11/03/2010versione stampabileprintinvia paginasend

Escalating protests against mining, in a country where ecological and social problems are inseparable

They shot at the machinery with hunting rifles, despite knowing nothing about the Luddites or the Earth First brand of eco-terrorism.

The mining company people refused to leave, so that was the only way to get rid of them.

There were four people involved, all members of the United Movement of Mongolian Rivers and Lakes, an organisation uniting seven Mongolian environmental groups in one federation.

Chimgee Ganbold, the group’s spokeswoman, explains: “We oppose illegal mining activities. We want the government to face up to this problem, but they don’t. We want to put pressure on them to do something about it.”

   “Their movement is special, because it’s not composed of urban intellectuals but of local people – explains Boum-Yalagch Olzod, coordinator of the Mongolian Green Coalition (Nogoon Evsel) – They are proud to call themselves nomads and will carry on protesting if the government doesn’t start behaving more honestly and respecting their human rights more fully. What else can they do?”

The “shooting incident” took place in early September and resulted in a few dents in a bulldozer’s tracks, a damaged radiator, a booking and a complaint from the police. But that’s not the end of the story.

The companies involved – the Chinese Puraam and the Canadian Centerra Gold – are searching for gold in 168 hectares of land alongside the upper Selenge River… Mongolia’s biggest river which, after crossing the Russian Republic of Buryatia, flows into Lake Baikal. In order to separate the gold from the rock they use arsenic, which ends up in the land and from there enters the water.

The whole story is typical of Mongolia today: a country whose new nickname is “Minegolia”, in reference to the almost unlimited riches buried in its earth, which are being hungrily targeted by half the world.

Last year, parliament passed a law that in theory prevents mining companies from operating near rivers and lakes. But there’s one little problem. The law establishes that the government must reimburse companies for purifying and leaving such sites. It’s estimated that the total cost of these operations would come to about four billion dollars, an enormity for the desolately empty coffers of the State. So meanwhile the companies stay put. 

“Now that winter is on its way, mining activities will slow down – predicts Boum – but when Spring comes, I foresee an escalation of protests.”

Armed struggle? Militants talk about pacific actions, but for them that includes the occasional burst of rifle shots at a bulldozer.

“The shooting incident was caused by the fact that the miners were excavating illegally – stresses Chimgee – but another action we carried out was to steal the keys from machinery in a mine in Khentii, the area where Genghis Khan was born.”

And on all sides, no one wears kid gloves, as Boum illustrates with his account of a nasty experience he had just recently. Mongolia and France have just signed an agreement in Ulan Bator authorising the French mining company Areva to exact uranium.

Boum went to protest, on his own, outside the Foreign Ministry. “I was being extremely pacific and friendly, I was just waiting for the French delegation to arrive. Someone from Areva came and took some photos of me, and then the police arrived and asked me follow them. I reminded them that I was not breaking any Mongolian law, but they started beating me up, and carried on for about ten minutes. When the French delegation arrived I only managed to shout out “Good morning Madame!” [to Anne-Marie Idrac, the French Foreign Trade Minister, ed.], and at least some of them noticed me.”

The struggle being played out in Mongolia combines ecological and social aspects. The intensive mineral exploitation of the area is disrupting a nomad-intensive culture based on the availability of vast grazing spaces. The pollution of soil and water destroys the herds. For lifelong nomads, trying to convert to sedentary life, possibly as a miner, means losing their bearings entirely. Alcoholism is one way out, and has become a serious social plague.

Add to this the rain of dollars from abroad which fuels spiralling inflation without passing through the pockets of ordinary people: where did those dollars go? That’s not a difficult question to answer, looking at the dozens of Suvs and several Maseratis speeding around in Ulan Bator’s city centre, belonging to Mongolia’s new rich, most of them state officials.

Prices rise, but not salaries, and the government is even cutting back on social benefits and subsidies. So for many people the only option is to sell their animals and join the ranks of the illegal gold-diggers: the so-called ‘ninja’.

Gabriele Battaglia