Mongolia: 'When I was herding I had a plentiful life

Date of publication: 
9 March 2015

... ‘Now I am working for another and have lost my independence’

A new report reveals the often devastating impact of big development projects on local communities. Sukhgerel Dugersuren interviewed the nomads in Mongolia being displaced by mines

In 2014 the International Accountability Project asked their global advocacy team to look at eight projects funded by the World Bank and other development banks around the world. This month they publish findings from the Philippines, Burma, Panama, Mongolia, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Cambodia in ‘Back to development: A call for what development could be’. Here we publish an extract from the Mongolia report by Sukhgerel Dugersuren, who worked for many years with the US Agency for International Development.

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. Today, there are dozens of large-scale mines with many more being planned.

I formed a research team with members of the communities being affected by two particular developments: Oyu Tolgoi mine, a US$12bn project owned and operated by Rio Tinto and funded by the World Bank among other organisations, Mongolia’s largest ever foreign direct investment, and Tayan Nuur iron mine, in south-western Mongolia, which is being financed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Together we interviewed 100 people, most of whom have spent their entire lives as nomadic herders until recently, while others were residents of the local towns or staff at the local government office.

According to the World Bank, mining has led to rapid economic growth in Mongolia. But the reality for people living near the mines is different. Pollution has had an impact on everyone, but the people who have suffered the greatest impoverishment are the 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 come along with this industry.

Resettlement programmes have already begun at both mining sites, although some of the people we interviewed were excluded from the programmes. Instead, families were displaced when their pastures were taken and their water sources became polluted. Many families have left their lands and are “going around begging pasture access from others,” in the words of one person we interviewed.

Other families moved to nearby towns but have struggled to earn a living away from their traditional nomadic lifestyle. A person relocated by the Tayan Nuur mine told us: “We used to live with our children, herding animals and benefiting from sales of wool cashmere, milk and dairies. But now we are forced to operate a small shop to survive. We had 600 to 700 animals before and a successful life, but a company with empty promises came to dig our land and cause damages that bring big emotional stress on us.”

At both mines some of the displaced families were excluded from compensation and resettlement programs. Of the people surveyed who are being displaced by the Oyu Tolgoi project, 34% said that they did not receive any compensation. With the Tayan Nuur project, 74% said they received no compensation.

The loss of pastures and water made it impossible for many nomadic herder families to earn a livelihood. One person displaced by the Oyu Tolgoi mine explained: “Without pasture we are forced to move and look for other pastures. There are no other options left.” Another said: “I was not resettled by [Oyu Tolgoi], but I am one of many who had to move without compensation, because of no water.”

Pollution also drove a number of families from their homes. One family who are 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 any more.” Another person described the costly impacts of pollution, saying: “We moved after five of our goats died of suffocation from swallowing dust from the quarries.”
mongolia mines In 2000 there were just a couple of mines in Mongolia but now the industry is booming.

Of the 100 people who we surveyed, 88% identified themselves as belonging to an indigenous community. However, neither the government nor the mines’ investors consider nomadic herders to be eligible for protection under the indigenous people’s safeguards of the development finance institutions. This lack of recognition means that project developers have not been required to carefully study and respect customary land uses in the affected areas. Much of the area impacted by the mines is being treated simply as “state land” rather than as areas where indigenous people live and have complex land management systems.

This meant that the developers of the Oyu Tolgoi mine did not recognise areas considered sacred by the affected communities. The subsequent destruction of sacred sites has caused grave cultural and psychological impacts. As one displaced person explained: “This mine has taken away our land and water, destroyed our sacred Bor-Ovoo Mountain, which has always been a mountain we worship. It has brought us many damages.” Similar complaints were made about sacred rivers and springs.

The psychological toll of the displacement has been severe. A man who was displaced by Tayan Nuur said: “When I was herding, I had a plentiful life. Now I am working for another and lost my independence, and I have no support promised by the company, not even gloves or toilet paper.”

Several of the families that we interviewed did receive some form of compensation. Both mining companies paid cash to some families and provided temporary, manual labor jobs at the project sites. People affected by the Tayan Nuur mine also reported that a few students received scholarships.

However, the vast majority of displaced people who participated in the survey (71% at Oyu Tolgoi and 82% at Tayan Nuur) reported that they received no livelihood assistance. A family that was displaced by the Tayan Nuur mine told us: “We had a 60-year land use certificate for the winter/spring camp land. The fence, animal shelter, building for canteen and storage have been valued at 20m MNT (£7,000) but the community relations officer came and voided it, claiming that the valuation was done by a non-expert, that 5 million MNT (£1,600) should be adequate.”

Among those displaced by the Oyu Tolgoi project, 50% reported that they were never consulted. For the Tayan Nuur project, 63% said they were never consulted. When asked whether they had the information necessary to make informed decisions about the project, only 2% responded positively.

On several occasions, community members approached the developers of Oyu Tolgoi and Tayan Nuur to address their grievances. In both cases, the developers were unresponsive. A woman displaced by the Tayan Nuur mine described her experience: “We lived in the mine impact zone, asking for compensation for four years. They will not let us in when we come with petitions for assistance.”

Force and coercion were also experienced during the relocation process. Some 13% reported that the project developers “used coercion and intimidation, such as saying we would not get compensation, would lose our job or experience another such consequence”. Similarly, 12% reported that “they used bulldozers, intentional flooding or explosions, or other means to scare us into moving”. Another 10% reported that “they threatened us with force and violence to scare us to move”.

Overall, the people we interviewed believe that the mines have brought more harm than benefits to their communities: 68% said that their lives have become worse or much worse. Only 17% believe their quality of life has remained the same. A few people were more optimistic: 10% believe their quality of life will improve when they are resettled, but only 2% reported that their quality of life has improved so far.

Much harm could have been prevented if local expertise and ideas were included in the design of these two projects. In Mongolia, only the herder communities themselves understand how the land is used, where seasonal camps are located, and when springs freeze. The government does not track this type of information or protect the 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 have the opportunity to map the ways that the mines will affect their livelihoods.

You can access the rest of IAP’s report here –

Sukhgerel Dugersuren is founder of OT Watch, an NGO that monitors the Oyu Tolgoi mine, and she is also part of IAP’s global advocacy team.