Sat, Apr 13, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Mongolian herders set example with fight against mining giant

Displaced from their land by a multinational mining company, nomadic herders defied the odds to preserve their heritage for future generations

By Susan Schulman and Rod Austin  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Lance Liu

Just 10 years ago, the district of Khanbogd in southern Mongolia’s Omnogovi Province was a barely known region of eastern Asia.

That changed with the discovery of gold and copper deposits below the seemingly endless Gobi Desert, home to a community of herdsmen who had worked hard to make a living from the barren land. So when the Mongolian government forged an agreement that threatened to deprive them of the land they had owned for generations, they fought back for their way of life, taking mining giant Rio Tinto and others to court in order to safeguard their heritage.

“We hope the fight of the eight of us can serve as an example all over Mongolia and for others who have the same problem with mining,” said Battsengel Lkhamdoorov, leader of Gobi Soil, the collective that took the mine owners to court.

The four-year fight resulted in a landmark victory, a tripartite settlement that allows for an equal, mutually sustainable coexistence between mine owners, the town of Khanbogd and herders.

Mongolia, one of the least densely populated countries on Earth, has only 1.9 people per square kilometer. Once ruled by warlord Genghis Khan, its population consists mainly of herders living in traditional gers — circular, white, yurt-like structures that infrequently dot the desert landscape — surrounded by sheep, goats, camels and horses.

The construction of the Oyu Tolgoi — meaning Turquoise Hill — gold and copper mine was led by Rio Tinto Group, Ivanhoe Mines and the government. Construction began in 2011, displacing the herdsmen, who claim they were reduced to collecting waste from the mine just to make a living. They soon decided they had to fight back.

“Before the mine, we were living a traditional independent life, relying on ourselves. They made us go to other pastures, we felt like outsiders. From being a proud herder on my own pasture to rubbish collection for a foreign company — I felt so angry and frustrated,” says Lkhamdoorov, who, with eight others, led the struggle for herders’ rights.

Their traditional way of life soon gave way to construction, trucks and dust. As industry encroached, mining structures, dressed in a distinctive blue, were erected on the landscape and Khanbogd’s population exploded by 350 percent, from 2,000 people to 7,000.

“It is our land, our pasture and everything under our land is ours. It is the wealth of the Mongolian people,” Lkhamdoorov says.

According to the herders, contractors accessing underground water for the mine diverted the Undai River, reducing the supply available for livestock. They could only stand by and watch, powerless as their pastures deteriorated and wells dried out, claiming the lives of their animals. Khanbogd continues to suffer from a shortage of water as mining drains the valuable resource.

“Now there is no water, as it has been diverted for the use of Oyu Tolgoi,” Lkhamdoorov says. “They built their own well to take water from underground to use for themselves and changed the direction of the Undai River, so the herders’ wells dried out. In terms of nature and ecology, two fundamentals are needed for successful herding: pasture and water.”

“Without them, our cattle and camels died. I decided to leave herding, the only livelihood I knew, [but] we didn’t know how to support ourselves any other way,” he said.

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