Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – Mongolia’s herders have been roaming the steppes for centuries, moving their animals from winter grazing grounds to summer haunts, keeping their livestock – their livelihood – safe and well.
The encroachment of the modern world, such as electricity and cars, has largely made the lives of these nomads easier, but fundamentally their lifestyles and homes – the round “gers” or yurts that will often stay with a family for decades – have remained the same.
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They even use the same expanses of land for their animals each season, with unspoken agreements of who has first claim to which swath of Mongolia’s vast countryside.
But this way of life could now be under threat, as Mongolia’s mining industry begins to take its toll on traditional herding grounds.
“You can see the black holes all over the countryside now where they have just left the mines open,” said Tsolmon Khurekbaatar who, along with her husband Ganbat Batbaatar, has been herding for 25 years.
“It is getting harder – we can’t use the same lands as we used to, and the mines pollute the water and the animals get sick if we stay too close to mining sites. You can see the holes they have left all over the countryside. And there is less water now because the mines use so much.
You can see the black holes all over the countryside now where they have just left the mines open.
“We do understand how important mining is to Mongolia – but it should be more controlled, they do not look after the land properly.”
Herding is a key part of Mongolia’s existence. With very few industrial facilities for mass production of meat, the people living in Ulaanbaatar’s poorer ger districts rely on herding families for meat and animal products.
Producing cashmere – perhaps Mongolia’s most popular export – also relies on herding families to provide the fine goat wool needed to make the product.
Mining vs environment
Mining, however, is also essential to Mongolia’s survival. The industry was responsible for the country’s 2011 financial boom, when rich copper and coal deposits made it a focus for investors.
That year, mining accounted for a 17.3 percent increase in GDP, making Mongolia the fastest growing economy in the world.
The level of growth was unsustainable, however, and the government is now facing a rapidly depreciating currency, and an unstable economy.
As the government struggles with the realities of its previous financial mismanagement and looks to mining to solve its problems, the environment, and the herders’ way of life, could be put under greater threat.
“The so-called ‘long-name law’ is a law prohibiting mining in forest and river areas. That killed almost all of the gold mines,” Chuluunbat Ochirbat, vice minister for economic development told Al Jazeera.
“For the sake of the protection of the environment, we have almost killed the mining industry. That was a mistake and we have confessed this mistake.”
Environmentalist groups now fear the repeal of the “long-name law”, which is actually called the Law of the Prohibition of Mining Operations in the Headwaters of Rivers, Protected Zones of Water Reservoirs and Forested Areas, would allow mining companies to work almost unchecked in Mongolia’s countryside.
“We are fighting to keep mining away from rivers and forested areas,” Tserenkhand Yadambaatar, head of the Angir Nuden Mundookehei environmental group, told Al Jazeera.
“The government wants to get rid of the law that stops this from happening – it will have a devastating impact on Mongolia and on the environment. There are already problems because companies do not reconstruct sites properly after they have finished mining and they just leave open holes in the ground.
Herding is Mongolia, it is how the country survives. I worry about the future.
“We want the laws to be properly enforced to protect Mongolia.”
Mining sites have been highlighted as responsible for increasing air and noise pollution, but the infrastructure needed to reach mines, such as roads through the countryside, also adds to pollution issues.
‘Herding is Mongolia’
As more well known, international mining companies invest in Mongolia’s copper and coal deposits, reconstruction of areas has started to be more common, although it is far from universal.
“I can understand the angst on the part of the herders and the part of society and much of it is actually warranted because a lot of fly-by-night miners and operators have come in and dug the earth and walked away – [it] has led to this so it is not a surprise,” Arshad Sayed, president of the Peabody Group for Mongolia and India, which recently reconstructed a mine to show the government mining best practices, told Al Jazeera.
“The policy makers here are genuinely deeply concerned about this but there is also an understanding of the constraints of technical knowledge of resources. Another possible way to deal with it is to make sure you have companies that are well known and they have to do these things.
“I think there is a hunger [to improve environmental policies]. A desire for it.”
This desire for change in the mining industry could be the only hope on the horizon for herder families trying to continue the way of life that is often synonymous with Mongolia.
“I cannot imagine Mongolia without herding,” Ganbat told Al Jazeera. “Herding is Mongolia, it is how the country survives. I worry about the future, of course, the land is less green than it was and the mines bring trucks and noise, but herding will carry on.
“I will be a herder until I die, and so will my son.”
Follow Philippa H Stewart on Twitter: @Flip_Stewart