How to remember the glory days of Nalaikh

18th of 12, 2018

Operations at Nalaikh, the very first mine in Mongolia, were abandoned quite some time ago but artisanal miners now extract coal from there to sell to ger district households. There are considerable security risks in this and it is imperative to effectively close the mine. A team from The University of British Columbia studied how this can be done and two of its members, Jargalsaikhan Mendee(JM) and Julian Dierkes (JD), tell N. Ariuntuya about their ideas. Dierkes is Associate Professor, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, at the university and Mendee, Director, Mongolian Institute for Innovative Policies, is doing his Ph.D there.

You would like a museum and an educational centre to come up.  Could you elaborate on this?
JM: Nalaikh was transferred to the state on 22 December, 1922, so the date for the centennial anniversary of Mongolia’s first state-owned mine is almost here. Not just the first coal mine, Nalaikh was also our first industrial centre, and pioneered mining in the entire country.  Julian and I are proposing to establish a mining educational centre there to mark the date in 2022. I am sure the occasion would be celebrated in the usual way -- a conference and a concert at the ageing Nalaikh Cultural Centre, with state dignitaries presenting medals toveterans of the coal mine--but nobody would see any mine, as all that is left of it looks like a war ruin or a place hit by a tornado. An educational centre would be of help in commemorating Nalaikh as it was.

JD: Mining has played a major role in Mongolia’s development over the past century. And Nalaikh has been central to that history in enabling large projects like Erdenet and Oyu Tolgoi, but also in training mining engineers and workers for projects across the country. Despite its outsized impact on the Mongolian economy, there are few public commemorations of mining activities. What we are proposing is not a celebration of mining as such and in general, but instead a commemoration of Nalaikh’s role as a springboard for public mining education.

Given that the mine site is in ruins, how feasible are your plans for a mining museum and educational centre based on the mine?
JM: When you look at the ruins or watch the extent of artisanal mining activities, and consider how Mongolian politics works, feasibility is indeed a problem.  The project would be costly and would not generate much profit, so business corporations would be reluctant to invest.  The buildings are completely destroyed and 800-1,000 artisanal miners are there, so the odds do seem to be against us. 

At the same time we are certain to get support from many who see Nalaikh as their home and the mine as its centre. They will also include artisanal miners who are heartbroken and don’t want to see the mine destroyed further.  New constructions that have come up in Nalaikh, such as the Buddhist monastery, the German Mining Institute, the Chinggis Khaan statue, and several housing complexes, show that Nalaikh can move on even without mining. Mining and mining-supply companies, including those that are state-owned, may see our project as a most visible expression of their agenda for social responsibility, with a long term impact.

JD: Beyond the feasibility of construction and the opening of a museum and education centre, the long-term viability is also a concern. We are hoping to apply for funds that would allow us to conduct a feasibility study to address both questions. In terms of initial feasibility, the main concerns would be around the costs of the establishment of a museum, including land, potential compensation for current licence holders, reconstruction (if possible) of remaining buildings, and infrastructure. Long-term viability would depend more on the potential we see for a tourist cluster to come up around Nalaikh, including a mining museum.

How important would the museum be?  
JD: As far as we know, this would be the first museum and education centre devoted to mining in a country that has staked its future on it. That in it self is significant. Uninformed and thus incomplete awareness among the general public of the merits of different policy options related to mining has opened up space for populists to jump into political debates on specific projects. Educating the public could play a very important role in strengthening the democratic decision-making process in the mining industry.

JM: Once the museum is built, it would be the clearest example of how the state, mining companies, and local communities can work together to fix the failed mining policies that have led to the present mess.  Erdenet, Oyu Tolgoi, and Energy Resources are the only success stories we can think of.  Baganuur is a mess, Tavan Tolgoi a disaster, and artisanal gold mining a headache.  The educational centre would use the real life example of Nalaikh to educate the public, including students at all levels who are future policymakers, on how to reduce the negative environmental impact of mining. That Nalaikh is quite close to UB and the new airport is an advantage in attracting visitors to the place where industrial mining in Mongolia began, and which led to mine safety organizations, artisanal mining, and railroads. 

Many Kazakhs moved to Nalaikh and contributed to its development. A small section of the museum should tell that interesting story and highlight the culture of the Kazakh community.  That would help us learn from each other.   Hongorzul and I wrote about our concept of the museum and educational centre at our blog (http://blogs.ubc.ca/mongolia/)  and we would love to get your readers’ response. 

How realistic is it to have such a museum at a place where artisanal miners extract coal from around 100 tunnels using primitive technology while not following any labour and safety standards?
JM: We asked children in the kindergarten in Nalaikh to draw pictures and it was very touching to see how all their miners had a helmet and lights. People close to them work at the mine and the young minds are worried. Many of them have already been at the mine site and seen how a well-run mine has been turned into an abandoned war zone.  If we can re-create some key mine areas and make them part of the educational centre, the goodwill would spread.  The museum could  tell the story of artisanal mining. Nalaikh was the first mine and it should now tell its story and help develop the mindset to preserve the heritage and save the environment.

JD: We’re also envisioning a museum and education centre that could provide alternative livelihoods for artisanal miners. Given the dangers associated with coal mining in Nalaikh, employment associated with a museum and education centre might be attractive to many of the artisanal miners and the planning for the museum could include re-training for current miners. Their participation in the mining centre could add a pedagogically important element to the education centre as well.

There is always demand for Nalaikh coal in Ulaanbaatar because of its quality. This encourages artisanal miners and small entities to extract the coal. Is it possible to stop their activities?  
JM: I don’t know the answer, but even if politicians fail to find a good solution, we must make sure  young people do not join the unprotected workforce and instead learn to care about health and the environment. u
 We have used the Nalaikh mine for our policy workshops since 2016, where we explain how Mongolia had a mining policy in the 1950-1990 period, and none after that.  All our mining policy training sessions, workshops, and seminars should be at Nalaikh, not just because it was the first coal mine, but also because it is the first and most important example of the later policy failure.  I remember an article about our workshop was published in the August 2017 issue of The Mongolian Mining Journal.

JD: No definitive answer on this very complex issue from me either. In the long run, coal cannot be the solution to Ulaanbaatar’s energy needs, at least not at the household level. If alternative forms of energy became available to the population, demand for artisanally mined coal might also decrease.

Is there anywhere a museum on an abandoned coal mine?   
JD: There are many examples of rehabilitated mine sites around the world that include museums, exhibitions and recreational spaces. This has been an area of significant attention in the former coal districts of both Western and Eastern Germany. The Zollverein is not only a natural history, human history and mining museum, but it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site (zollverein.de). The former mine sites in Lusatia have been turned into a district of interconnected lakes for recreation (lausitzerseenland.de).

JM: There are many such museums and educational centres, because all mines experience booms and busts. In the old days mines used primitive technology and followed poor safety regulations.  When a mining company goes into bankruptcy, the community suffers.  We started looking at different examples.  For instance, Dr. Byambajav focused on the Japanese experience of turning abandoned mines into learning centres.  We are planning to reach out to Britannia Museum in British Columbia.  There are many examples of turning old mine sites into mining museums and educational centres in Australia, the UK and the US also. 

I would like to mention two individuals who have been making important efforts to preserve and teach the mining history of Nalaikh and to thank them. Ms. B Hongorzul at the Nalaikh Municipality has been most determinedly campaigning for the museum project and sharing Nalaikh mine experiences at mining workshops and was the first to think of the museum.  Ms. U Dolgorsuren, director of the 123rd Kindergarten of Nalaikh District, and created a small section where kindergarteners learn and talk about mining. These are the children whose drawings, in which all miners have safety helmets, set me thinking.  I assume many students at secondary schools of Nalaikh ask their teachers about the mine and mining.  People who knew Nalaikh in its glory days are heartbroken.  The only way to keep that past alive is to develop an educational museum and a memorial garden. 

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