Mongolia’s ‘ninja’ miners skirt safety, laws to make living

SCOPE: Mongolia’s ‘ninja’ miners skirt safety, laws to make living

ULAN BATOR, April 14 Kyodo

Dangerous and sometimes illegal mom-and-pop mining in Mongolia, which is entering a gold rush similar to the Klondike days of the late 1800s, has reached the same level as approved mining by major operators, industry researchers said this week.

Nomadic families are packing up their yurts and moving en mass to the fringes of major operations to explore unattended shafts or filter through major operators’ tailings. They pull up as much gold as their big-name competitors on a nationwide average, said one academic researcher.

Unemployed or left without livestock, their traditional income source, after three harsh winters beginning in 1999, Mongolians with no mining experience are willing to risk death underground to pull up gold and sell it to local traders, who resell it to markets in China.

Researchers say the traders can get rich, while the informal miners themselves — known locally as ninjas — get by.

In some cases, sideline gold prospectors find as much gold in the tailings of Mongolian- and Russian-operated mines as the operators themselves find. In other cases, they die from shaft collapses or get into disputes with the security guards of formal operators, according to the International Labor Organization. Because of legal grey areas, some informal miners get local government mining permits while others do not.

”It’s like the Klondike situation we saw in movies,” said Zokhiolt Shurenchimeg, Mongolian national project coordinator for the ILO’s Informal Economy, Poverty and Employment Project, referring to a competitive and unregulated gold rush in the Yukon Territory of western Canada.

Mining in Mongolia took off in the 1990s.

According to a World Bank study in March, the mining sector’s gross domestic product contribution will double from $96.7 million to US$189.7 million between 2002 and 2008. These figures account for all minerals, but largely copper, gold and fluorite.

Today mining is 9 percent of the $1 billion GDP. Major operators include Ivanhoe Mines Ltd. of Canada, which joined Mitsui & Co. of Japan last month, and the Mongolian-Russian joint venture Erdenet Mines.

About 24,000 people work in informal mining, double the number of people who work for official operations, the World Bank says. Other research groups say the number of informal miners could be as high as 100,000. The nation’s total population is about 2.3 million.

As the amount of informal mining surges, the ILO is intervening to make the informal mines safer, improve living conditions and mediate conflicts among major operators, local governments and ninjas.

”You have a situation where people are flocking to the mining sites, and it’s potentially explosive,” said Sandra Yu, chief technical adviser for the ILO’s Informal Economy Initiative.

Since July last year, ILO staff have intervened in two mining areas 100 to 300 kilometers from the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator to press for schooling and hospital care for mining families as well as limited rights to mine on the fringes of major operations, where security guards try to run them off.

After an uncooperative period in 2003, the operators agreed to let ninjas use their land in the winter, when mining is toughest. Children were also allowed to enter schools near the mine sites.

This ILO pilot project has also assessed safety problems. Its archives show families crawling into unattended mining pits, which could collapse anytime, in search of gold.

The World Bank, the ILO and individuals in Mongolian say the government should strengthen laws to regulate who can mine where, to stop conflicts among miners and between the central and local governments.

Mongolian leaders should regulate mining through the central government to ensure consistency, publicize documents on the locations of mineral deposits so operators have a fair chance to secure permits, and fully privatize the land-use side of the mining sector, the World Bank says.

”The Mongolian government must control the illegal mining problems,” the bank says in its report. ”Illegal mining is taking place throughout the country on state and federal parks, unlicensed areas, and licenses belonging to others. Most illegal mining operations are completely lacking in health, safety or environmental protection programs.”

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