Mongolia is famed for its vast, open spaces, but calling it “empty” would be a misnomer. Not only does the country host a rich and largely pristine environment, but beneath the steppes and desert lie mineral riches worth an estimated $1.3 trillion, reports Eurasianet.org. A host of global mining companies want a piece of this resource prize, writes Ulaanbataar-based correspondent Pearly Jacob:
A landlocked nation of steppes and desert, Mongolia is now known mostly as a country of nomadic herders. But vast and sudden changes could be in the works for the country’s roughly 3 million inhabitants. … Some call it the “Saudi Arabia of Central Asia.” Analysts at Eurasia Capital have predicted the country’s GDP could swell from $5 billion to $30 billion by 2020, based on its mineral resources alone. The pressure on Mongolia—or “Minegolia,” as some investors call it—to develop is intense.
The country has a nascent environmental movement that is bent on protecting it from harm, and tensions are already surfacing. Jacob reports that in early September, four rifle-bearing activists fired on gold-mining equipment owned by foreign firms.
The shooters, members of the United Movement of Mongolian Rivers and Lakes, caused only minimal property damage, just a few dents in a bulldozer tread and a busted radiator. But they sent a powerful message: Puraam, a Chinese firm, and Centerra Gold, a Canadian-operated company, aren’t welcome in the area, one of Mongolia’s few forested regions.
While no one was hurt in the incident, Eurasianet points out that some conflicts are more serious, and one confrontation this year even turned fatal.
One of the accused mining-site shooters, Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, is a former herder turned conservationist and the recipient of a 2007 Goldman Environmental Prize. He could face up to five years in prison but defends his taking up arms, saying the mining companies’ actions threaten to pollute a rich forest and the headwaters of two important rivers.
He tells Jacob: “Exploiting everything is not development.”