In recent years Mongolia has gained a worldwide reputation of being “the next big thing” in mining, but the investment rush is reaching a familiar turning point, with experts warning that unchecked economic growth and mining-related infrastructure projects have begun posing a risk to the country’s rich environment and biodiversity.
Alongside international miners that have rushed in to tap Mongolia’s vast coal, copper and gold deposits, Ibtimes.com reports there is an increasing number of illegal miners trying to get a piece of the nation’s riches, especially coal, at high safety and ecological costs.
“[These] miners crawl in the darkness for hundreds of metres through narrow, rambling passages before reaching the working face, where the new coal is cut. Dug with shovels and picks, the tunnels have few timber supports — a minimum safety standard in any coal mine,” the article describes.
But it is not only coal dust and poor safety standards what is killing miners in Mongolia. In the semi-arid areas of the South Gobi desert, the extreme amount of dirt generated from poorly planned roads built for mining operations is compromising the health of local people, as well as their animals.
According to the University of Queenland’s Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining the creation of these roads, which cart truckloads of minerals to neighbouring China and run through areas where many animals graze, is also leading to high degradation of pasturelands.
Mining giants have given a major boost to Mongolia’s economy. The country’s gross domestic product is expected to spike over 15% this year, the highest growth rate in the world.
In 2012, minerals comprised 30% of the nation’s GDP and more than 80% of its exports, according to the Mongolia Research Hub of the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining.
Last November the government signed a deal with the country’s gold producers association, which aims to reduce illegal extraction of the metal by reducing barriers for them to become formal miners.
Currently an estimated 100,000 Mongolians mine informally for gold, producing more than the formal industrial sector, which alone contributes more than 20% of Mongolia's GDP.