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Mongolia herder on mission to tackle mining firms

08 july 2011, 14:24
The destruction of Mongolia's grasslands to access a wealth of mineral riches has sparked an anti-mining movement led by a nomadic herder who says force can be used to bring polluting firms to heel, AFP reports.

Tsetsegee Munkhbayar is the head of Fire Nation, a small group on a crusade to put an end to what they say are irresponsible mining operations in the resource-rich landlocked country that are threatening their livelihoods.

After failing to gain traction with the country's political leaders, Munkhbayar and his fellow activists reportedly took matters into their own hands and shot at equipment at a mine in the southern province of Ovorkhangai.

Now Munkhbayar -- who in 2007 gained national fame by winning the US-based Goldman Environmental Prize honouring grassroots activists for his work in cleaning up the Ongi river, one of the largest in the country -- is in jail.

"We will give the mining companies fair warning -- either they must cease their activities or incur our wrath," Munkhbayar, 44, told reporters shortly before he was detained late last month in connection with the mine incident.

"If they do not comply with our demands, then we will use our guns. We are not violent people but we will do what we need to do to stop these environmental polluters."

Munkhbayar's quest for justice began with his work on the Ongi river. It had run nearly dry due to unchecked mining activity as both local and foreign companies look to cash in on the country's mineral treasure trove.

He won the Goldman Prize after lobbying to shut down 35 of the 37 mines in the area, and has since used the $125,000 that came along with it to increase public awareness about environmental issues.

But he and his ragtag band of activist herders are finding it hard to keep up with the dizzying pace at which private mines are opening up -- and are finding their cause largely ignored in Mongolia's halls of officialdom.

In April, they charged onto the main Sukhbaatar Square in the capital Ulan Bator on horseback, calling for the government to clean up the mining sector and take more responsibility for environmental degradation.

"We wanted to speak to the president, to tell him that if he cannot do his job properly, then he should step down," Munkhbayar told AFP.

When top leaders spurned their requests for a meeting, the protesters responded Genghis Khan-style -- by shooting arrows at Government House. And then came the incident at the mine in Ovorkhangai province.

No one was injured and there was minimal damage to the equipment, but Munkhbayar is in police custody in Ulan Bator. Local media say he can be detained without charge for up to 30 days, until about July 24.

It was not the first time that Munkhbayar had resorted to violence.

In September last year, he and three other activists shot up a bulldozer at the Canadian-run Boroo gold mine in Selenge province, after the mining company refused to cease operations that he said were polluting local streams.

In China's Inner Mongolia region to the south, ethnic Mongol herders are similarly angry at what they say is rampant mining, and in May staged several days of protests over resource exploitation by powerful mining interests.

The confrontations highlight the rift between Mongolia’s traditional way of life and new economic realities in the impoverished country.

Mongolia is setting itself up to be a global name in the mining industry, thanks mostly to its vast reserves of gold, silver, coal, iron ore, uranium and oil -- and the voracious appetite for resources in neighboring China.

Plans are being laid for a vast network of paved highways, rail lines, power stations and other infrastructure that will forever change the landscape of this sparsely populated nation of 2.7 million inhabitants.

Herders are already feeling the effects of the economic boom.

Many have lost their pastures and moved to Ulan Bator, where they have joined an army of urban poor in the shantytowns circling the capital.

Others have turned to "ninja mining" -- panning for gold in the tailings left behind by bigger mining companies. Small numbers have joined Munkhbayar in his campaign to fight the mining companies.

"They are not afraid to protest," Kirk Olson, a US biologist and environmentalist working on a World Bank-sponsored project in Mongolia, told AFP.

"They are starting to realise that all this unchecked mining is impacting their livelihoods and they are standing up and saying 'enough is enough'."

Olson says that in many parts of Mongolia, mining companies have drained water resources, destroying grasslands and depriving herders of their livelihoods. He said more cooperation was needed to end the problem.

The government has attempted to slow the destruction.

Last year, it enacted a law banning mining operations near rivers and forests and suspended more than 1,700 mining licenses in these areas. But activists like Munkhbayar have said the law is not being enforced.

Some politicians have proposed setting up a fund financed in part by the mines themselves to help rehabilitate spoiled land.

"Someone has to take responsibility for all this damage and if the mining companies have not done it, then the state has to step up," lawmaker Sanjasurengiin Oyun, a geologist by education, told AFP.

Until then, activists like Munkhbayar are facing an uphill battle.

"We are a small group of simple herders fighting powerful people," said Munkhbayar.

"It’s not an easy fight but we cannot stand by idly and watch our land and way of life come to an end."

By Michael Kohn

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