Herders at work in Mongolia. Photo by: N. Munkhbaatar / ILO / CC BY-NC-ND

For thousands of years, Mongolians have lived a nomadic existence, surviving by herding our livestock to where the water is cleaner and the grass is greener. Even during the socialist era, which ended with a peaceful democratic revolution in 1990, this pattern barely changed.

But the free-market reforms that followed eroded our right to state-owned land — and paved the way for our government to attract foreign investment by awarding thousands of licenses to firms desperate to exploit Mongolia’s vast untapped natural resources, including uranium, gold, tungsten, coal, rare earth metals, and copper. Mining became the motor of our economy, and the country became known as “Mine-golia” or “the next Qatar.”

This legislation would see the creation of a civil society development council, and would give the government wide powers over NGOs, allowing it to control approval over funding and restrict the right to freedom of association.

Now, the civil society organizations who have been working for years to ensure that the mining industry is accountable, transparent, and benefits all Mongolians, face restrictions on their right to assembly and access to funding, if newly proposed draft laws are passed.

Herders under threat

Over a third of Mongolia’s 3 million population still rely on herding. But over the past 20 years, mining has threatened our way of life — as well as our health, environment, and culture.

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When mining companies drill on the edge of our pastures, they create dust emissions, degrade our landscapes, pollute and drain our freshwater, and displace us. Our children have suffered birth defects, and our animals, diseases.

More than 10 years ago, six licenses were granted to mine a sacred local mountain, Bayansharga, in Sükhbaatar Province, in the east of the country, where I’m from. Our ancestors had worshipped Bayansharga mountain for generations, and mining would have destroyed it. I campaigned for its protection, and others soon joined me. Eventually, it was declared a protected historical site.

During the campaign, I saw that it wasn’t just Bayansharga which was under threat, but the nomadic peoples' entire heritage and culture, which pastoral herding is the cornerstone of. As a result, I set up an NGO named after Bayansharga, which is part of the international Publish What You Pay movement, which is striving for transparency and accountability in all stages of mining production.

Looming restrictions

The transparency and accountability that civil society is pushing for is critical if Mongolia’s natural wealth is to benefit its entire population. Yet civil society will be severely constrained if legislation the Mongolian government is planning, comes to pass.

This legislation would see the creation of a civil society development council and would give the government wide powers over NGOs, allowing it to control approval over funding and restrict the right to freedom of association.

Since many politicians do nothing to protect the herders’ interests or their livestock, and many of them have corrupt links to the mining companies, it is easy to see how this new legislation could be used against those NGOs who are trying to hold mining companies accountable for the impact of their operations.

Allegedly, it is already common for activists and journalists to be followed, threatened, and penalized when they expose illegal activities and the authorities’ corruption, and this would only intensify the pressures they face — and further hamper efforts to protect the rights of herders, as enshrined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as Mongolia’s constitution.

But there is an alternative vision, which I believe is shared by the majority of Mongolians.

It is one in which civil society’s rights are protected, and we can continue holding the mining industry to account. Rather than pushing through laws aimed at curbing our activities, we need stronger ones to remove the fog which continues to cloud who really owns and profits from the country’s mining concessions.

Such laws would be a vital step towards ensuring that mining can raise the entire population’s living standards and boost our development.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Bor Losol

    Bor Losol is the founder of Bayansharga, an NGO working to protect the rights of herders and other local people, and ensure that the mining sector works for the benefit of all Mongolians. It is part of the Publish What You Pay global movement.

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