A 21st-century gold rush is taking place in Mongolia

Its huge gold reserves were only discovered after the former Soviet satellite started democratic reforms in 1990. Now, gold fever has gripped the country, with an estimated 100,000 Mongolians working as informal miners, many of them herders who have left their flocks behind. But the work of these miners is causing untold damage to the environment. Known as “ninja” miners — with their plastic gold-panning basins slung over their backs, they resemble TV’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — they do not possess the necessary mining licenses and thus operate illegally. But they produce more gold than the formal industrial mining sector, which alone contributes more than 20 percent of Mongolia’s gross domestic product. So by necessity, the government turns a blind eye to the ninja miners. .

Blue and Monkey

Gold’s Economic Allure

In the mining settlement of Uyanga in central Mongolia, deep holes honeycomb the dusty, lunar landscape as whole families dig and sift the earth, panning for gold. “If I don’t find anything, I’ll have nothing to eat,” says Dondog Tumurchudur, a herder-turned-miner. “I can’t make enough money from herding.” “I spend sleepless nights thinking about where to dig to find gold,” adds another miner named Nergui, as he examines the tiny dots of gold that represent the day’s work. “And if we don’t find any, we’re depressed, depressed enough to die.” In 2006, the national average salary was about $60 a month, yet miners can easily make three or four times that amount. Robin Grayson, founder of Eco-Minex International, an environmental and mining consultancy, wrote one of the first reports on the ninja phenomenon. “With one-sixth of the population somehow involved, [ninja mining] is an enormous cash-kick to the economy,” he says. “Otherwise, the rural areas have almost nothing.

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End Of The Free-For-All

Grayson believes the ninjas should be legalized and allocated land for small-scale mining. “The main objection is that the official gold rush has been so fast and furious that nearly all the land has been taken up with exploration licenses or is already state-protected because of wildlife considerations,” he explains. In the past, the mining area of Uyanga — about 300 miles southwest of the capital, Ulan Bator — was pretty much up for grabs, swarming with ninja miners who staked their claims wherever they pleased. But the ninjas say in the past year dozens of larger mining companies have divided up the best land, hemming the ninjas into ever smaller spaces. Nergui, who like many Mongolians goes by only one name, says the companies act with impunity against the ninjas. “Security guards watch their land at night,” he says. “If they catch us on their land, they break our pans and beat us with batons. I’ve been beaten up twice. We don’t have any laws here. There is a lot of robbery and violence, but the police say it’s our fault for being here.” .

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Herders Have ‘No Way Back’

In the mining settlement of Uyanga in central Mongolia, deep holes honeycomb the dusty, lunar landscape as whole families dig and sift the earth, panning for gold. “If I don’t find anything, I’ll have nothing to eat,” says Dondog Tumurchudur, a herder-turned-miner. “I can’t make enough money from herding.” “I spend sleepless nights thinking about where to dig to find gold,” adds another miner named Nergui, as he examines the tiny dots of gold that represent the day’s work. “And if we don’t find any, we’re depressed, depressed enough to die.” In 2006, the national average salary was about $60 a month, yet miners can easily make three or four times that amount. Robin Grayson, founder of Eco-Minex International, an environmental and mining consultancy, wrote one of the first reports on the ninja phenomenon. “With one-sixth of the population somehow involved, [ninja mining] is an enormous cash-kick to the economy,” he says. “Otherwise, the rural areas have almost nothing.

This is a card with supporting text below as a natural lead-in to additional content.

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