Protect Mongolian Rivers from Mining!

Eugene Simonov

Guest Blog by Eugene Simonov, Coordinator, Rivers without Boundaries International Coalition

The Mongolian Law “to prohibit mineral exploration and mining operations at headwaters of rivers, water protection zones and forested areas” – known by the population as the “Law with Long Name” – was drafted and promoted by representatives of local communities severely affected by gold mining. This unique legislation is now threatened by amendments proposed by the Ministry of Mining and many defenders of the law have been jailed.

Mining threatens to destroy Mongolia's rivers
Mining threatens to destroy Mongolia's rivers

Mongolia faces rapid industrialization fueled by foreign investment in mineral extraction. This threatens Mongolia’s pristine environment and nomadic traditions. One of the activists trying to prevent the destruction of Mongolian nature is Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, founder of the United Movements for Mongolian Rivers and Lakes (UMMRL). In 2007 Munkhbayar was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for having successfully pressured 35 of 37 mining operations working in Mongolia's Onggi River Basin. However, new companies have received new licenses to develop the same protected areas. Soon it became obvious to river activists that they cannot win all local battles against destruction unless special national legislation is passed to protect the most vulnerable areas. 

Tsetsegee Munkhbayar meeting with displaced Onggi River people
Photo Credit: Goldman Prize

The Law with Long Name was designed to protect up to 25% of Mongolian natural ecosystems from destruction by mining, which are essential safeguards as the country undergoes a mining boom. Legislation protects the most vulnerable areas associated with water resources. The Law also aims to reduce conflict between miners and indigenous communities of herders.

The Parliament was slow to review the draft and the law was on the brink of being scrapped, but UMMRL organized a hunger strike in front of the Parliament House which triggered the law's adoption in July 2009. Then the UMMRL cooperated with the government and helped to delineate actual protection zones and negotiate them with local populations.
The Law was adopted but not implemented because of government inefficiency and huge opposition by international mining companies and foreign diplomacy. Clashes between herder communities and mining companies continued. In May 2011 to demand law implementation, UMMRL organized an occupation of the Ulan Baatar Central Square by nomadic camp (see Wake up, Mongolians!). In October 2011 the Supreme Court heard the case “Mukhbayar vs. Government of Mongolia” and ordered the government to enforce a ban on mining in river and forest areas. After that the government finally started real implementation of the law. The first batch of licenses were revoked, protection zones approved, environmental damage from mining evaluated, etc. The law became the “greatest achievement of the Mongolian government in environmental protection” as reported by Mongolian officials in many international meetings.
However, by summer 2013 the Government undertook several unwise decisions that made foreign investments decrease causing Mongolia’s annual economic growth to fall from 17 to 11%. Gold reserves also were running out. Gold miners promised to replenish the reserves if the Law with Long Name was weakened. The Government of Mongolia has proposed to change implementation rules for the law so that the old licensees in the protected areas can continue mining and prospecting. The Mongolian Parliament now has to decide whether to change the Implementation Rules for this law, and by doing so cancel protection of rivers and forest from irresponsible mining. This could immediately result in the opening of more than 1,300 sites to mining and prospective operations and lead to the drastic reduction in legally protected river valleys by more than 20,000 square kilometers. The basin of the Selenge River – a main tributary of Lake Baikal – would once again become an arena for rampant placer gold mining.
The frozen Onggi River in Mongolia
The frozen Onggi River in Mongolia
Photo Credit: Onggi River Movement
This past summer the Mongolian environmental movement submitted many requests to top officials to discuss proposed changes, but there was no reply. On the morning of September 16, 2013 before the Special session of Parliament that gathered to change the law, Munkhbayar brought a petition to the Parliament House. There he and his friends were arrested for carrying guns (which was done to demonstrate that they have a “serious cause” – a type of action that most of us do not find appropriate). Since then eight people have been detained and will likely be sentenced for “threatening public stability” and serve many years in jail. The remaining activists are being continuously harassed by police. The media received an order not to publish anything protecting the law, and government media has continuously accused the environmental movement of being unpatriotic. 
Due to clear public opposition the law has not been overturned! With your help, it can stay undamaged. Please sign the petition of the United Movements for Mongolian Rivers and Lakes (UMMRL) to the Mongolian parliament today!
Wednesday, November 20, 2013