On 19 April, dozens of nomad wagons and hundreds of riders and shepherds were still arriving in Sükhbaatar Square, Ulan Bator, the centre of Mongolian officialdom. They were coming from the surrounding regions of Arkhangai, Uvurkhangai, Tov, Khenti, and Dundgobi to demand protection for their land from the plundering of mining operations. Across from parliament they set up eight nomad tents, which they vowed would remain there until parliament was dismissed, the government resigned and new elections were called. Nomads wander the square in colourful national costumes, horses neigh, and shepherd dogs bark. The special anthem Wake up, Mongolians!, composed especially for the occasion, can be heard across the square for days on end.
Earlier, on 4 April, the police dispersed the first-comers to the capital, confiscating their tents (before they had been set up). They learned from the experience, and now hundreds of mounted activists protect the demonstrators around the clock. In reply to my naïve query, “What’s with the horses?” I receive the following answer with a grin: “You try and disperse a mounted demonstration!”. Herdsmen from the far off regions of Altai are still on their way. The instigators of the protest, the United Mongolian Movement for the Protection of Rivers and Lakes, together with the Fire Nation Alliance, are demanding that the government uphold the law on “the prohibition of exploring and extracting of mineral resources at river sources, water protection zones and forest regions”.
These people have been deprived by the new Mongolian capitalism of their watering holes and pastures; they are the representatives of herding communities, the lands of which have been handed over to mining operations, which have then poisoned the waters in the barbarian search for gold. They don’t want to cede their homeland to the cunning “new Mongolians” and the countless capitalist mining operators flooding into the country from China, Russia, Canada, America, France and Australia.
The beginning to the story will seem painfully familiar to any Russian: Mongolia is marvellously rich in mineral resources, the source of its potential destruction. The value of untapped natural resources in Mongolia equals approximately 1.3 trillion dollars. According the expert forecasts, the country’s GDP could grow from 5 billion to 30 billion US dollars by the year 2020 solely on account of national mineral resources. Mongolia is coming under enormous pressure to begin the exploitation of its natural resources with the help of foreign corporations.
At the beginning of the last decade (2000), the Mongolian authorities had already sold so many licenses for the mining of mineral resources that cattle breeders, wandering from water source to water source and pasture to pasture, had already begun to feel the squeeze. Over seventy percent of the country has already been “licensed out” for the exploration of new deposits. Particularly serious consequences resulted from the mining of alluvial gold in river valleys, poison reaching dozens of kilometres downstream. Illnesses and mutations hitherto unknown began appearing among cattle and people. And on top of everything else, there was the economic crisis. Many herders abandoned the occupation of their forefathers, leaving for a life of poverty in the country’s only city, or becoming prospectors themselves.
There were communities able to stand up for their land and water rights and drive out especially harmful gold miners from their valleys (such as Goldman Environmental Prize 2007 laureate Munkhbayar, an agronomist by education and journalist by profession, who founded the Onggi River Movement in 2001 and succeeded in closing down thirty gold mines). Soon after, however, new prospectors took the place of the old with newer, even more valid licenses, given out by the very same authorities. It was then that the most obstinate groups of local inhabitants united, creating the United Mongolian Movement for the Protection of Rivers and Lakes.
The movement quickly and loudly fell out with the western funds trying to control and domesticate it. Tsetsegee Munkhbayar declared on behalf of the movement the belief that mining companies should be categorised not according to whether they were Chinese or Canadian, but rather whether they polluted rivers and broke the law or not. Members of the movement are not afraid of blockading mines or conducting other such activities, which furnished the American Asia Fund with a cause immediately after the falling out to accuse the movement of terrorist inclinations. But if the armed guards of the mines can use force to chase the herders from the lands of their forefathers, can opposition really be called terrorism?
In 2009 the River and Lake Movement undertook a hunger strike, setting up camp right here, in Sükhbaatar Square, in order to force parliament to pass a law for the protection of rivers from the effects of the mining industry, a law that had become hopelessly bogged down. And parliament heeded them, and so did the new Mongolian president, who in 2010 ordered a halt to the awarding of new mining licenses until the proper measures to protect the environment and combat corruption could be passed and implemented.
In 2010 activists from the Movement together with government officials and specialists travelled through every region of the country and mapped out the majority of legally protected water zones. But time passed and the mapped zones were not confirmed; mining companies actively ate into the banks of rivers and the local inhabitants lost their patience. Over the last two years numerous conflicts have taken place between the local herders and mining companies and prospectors. At the beginning of August 2010, twenty people were injured and thirty arrested in the Darvi district of the Gobi-Altai region.
At the beginning of September 2010, seeking to force the government to take action, Munkhbayar and three other activists from the River and Lake Movement, armed with hunting rifles, fired upon equipment from a gold mine belonging to two foreign companies, Centerra Gold and Puram, in the mountains of the Selenga region. As a result of the incident, the volleys of which left symbolic dents in the bonnet of a Chinese tractor, a criminal case has been opened, and the investigation is due to wrap up soon, with Munkhbayar and his comrades set to stand trial. Munkhbayar and his comrades filed a counterclaim against the Mongolian government on 22 October 2010, on behalf of the River and Lake Movement demanding compensation for the environmental harm done to eight river basins as a result of the government’s inactivity and failure to uphold the norms set forth in the Constitution and by similar laws.
The shot was heard: the Mongolian cabinet of ministers finally declared, on 17 November of last year, the gradual implementation of the law for “the prohibition of exploring and extracting of mineral resources at river sources, water protection zones and forest regions”. The recall of 254 licenses for the extraction of alluvial gold was announced with much ado. Altogether 391 extraction licenses and 1,400 mineral prospecting licenses were affected by the recall.
On 15 March 2011, in Sükhbaatar district court, following repeated delays on account of the defendant’s failure to appear, judicial proceedings were finally able to proceed in the case of the River and Lake Movement versus the Government of Mongolia. After an eight hour session, all charges brought forward by the United Movement were dismissed by the judge. The deputy minister of mineral resources and energy, B. Ariusan, appearing in court as the defendant, declared that ecologists had supplied no proof of the mining industry’s having caused any harm to the rivers. According to his words, the government would not demand that the gold mining companies “rehabilitate the environment” in the affected regions or pay compensation until other things had been dealt with, namely: taxes, mortgaged property and loans for workers.
The underlying reason is simple: lobbyists for the mining industry had threatened to bill Mongolia for expenses incurred to the tune of approximately 4 billion dollars should licenses for foreign companies be withdrawn. This sum is greater than the country’s annual budget, and is a great explanation for why the law is not being implemented.
The endless list of excuses and inaction on the part of officials, as well as the decision of the judge, has forced the River and Lake Movement to call for the resignation of the government and to summon the owners of this land, the nomads and herders, out into the town square.
New social and political movements have joined the protest. On 24 April, the herders temporarily handed the tents over to the “Motherland – Independence – Justice” movement, which, on 26 April, conveyed to the cabinet of ministers a memorandum with nine demands, including the government’s resignation, the annulment of an enslaving agreement with Ivanhoe Mines for the source of Oyu Tolgoy, and the signing of a new deal more beneficial to national interests. Cabinet Secretary Odsuren said that time would be needed to study the demands.
In the first week of the “people’s assembly” held in the square, there were no clashes with the police or disturbances. To ensure continued safety, on 25 April, the Sükhbaatar region police compelled parliament member Shinebayar, one of the organisers of the protests, to sign a statement that he would be held personally responsible in the event that disturbances should occur. The stand-off will continue at least until an answer to the protestors’ demands has been received from the authorities.
People are calling for a nationwide discussion of ways out of the crisis. With good reason they consider the promise of a “bright future” a crisis: the GDP will increase six fold thanks to foreign mining concessions and every citizen will receive a portion of the money for the nation’s resources, while the nation’s foundation, herders, will lose their land, forever being deprived of the base upon which the great Mongolian civilisation was built, their posterity living in an endless suburb of the capital on social benefits or roaming from river to river with a pan in hand, searching for gold.