Mongolians Seek Fortune in Gold, but at a Cost


". . . gold fever has gripped the country, with an estimated 100,000 Mongolians working as informal miners. . ."

A 21st-century gold rush is taking place in Mongolia.

Its huge gold reserves were only discovered after the former Soviet satellite started democratic reforms in 1990. Now, gold fever has gripped the country, with an estimated 100,000 Mongolians working as informal miners, many of them herders who have left their flocks behind.

The work of these miners is causing untold damage to the environment. Known as "ninja" miners, they do not possess the necessary mining licenses and thus operate illegally.

But they produce more gold than the formal industrial mining sector, which alone contributes more than 20% of Mongolia's GDP. So by necessity, the government turns a blind eye to the ninja miners.

In the mining settlement of Uyanga in central Mongolia, deep holes honeycomb the dusty landscape as whole families dig and sift the earth, panning for gold.

"If I don't find anything, I'll have nothing to eat," says Dondog Tumurchudur, a herder-turned-miner. "I can't make enough money from herding."

"I spend sleepless nights thinking about where to dig to find gold," adds another miner named Nergui, as he examines the tiny dots of gold that represent the day's work. "And if we don't find any, we're depressed, depressed enough to die."

Robin Grayson, founder of Eco-Minex International, an environmental and mining consultancy, wrote one of the first reports on the ninja phenomenon.

"With 1/6 of the population somehow involved, [ninja mining] is an enormous cash-kick to the economy," he says. "Otherwise, the rural areas have almost nothing."

Grayson believes the ninjas should be legalized and allocated land for small-scale mining.

"The main objection is that the official gold rush has been so fast and furious that nearly all the land has been taken up with exploration licenses or is already state-protected because of wildlife considerations," he explains.

In the past, the mining area of Uyanga was pretty much up for grabs, but the ninjas say in the past year dozens of larger mining companies have divided up the best land, hemming the ninjas into ever smaller spaces.

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