Khuvsgul is now officially a non-mining aimag, following a decision taken by the 7th Citizens’ Representative Khural (CRK) on April 20 to bring the area south of the 50th latitude under special local protection. Earlier, in 2009 the Khural had kept apart the area north of that latitude for the aimag’s special needs for a period of 5 years, a period that was extended by 25 years in 2014.
This is the first time that a Mongolian aimag is going to annul active extraction licences, and disallow any fresh extension of exploration licences. The aimag administration says Khuvsgul would become an aimag without any mining activity once the term of the last exploration licence ends on 20 April, 2020. According to MRPAM records, as of 1 June, 2018, Khuvsgul had 35 active licences, of which 20 are for extraction and 15 for exploration. These records also show that the last exploration licence would expire on 10 April, 2021, not in 2020.
There is widespread popular support for the initiative, and other aimags are likely to follow suit. This should not come as a surprise as, since the beginning of 2018, a number of aimags have bluntly vetoed MRPAM proposals to grant exploration licences on their territory. For instance, last March the leader of the CRK of Khuvsgul refused to release 188,657.43 hectares of land in 10 soums, while the Zavkhan CRK did the same with 37 proposed areas in their 16 soums.
Something similar happened in 2015, when the suspension on grant of fresh licences was lifted. Since then TV screens and print media pages have been regularly showing aimag and soum Governors, along with CRK leaders, rejecting the concept of mining-based development of their area.
The Khuvsgul moves could be seen coming. One of the goals of the aimag’s administration’s action plan for 2016-2020 was “to become a non-mining aimag” and the aimag Governor has told MONTSAME that their decision was merely in pursuance of that goal. The Governor of Zavkhan has also said in a media interview that the aimag wants to become a non-mining region, and that “our position, accordingly, is against issuing any new licence”.
The State Policy on the Minerals Sector envisions a bigger role for locals in decisions related to mining, an idea incorporated into the Minerals Law, which makes prior local CRK approval mandatory for the grant of an exploration licence. The locals have been making good use of their veto power. There have been frequent reports of coordinated action by different authorities to put areas under local protection, and to reject MRPAM proposals. One can see that the power and the authority mandated to them has enthused locals to unite and take joint action.
Their desire to protect their land, environment and nature is absolutely right and legitimate, though it might be an exaggeration to blame mechanised mining alone for all environmental degradation. However, their championing of environmental purity looks suspect when we see that even as locals call for keeping their land virgin, refusing to allow exploration activities, they write to the MRPAM to grant permission to use the same land for artisanal mining to exploit common mineral resources. It is not just the large number of these requests that is surprising, one is also struck by the similarity of language in them. More perplexing is, of course, the strong support for activities where the miner simply disappears leaving huge holes in the ground, after working in ways that greatly degrade the nature.
There is no question of denying the locals their rights. They justify the apparent contradiction in their support for informal mining by asserting that whereas they get no benefit from the formal type, working together with artisanal miners at least helps them make some money, even when acknowledging the damage it will do to nature, something that formal mining would also do. As a Mongolian proverb says, ““Eat your own dog rather than someone else’s”.
It is true that most formal mining has not led to a better life for locals. At one time some soum CRKs said they would approve a licence if the company paid some fees to them for each hectare of the proposed area. Their argument was that since there were no direct benefits from mining, the miners could at least put something into the budget to be used productively by the CRKs.
A number of amendments were made to the Budget Law and the Human Development Fund Law in a bid to equitably resolve the issue. It was decided to allocate more funds to aimags that had more mining. The practice was to start in 2016, but the plan has had to be put on hold until the end of the IMF program, which would be in May, 2020. As the Head of MRPAM says (see his interview inside), not just privately-funded exploration but also State-sponsored geological mapping work is facing strong local resistance. Indeed, conditions have become much worse in the past three years.
There is no knowing how many other aimags will follow the lead of Khuvsgul and Zavkhan and if there indeed is a “master plan” for concerted nationwide action, but it is safe to assume that the chest-thumping “We don’t support mining” movement will gain force as the next election nears. “Development through mining” does not appeal to citizens when voting time comes – that is how much the sector’s reputation has fallen. Instead, there will be a race to show who is the most nationalist and who the most patriotic by claims to “protect” the country from the depredations of “greedy and irresponsible” mining.
If the present trend does gather force, it is possible that it will put at risk all or most ongoing extraction and exploration work. Both the extent and the intensity of the local resistance can spread at lightning speed. The whole future development of the geology and mining sector could well be at stake.
Things do not improve if Ministers and people in senior positions fill the television screen with homilies. This can only consolidate the resistance. The mining sector cannot move forward without ensuring the interests and rights of the locals.
Some more effective and meaningful communication is needed to convince the doubter that Mongolia is not in danger from mining, as 63.39% of its total territory is protected from any industrial activity, as they are specified as either forest reserves, or water basins, or having some ecological significance, or meeting local or state special needs, or marked for urban development and infrastructure purposes. No mining-related licence will be issued for these areas ever. Valid licences now cover just 6.32% of the country’s territory, and active extraction is done in 1% of the area.
That still leaves 28.95% of the total territory theoretically open for exploration and geological study. A prudent State policy should take care of national security, both ecological and economic, but if the 21 aimags and over 300 soums all turn against mining, any hope for Mongolia’s integrated development could vanish.