Mongolian Gold Wars Featured

Gold mining has sparked a clash between illegal diggers, artisanal mining associations and large multinationals.

It’s still pitch dark in the small Mongolian town of Khailaast. But Ganbold and Tungalatamir have already finished their light breakfast and are about to leave their ger – the traditional yurt of the nomads – with all the tools required to perform their illegal work. Ganbold is carrying the heavy water pump while his wife loads smaller tools into the back of their white minivan. They head for a manmade lake in the middle of the infinite steppe, where the first sunrays cover the green grass in gold... And that is exactly what the couple is looking for. They are ‘ninjas’, a nickname gold diggers get because of the large green bowl they carry on their backs, which is reminiscent of the shells of the famous comic characters in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

According to the government, at least 300,000 Mongolians have searched for gold at some point in their lives– an astounding 10% of the population! Different associations believe that they dig around five tons of the precious metal every year, yielding a huge amount of money that has sparked a war between legal mining companies and the ninjas. Most of the ninjas dig holes in the soil for further processing onsite, but Ganbold and Tungalatamir are too old and lack the strength for this, so they process the mud at huge multinational mine discards. 'There, we can still find gold nuggets,' he says.

Illegal miners rudimentarily gold panning from a frozen river. © Zigor Aldama and Miguel Candela

War Against the Miners

This is precisely what Amgelan Damdinragehaa is trying to fight. He is the president of a small association of artisanal mining, the type of organisation that the government decided to legalise at the end of 2013 to reduce the number of ninjas and allow people to legally benefit from the exploitation of a national resource. As opposed to what ninjas do, these artisanal miners pay their taxes and funnel their gold directly to the Bank of Mongolia, which will then add it to the national reserves. Damdinragehaa was once a ninja, so he understands their struggle, but he can’t agree with their methods.

Environmental Impact

“We are suffering major environmental degradation here,” Damdinragehaa criticises. “Ninjas dig holes up to 10 metres deep, and then they leave. Cattle fall in and die there. This sometimes look like the craters in the moon,” he says while showing a big plain full of holes partially covered in snow. “And then, our gold, a Mongolian resource, ends up in the hands of Chinese and Russian traders who pay nothing back to the country. Many are part of international mafias which may be financing harmful activities. That’s why artisanal miners are trying to convince ninjas to professionalise and work with us.” The associations have easier access to capital for the purchase of better and safer equipment, and workers are insured and can enjoy paid holidays. Most belong to the region where the mining exploitation takes place, so the whole community benefits from it.

Tungalatamir and Ganbold spray water to sieve the soil in search of gold. © Zigor Aldama and Miguel Candela

Policing the miners

D. Enkhbold fights both ninjas and artisanal miners with all his might. As the president of the Mining Association of Mongolia, which represents large multinationals that have operations in the country, he believes both are prejudicial for the country. 'It is clear that the ninjas are not subject to any kind of regulation and that they are especially harmful. The problem with the associations, however, is the opacity in which they operate, the lack of means to control their work, and the fact that they have some unfair tax advantages.' Enkhbold affirms that the big mining companies contribute to the country through jobs and taxes or royalties. He stresses the need to preserve the mining sector with the fact that it contributes more than 20 per cent of Mongolia's GDP and fuels both foreign investment and economic growth.

Yet he is hesitant to talk about the growing clashes between the companies he represents and the gold diggers. But in the central town of Zaamar, one of the gold mining hubs in Mongolia, fights are common and big companies have hired security agents to keep ninjas at bay. 

Ganzorig shows a few tiny pieces of gold. © Zigor Aldama and Miguel Candela

The Future of Mongolia's Resources

'There have been many injured and even killed in these fights,' Damdinragehaa says. 'Sometimes the mines even pay corrupt policemen to get involved and arrest the ninjas. Unfortunately, there is very little we can do about it since large corporations pay big sums to corrupt politicians. They never bother to touch the gold, but they are the ones who profit the most from it,' he denounces. 'If we want to make Mongolia a strong nation, we need to make sure that our vast mining resources are well managed and used to prepare future generations for the challenges of a globalised world. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.'

National Resources: Mining – principally for copper, gold and coal – is important to Mongolia's national economy. The history of gold mining in Mongolia is estimated to date back to the 11th century. The first commercial gold mining operations began in 1899. In 1995, it was found that the country had mined about 700 kilograms of gold; production reportedly remains at this same level today. Several gold mines are located about 110 kilometres north of the capital city Ulaan Baatar.

Read more on Mongolian gold miners from the full story available in print – Asian Geographic's 'Languages of Asia' Issue 5/2016.

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Orginal Article by Zigor Aldama. Photos by Zigor Aldama and Miguel Candela.

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