani Dagva faced. “I did not understand this [the lack of local authority] before. I am ready to work with you.” And she suggested that he take his documentation to the courts, to prosecute mining companies that are not complying with the laws.
Next, a herder dressed in a deel came to the microphone. “There are five mines in my soum. With too many mines, there will be no livelihood in my soum. There will be no camels in my soum. I represent 4,000 people. If that fifth mine opens, there will be no more livelihoods in my soum.” His words were few but the room listened in rapt attention to his humble comment and applauded his suggestion that the lives of the locals was not seen as important to a government which was more interested in developing the country, than balancing the needs of the local people.
Many other local representatives, mostly in the Gobi region, came to the microphone to list their grievances which were noted for further discussion on ways to implement changes in rapidly developing area. The first day of the conference was a brainstorming session on the problems residents face.
S. Oyun, the Minster of Environment and Green Development, had opened the session but her commentary framed the issues raised. She stated that the development of the country after the fall of communism had been geared toward survival, not sustainability. When the issue of mineral wealth was addressed, it was done quickly and without regard to the environment. This is changing, she noted, but the perspective that environmental sustainability and development should benefit the needs of all is behind on the development scale and is not yet incorporated into the legal structure. She told the room: “Until 2012, the ministry has revisited the laws and tried to reform the laws. Two new laws were adopted and set up with government support to reform the sector. [The ministry] has done their homework but more is needed—80 new procedures need to be adopted.”
The UB Post asked Ms. Oyun about the government’s feasibility study to divert rivers to be used for mining in the Gobi, according to a press release issued by Bank Information Center (“Oyu Tolgoi Copper/Silver/Gold Mine Project” on bicusa[dot]org) and documented by USAID and World Bank. Minister Oyun requested further time to study the issue before issuing an official comment. Oyu Tolgoi denies any connection to the government’s research into diverting river water to use for mining, preferring to tap into a saline aquifer not connected to the local aquifer or the local shallow wells. Yet doubt remains as to the water needs of the mine’s workers.
Civil society representative Ganbolt had expressed worry that Oyu Tolgoi cannot meet the water needs of its workers, especially in light of the mine’s proximity to Tavan Tolgoi. Herders only use a few liters a day, while Oyu Tolgoi will need 3000 liters per second. Minister Oyun promised to look further into the water issue in the Gobi.
The conference illustrated a lack of communication between Gobi residents and the capital, which sets the laws and approves of the mining licenses. This can also be seen in the stories published about Mongolia’s development. “There is a disconnect between investment media and what the locals say—people are really angry,” noted researcher Sarah Jackson, who was not present at the conference but spoke to the UB Post by Skype. She is studying the effects that mining has on people in the Gobi.
Herders are indeed angry and hopefully the conference improves the communication pattern between the central government and the local government. It is also worth noting that the main media outlets are based in Ulaanbaatar.
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