In Mongolia, Ensure Local Knowledge Informs Project Design

Sukhgerel Dugersuren is a development specialist based in Mongolia. She founded OT Watch to monitor the Oyu Tolgoi mine. She is a member of the Global Advocacy Team, an 8-person group convened by the International Accountability Project, to conduct local research on development and make recommendations to improve World Bank policy on development finance. The Global Advocacy Team’s final report from 8 countries will be released in 2015.

In the past decade, Mongolia’s South Gobi Desert has experienced an enormous mining boom. In 2000 we had only a couple of large active mines but today there are dozens of large-scale mines with many more being planned. The World Bank reports that mining has contributed to the fastest ever economic growth rate in Mongolia, but the reality for people living near the mines is very different.

Pollution and other impacts of the mining boom have affected a majority of Mongolians and the people who have suffered the most are nomadic herder communities. Their life-sustaining pastures, water springs, and seasonal camps are being lost to open-pit mines and the road-building, waste-dumping, and water- extraction that comes with this industry. Many communities are taking action to propose changes and find better ways forward.

Consider two recent mining projects, the Oyu Tolgoi mine and the Tayan Nuur iron mine. The Oyu Tolgoi mine is funded by a number of international investors, including the World Bank Group and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). The Tayan Nuur iron ore mine has also received financing from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

, Mr. L. Battsengel, a member of the GAT research team interviews herders in Khanbogd soum, an area affected by the Oyu Tolgoi mine. Photo Credit:Gobi Soil

In February and March 2014, as a member of IAP’s Global Advocacy Team, I formed a research team with members of the local herder communities affected by these two mines. We interviewed 100 people, women and men of all ages and education levels. Most of the people we spoke to have spent their entire lives as nomadic herders until recently.

Resettlement programs have already begun at both mining sites, although many people have been excluded. Companies consider affected only those herding households whose winter camps fall in their licensed territories of not more than 0.7 hectares. In the Gobi Desert, herders need access to pastures ranging from 5 to 25 km at least to sustain their herds. A large number of families were displaced when their pastures were taken and their water sources became polluted. A person relocated by the Tayan Nuur mine told us:

We used to live with our children herding animals and benefitting from sales of wool cashmere, milk, and dairies. But now we are forced by life to operate a small shop to survive.

Pollution drove a number of families from their homes. One family who is being displaced by the Tayan Nuur project said, “There is a lot of noise and dust. Grass stopped growing in our pasture. It is not possible to herd animals here anymore.” Several people have also reported that their families are suffering from health problems, such as lung diseases.

Even when consultations took place, developers made promises to the community to convince them to agree to the project. These promises—especially of future livelihood support—remain unfulfilled. According to one woman, the Tayan Nuur developers “said they would open the mine to employ local people. They promised an airport, a school and a kindergarten and a beautiful road—it was all lies.”

Goats inside the Oyu Tolgoi mine territory. Animals frequently cross over into their former pastures, making it difficult for herders to maintain their flocks.

The communities affected by the Oyu Tolgoi and Tayan Nuur projects tried to raise their voices and share their ideas with the mining company and the government but they were largely dismissed. Neither the government nor the mines’ investors consider nomadic herders to be eligible for protection under the indigenous peoples safeguards of the international financial institutions. This lack of recognition meant that project developers did not study and respect customary land use practices in affected areas. Much of the area impacted by the mines is being treated as “state land” rather than areas where indigenous people live and have complex land management systems.

Tensions have risen between developers and affected communities. People spoke strongly about their frustration that the companies were able to make promises and then break them without consequences. To help resolve their concerns, the communities resorted to filing complaints with the World Bank Group and the EBRD.

The failure to seek out local expertise as part of project design has created higher costs for the company and debilitating loss for thousands of local people. Much harm could have been prevented if local expertise and ideas were included in the design of these two projects. For instance, only herder communities themselves understand how land is used, where seasonal camps are located, and when springs freeze. The government does not track this type of information or protect customary use rights and patterns. Quite literally, the only source of this information comes from sitting down and talking with local people. For this reason, it is important for communities to be involved in mapping the ways that their livelihoods will be affected by the mines.

A meeting in Tseel soum, where communities are affected by an EBRD funded mine in Gobi-Altai

Similarly, communities want to be able to use their own measurement systems to gauge the impact of the mine on their water sources. For example, traditionally they measure a spring by how many animals it can water. They are tracking and noticing that many springs that could previously water up to 600 animals can now only support 200 or less. They want the mining companies to recognize this system of indicators, while complementing this with technical data on environmental impacts, such as testing the water for chemical pollutants.

While mediation is currently underway between the communities and the Oyu Tolgoi company through the World Bank/IFC’s complaints mechanism, it is based on the principle of “mediation without establishing fault.” The mediation process began in April 2013 but has not resulted in any discussion of possible remedies for the impacts suffered by the nomadic herder communities.

Local people in Mongolia are proposing very concrete ways to bring their expertise to bear on improving the mines and reducing impacts on local people. The government and mining companies have violated people’s human rights by excluding them from the planning process. Now, to have any hope of mitigating impacts and bringing their operations to comply with their own lender policies, they will need every bit of expertise that local people are willing to share.

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IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.

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IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.