Mining fractures land and community in Mongolia

Author: Ariell Ahearn, University of Oxford

With over 1000 licenses issued across the country, a diverse range of mineral extraction operations are transforming Mongolia’s rural cultural landscape. The Gobi region is crowded with both mega mines and smaller-scale operations. The Gobi also has excellent conditions for renewable energy and is poised to be a site for significant investment in this industry. Solar and wind farms are already starting to pop up in Omnogobi and Dornogovi provinces reflecting Mongolia’s commitment to reduce its reliance on coal power under the State Policy on Energy 2015-2030.

Yet in the face of these major investments and developments, discussions of traditional mobile pastoralist land tenure rights have been muted. While the Mongolian government has some legal provisions to protect the environment, such as the 2012 Law on Environmental Impact Assessment, it lacks robust policy on resettlement and social safeguarding and adequate protections against forced eviction.

To address this regulatory gap, the ESRC-GCRF funded (2018-2021) Gobi Framework project drafted national guidelines for the Social Impact Assessment as part of a Government of Mongolia Working Group initiative. The Working Group was established in 2020 to study and develop proposals on the impact of mining, including existing practices of resettlement and compensation.

Since the mid-1990s, the crisis of land tenure rights for mobile pastoralists has been quietly unfolding across the country. Rural pastureland is state property and industrial licensing processes — for both mineral extraction and renewable energy projects like wind and solar — override herders’ traditional rights to mobile land use. The territory of Dalanjargalan county in Dornogovi province is a case in point, with two-thirds of the territory taken for mining.

Climate change impacts the Mongolian drylands in complex ways. But herder vulnerabilities also stem from political and economic policies, which include a lack of government capacity, informalisation of the economy, legal complexity and a focus on urban-based service provision and free market policies, catering to settled and urbanised livelihoods.

The rapid scaling up of open-pit mining has fractured and physically destroyed pasturelands. Mining overburden, heavy truck traffic, dust, waste and herder concerns on the availability of safe potable water make rural areas increasingly risky for the well-being of livestock.

The transformative effects of open pit mining intersect with climate change impacts, putting pressure on the delicate and variable steppe and Gobi ecosystems. The industry is only loosely regulated, and enforcement is challenging. The vast majority of mines are limited only by national laws and regulations. They are not required to abide by international standards such as the International Finance Corporation Performance Standards, as their financing is from private sources.

While mining laws in Mongolia require an Environmental Impact Assessment process, they lack attention to social impacts and international standards for resettlement of traditional mobile pastoralist herders. As herders are not considered to be Indigenous by the Mongolian government, processes of free, prior and informed consent are not a legal requirement. A regular review of human rights in Mongolia by a UN Special Rapporteur in 2019 and by the UN Human Rights Council in 2020 identified concerns regarding the negative impacts from mining projects on the rights of herders.

International resettlement and livelihood restoration standards do not feature in the Mongolian Minerals Law. Article 41 of the law makes licence holders liable to compensate for damage they cause. But companies tend to define project-affected peoples as those who have a formally registered winter camp within a fixed distance from a piece of infrastructure or license area. In some cases, registered spring camps are also included. This excludes many herders who do not have formally registered winter camps but are still legitimate occupiers based on customary land use practices and commonly held beliefs.

This overly simplified mapping practice misrepresents the dynamic mobile livelihoods of herders as fixed points occupying a small plot of land. It also leaves out many herders who may use a designated license area seasonally. By not formally accounting for loss of pastureland or other natural resources, herder livelihoods are put at risk.

Our research in the Gobi Framework project revealed that the failure to acknowledge herders outside of the narrow lens of registered winter camp households is sowing the seeds of community conflict. Conflict is frequent between displaced and non-displaced herders, with displaced herders being shunned as ‘sell-outs’ and chased away by new host communities. In many cases, the households formally designated by companies as ‘project-affected people’ were rejected and ostracised by herders from the same district. Their ability to negotiate for pasture access in other areas is limited due to this social rejection.

For project-affected people, some mining companies provide monetary compensation while others provide in-kind goods for herders who lose their winter campsites located in license areas. Amounts of compensation vary widely and arrangements are often protected by nondisclosure agreements. In other cases, herders report being threatened with forced eviction by companies.

The land dispossession facing Mongolia’s traditional mobile pastoralists and the contribution of mining-induced displacement on processes of urbanisation should be given urgent attention in this era of climate change and its consequential risks to rural livelihoods.

Ariell Ahearn is a lecturer in human geography at the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford.