Closed Mines as Sites of Learning and Engagement in Japan

By Byambajav Dalaibuyan


Japan is well known for its lack of mineral resources. However, interestingly, the Japanese domestic mining industry played a crucial role in the nation’s industrialization and modernization in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. The country even exported gold, copper and other mineral products.

In September 2018, I had a scoping visit to two mine areas closed in the 1970s to explore how these mine sites are maintained as sightseeing and learning centres, as part of a research study funded by the JSPS research fellowship at Centre for Northeast Asian Studies, Tohoku University. In this photo-essay, I will introduce the sightseeing centre and community learning centre of Ashio copper mine and smelter in Tochigi prefecture.

The Ashio mine sightseeing centre

Several groups of school students were having a guided tour. I was told that they were not only students from local areas, but also students from different regions of Japan visiting the mine sightseeing centre. I used a rental car but the mine site is accessible by local train and bus.

From the centre entrance a small mine train transports visitors to the underground mine tunnel. Inside the tunnel, the history of the mine, main activities that miners did in the past, and old machines, mineral samples and products made by copper are presented in different ways.

Pre-industrial mining worker

Since the 1960s Japan opened its door to Western culture, capital and people to depart from an isolated feudal society to a modernized, industrialized society. Because artisanal and archaic methods of mining were prevalent, many mines had been closed or operated with very low productivity at the time. Western mining and mineral processing industry was far ahead. Embracing Western technologies and engineers, some mines in Japan were reopened and increased their output and productivity. Gold, silver, copper, coal and other types of minerals and metals were mined ad supplied to emerging domestic industrial centres and foreign markets.

Industrial, large scale mining worker


A video presentation of the mine’s history


A place to pray

Outside the tunnels, there were a number of historic displays of equipment, a gallery showing social history of the mine, and souvenir shop.

Mining and environmental degradation

As a source of strategic minerals and foreign exchange, mining was an important industry for the Japanese government during World War I and II. Some mines and smelters continued operations despite deleterious environmental pollution and local community opposition. By the 1970s, most mines had ceased to operate due to high domestic labour cost and depletion of good ore reserves. Importing raw mineral resources became a better alternative for processing plants and smelters.

After new exploration and large-scale industrial mining technologies introduced in the 1880s the production rate of Ashio mine increased dramatically to account for 20% the country’s copper export. Wastewater from the mine and its smelter polluted nearby rivers and killed their entire fish population. The mine’s use of timber for construction and as a source of fuel caused the widespread deforestation and barren mountains, increasing the damage from flooding. Toxic emissions from the refining operations of the mine polluted the surrounding ecosystem and nearby communities had to permanently leave their villages. Though some measures were taken by the government and company to reduce air pollution and rehabilitate the landscape toxic emissions from the smelter continued until the 1950s when a facility for collecting sulphuric acid was built. It is estimated that about 2400-3000 hectares of area was affected by toxic emissions.

Ashio was crowded by mining workers in its heyday and saw a massive population outflow when the mine was closed in 1973.

Village in toxic smoke

Rehabilitation activities

Reforesting the surrounding barren mountains has been a main focus of rehabilitation activities in Ashio. Since the 1960s, government, local communities and volunteer organizations worked hard to reforest steep mountain slopes.

“When we plant trees up in the mountains we also plant hope for the future in our hearts” Wahei Tatematsu

Grow Green Ashio, a non-profit organisation, in collaboration with Ashio town, has managed rehabilitation and public-awareness activities since 2000. It organizes a tree planting day, summer weeding day, and fall observation day to recruit volunteers and maintain their involvement. It also holds the annual Green Ashio Forum to facilitate public discussion about pollution and collective action.

Grown Green Ashio manages the government-funded Ashio Environmental Learning Centre, which aims to enable the public and young generation to learn about industrial history, environmental impacts and rehabilitation activities. The Centre runs environmental research and experience programs for school students and the general public that include learning activities at the centre and tree planting in the mountains. The centre has a mini theatre and training room, photograph exhibitions, and information sections on pollution and restoration.

Rehabilitation activities have achieved improved water quality, prevention from flooding and landslides, significant reforestation, and early signs of natural flora and sauna. However, as the centre staff said, it had been a more than half a century to finally see reforested mountainsides but it was only a half of the area suffered from the mine impacts for a century.

Ashio mine sightseeing centre and Environmental learning centre enables visitors to learn Japans industrial history and technology and environmental and social risks and impacts and provide opportunities to have hands-on experience of environmental reclamation. Their success shows the importance of government-civil society partnership and public engagement and volunteerism.

* In February 2018, a group of researchers, including me, at the Centre for Northeast Asian Studies (CNEAS) of Tohoku University discussed about exploring the life of closed and abandoned mines in Japan. We have had scoping visits to several closed mines, mainly to explore their social and sustainability dimensions. In March 2018, the group visited Kamaishi underground copper mine located in the northeastern coast of Japan. Mining of copper ore at Kamaishi ended by the early 1990s and the owner company had since maintained the mine site. The company produces bottled mineral water from the water collectors inside the mine tunnels. Professor Hiroku Takakura produced a short ethnographic film based on the visit to the mine and interviews with company personnel at the site. A research article by co-authored by the group will be published in Russian. This photo-essay includes one of two mines that I visited in September 2018.

Posted in Countryside, Education, Environment, Japan, Mining, Museums, Nalaikh | Tagged | Leave a comment

Triggers for Upheaval: Yes, But It Depends

By Mendee Jargalsaikhan

I agree with Julian on the point that Mongolia is not a violence-free state like any others, but I would make a distinction between rioting, which is a momentary violent public disturbance, and public demonstrations or mass protests.  I argue the likelihood of turning mass protests into rioting or violent civil conflict is low in the case of Mongolia.

Vulnerability to Violence – Mongolia at the Crossroad

According to the Fragile State Index, which measures the probability of a state’s vulnerability to conflict or violence (using data from the UN, WHO, WB, GINI), Mongolia ranks 130 out of 178 countries in the stable category.  Here, South Sudan ranks as the most vulnerable (1) whereas Finland is considered the least vulnerable (178).  Although Mongolia sits comfortably in the stable category, 3 out of 10 indicators begins to raise some concern of vulnerability.  The external involvement (i.e., external intervention) – 7 out of 10, uneven economic development (i.e., economic inequality) – 6.1 out of 10, and fractionalized elites – 5.5 out of 10.  Here Mongolia is at the crossroad – can easily go either way.

From the civil conflict theoretical perspective, Mongolia has some features that conducive to violent conflicts.  The proportion of young males (15-29) is significant (but not high) and social fractionalization along ethnic, religious, and social lines does exist.  It has over-populated urban centres, esp., the capital city.  The country has some history of previous violent rioting experience, for instance, the most recent is the July 1 event in 2008.

At the same time, there are some structural features that reduce the likelihood of violence.  The continental weather and Mongolian culture/lifestyle takes the frigid cold months (November to February) and short summer months (July and August) out of the rioting or protest calendars. The proportion of ethnic minority is less than 10 percent and religious true-believers are around 60 percent while many Mongolians appear to be cultural believers of respective religions rather than committed fundamentalists.  But, these positive features will not make Mongolia a violence-free, peace-loving state. If the inequality gap increases, state institutions lose their legitimacy and professionalism, elites neglect the rule of law, and the public disappointment (and grievance) rises. From these perspective, I am in total agreement with Julian and see Mongolia is at the crossroad – moving in the direction of Finland or South Sudan/Afghanistan.

Rioting – Possible

Taking the risk of being speculative, I see several potential triggers for momentary violent rioting.  The following list is neither comprehensive nor exclusive.

  • Anti-Chinese Rioting – with growing Chinese demographic presence (e.g., tourists, workers, businesses), the likelihood of sudden rioting is very possible.  If we look at the well-known symbolic politics theory of ethnic violence (Kaufman, 2006), the conditions for ethnic violence are present.  There are myths (to justify ethnic hostility toward Chinese), lingering fear(e.g., existence of Mongolians is at stake), and opportunity seekers (e.g., political leaders, ultra-nationalist groups).
  • Kazakh versus Mongolian Rioting – although the Kazakh population (3.9 percent) was well-integrated during the communist period, noticeable tensions between Kazakhs and Mongols exist. Kazakhs reside in communal clusters in Ulaanbaatar, Khovd, and Selenge and Tuv provinces while making up 75.5 percent of residents in Bayan-Ulgii province. Mongols living in Bayan-Ulgii province have been experiencing the challenges of ethnic minority while Kazakhs living in other parts of Mongolia seem to have similar feelings and grievances. Unless the government pursues policies to reduce these tensions and increase understanding among Mongols and Kazakhs, the sporadic tensions or violence are gradually building up and explode over small misfortune.
  • Mining-Related Rioting – there could be two types.
    • One is the potential small scale clash between local communities, who would eventually lose their patience over negative impacts of mining businesses. If the stress, especially the environmental and social impacts grows, and authorities fail to deliver on promises, the local community would eventually protest, that would cause momentary or sporadic violent clashes with mining company security forces as well as artisanal miners (i.e., ninja miners).
    • The other potential rioting is coal drivers in the area of Tavan Tolgoi mine. There are about 7-9 thousand drivers transporting the coal from Tavan Tolgoi mines to China.  Even though the Prime Minister and his cabinet members promised to fix the situation and improve the working environment of these drivers, nothing has been delivered.  Instead, the government is in favour of opening additional routes (Chinese port), which require thousands more drivers.  Without introducing any significant measures of controlling these drivers, the government is now increasing the chance of rioting – which could easily block the main commodity exports from Oyu Tolgoi and Tavan Tolgoi and it would take a quite time to control the crisis.
  • Sporting-Related Rioting – this is least likely category of rioting in Mongolia. However, if the current tension between wrestlers from Uvs and others continue, it can result in small scale sporting riots. It would be hard to imagine this would lead to massive violent public disturbances.

In partial agreement with Julian, I see these types of rioting could occur in Mongolia and we had past experiences (anti-Chinese in 1960s, small-scale clashes between Russian and Mongolian kids in Erdenet in 1980s, public violence between people, who defending the conscript and the police in Ulaanbaatar the late 1980s).  But, they were small in-scale and easier to contain due to the nature of the controlled society. Now, if the government fails to contain and/or design policies of preventing from these types of rioting, all would have multiple political, economic, and social impactions for Mongolia. And, the most costly, frightening scenario would be the gradual creation of the environment and culture for vicious cycles of violent conflicts and rioting.

Peaceful Mass Demonstrations and Protests

Like happening in Central and Eastern Europe, Mongolia is likely to experience massive public demonstrations against corruption in coming years – if the state could not make any significant efforts to uphold the rule of law. However, I put forward three reasons why the likelihood of turning these mass protests into violent rioting is low in Mongolia.

  1. these mass protests are organized and led by political entrepreneurs (some for true causes, some for opportunities).This requires preparation, planning, and also some back-up plans for emergencies.
  2. the police and security organizations are informed in advance and at least prepared for the worst-case scenario.
  3. all actors avoid losing the initiative to gangsters or mobs. The apparent take-over by the gang or mob would certainly impact public participation. Since December 1989, all past mass protests, except the July 1, 2008, were peaceful and controlled by organizers and contained by the police.

Just like the third wave of democratization, the majority of former socialist states has been entering into the wave of anti-corruption massive protests (e.g., Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Slovakia, Lithuania, Armenia), now Mongolia is not an exception.  But, I would believe these protests would be massive, but peaceful as happened in 1990s.

Posted in Corruption, Human Rights, Inequality, Kazakhs, Nationalism, Uncategorized, Wrestling, Younger Mongolians | Tagged | Leave a comment

Triggers of Upheaval

By Julian Dierkes

The sense of political crisis and frustration is rampant in Mongolia at the moment. But, there does not seem to be any widespread mobilization against the government, either main party, or the political system. Whether that is out of resignation and apathy, currently no movements seem on the horizon.

However, I would estimate that we will see one or several moments of social and political unrest over the next 5-10 years. I remain optimistic that democracy will prevail, but it may take a different form and the party landscape may also be transformed in the process.

Given the resignation that appears to be widespread among many Mongolians, I am assuming that any political upheavals (other than the customary but meaningless rotations in cabinet ministers) will have to be triggered by some specific event. Mongolians have taken to the streets in protest historically, most obviously in the winter of 1989-90 in the democratic revolution. Mass protests thus seem the most likely trigger for political upheaval


The current political frustration seems to inspire more passivity than action. An example of this could be the “blank ballot” movement in the 2017 presidential election. Yes, a small number of activists definitely overcame their resignation, but most of their supporters, 8% of the voters who turned out to vote, this protest was rather passive.

Frustration on its own thus seems unlikely to generate large scale protests and protests of a significant scale (let’s say 30-50,000 upwards) will be needed to bring about significant change.


What issues might frustrated Mongolians in Ulaanbaatar and other cities and towns rally around to take to the streets?

This September we are seeing significant protests related to the teachers’ strike. More typically, protests should be expected in the Spring, the traditional protest season as people come out of a long winter and Spring is in the air.

Simmering Issues: Basic Necessities

There are some simmering issues that may lead to protests without some particular event, especially those concerning basic necessities of life. Strikes might point to some such issues and these might boil over into larger protests movements especially if there is an economic crisis or downturn. Poverty or economic challenges such as changes in exchange rates, gas prices, or interest rates might also unleash protests, as could decisions by the city administration to drastically alter some aspect of traffic or service delivery, adding to the stress of life in Ulaanbaatar in the winter.

Air pollution is an issue that has brought thousands of protesters into the streets in the last several years. While it is most severe in Ulaanbaatar (Guardian article), almost all aimag centres, especially those that find themselves ringed by mountains, suffer. Protests about air pollution usually taper off in May-June, as coal is no longer burned in stoves and the skies clear. If air pollution somehow combined with a more punctuated event, that could also generate significant protests, I suspect.

Punctuated Events

The more likely trigger for mass protests would be a punctuated event, I suspect.

There are several different events that might trigger protests, I think, particularly in Ulaanbaatar.

The most likely event, in my estimation, would be linked to corruption as that is perhaps the greatest source of frustration in the electorate. As most Mongolians currently seem to suspect their entire political leadership of being in politics to serve themselves, corruption “on its own” may not be enough of a trigger. I would suspect that a specific case may be more likely to produce significant protests. Take the ₮60b case as an example. The Anti-Corruption Authority has recently announced that it would take up the investigation of the leaked recording of discussions of a price list for state offices again.

While this Transparency International tweet is focused on armed conflict, it would certainly apply to protests, etc. as well:

The most prominent target for this investigation is M Enkhbold, speaker of the Ikh Khural, former MPP party chair and failed presidential candidate. One of the aspects of corruption that I have heard most frustration expressed over is the lack of follow-through by judges and prosecutors. In the ₮60b case, large parts of the public seem prepared to believe that Enkhbold did engage in the recorded conversation and thus confirmed the plan to sell state offices, something that is anathema to the role of politics and elections as allowing the citizenry not only to make choices about the future of the country, but also expect these to be carried out with some degree of competence. Even if these allegations are difficult to tie to specific cash donations to the party or to particular appointments of individuals into offices, the plan for such sales is fundamentally undermining the democratic state and its capacity to carry out the will of the people.

Regardless of any actual charges that might result from an investigation, I could imagine an acquittal or an announcement that the investigation would be dropped to trigger protests, first on this case in particular, then around the broader issue of corruption, not limited to a specific person or party. In Enkhbold’s case in particular, the DP may ironically be interested in dragging this out as long as possible, most likely to the 2020 parliamentary election, to use against the MPP.

There could also be an actual crime linked to corruption that might trigger protests. An attack on a whistle blower, for example, or some unmasked cover-up, or a more blatant revelation of corruption through the leaking of documents like the Panama Papers.

Another event that could trigger protests could be some particularly heinous crime. Mongolians were enraged by the rape and murder of a child last year. Sadly, those crimes occur (and the death penalty that Pres Battulga proposed hastily in response is clearly ineffective in preventing such crimes, never mind that it would be an international relations disaster for Mongolia, especially with many third neighbours (other than the U.S.)), so news of a similarly terrible crime might trigger protests that would not be directed at a particularly party, but would be an outlet for long-simmering frustration.

Strong anti-Chinese sentiment among Mongolians could also motivate protests. Events that would trigger such protests could be the announcement of a major concession or sale of a Mongolian asset to Chinese interests. During Chinese Foreign Minister Wang’s August visit, there was speculation that the proposed IPO for the Tavan Tolgoi coal project might be a moment when state-owned parts of that project might be sold to a Chinese investor. No one would have been particularly surprised by such a sale, I think, but some such event might lead to protests.

The attempted abduction of V Akçay in July by Turkish security agents led to very quick mobilization of alumni of the Turkish schools demonstrating the skill and speed with which Ulaanbaatarites can mobilize. If there was some vaguely similar development involving China, the civil (or, perhaps not so civil) society reaction might be fierce. Given recent developments in Xinjiang and relations with Central Asia, imagine, for example, a scenario involving an ethnic Mongol in Inner Mongolia. Protests against Han-immigration into the IMAR and against recent decisions about language rights always remain uncorroborated (see the “Southern Mongolia Watch” by the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center), but seem to constitute a constant buzz of protest in Mongolian areas of China. Let’s say an ethnic Mongol was arrested in the IMAR in some such protest by managed to flee to Mongolia. In the past, the Mongolian does seem to have extradited individuals on request to the PRC, but if there was such a request for extradition of a Mongol who had protested in defence of Mongolian rights but might have even been branded a terrorist for his protest (as seems to be Chinese government custom involving Muslims at least), and there were any hints that the Mongolian government would comply with such a request, I do think that the Mongolian public would be quickly mobilizable.

Anti-Chinese sentiment could also determine the response to a number of different kind of events that might occur at Chinese-invested mines or factories. A mine accident involving Mongolian workers, or any kind of environmental accident might be such an event.


Currently, it does not seem like political frustration among Mongolians will lead to some kind of movement aimed at individual politicians, parties, or democracy. However, I expect some such movement(s) to occur in the medium term, triggered by some kind of event, most likely in the Spring. In a further post, I will speculate about what might happen in the event of widespread protests.

Posted in Air Pollution, Corruption, Democracy, Human Rights, Ikh Khural 2020, Inequality, Judiciary, Party Politics, Politics, Populism, Protest, Public Opinion, Security Apparatus, Social Change, Social Movements, Younger Mongolians | Tagged | Leave a comment

Changes in Northeast Asia – What Impact on Mongolia

New publication:

Julian Dierkes and Mendee Jargalsaikhan. 2018. “Mongolia in an Emerging Northeast Asian Region“, Mongolian Journal of International Affairs, 20: 91-100.

Posted in China, Foreign Policy, Japan, Julian Dierkes, Mendee Jargalsaikhan, Mongolia and ..., North Korea, Publications, Research on Mongolia, Russia, SCO, South Korea, Ulaanbaatar Dialogue | Leave a comment

Reducing Garbage by Re-establishing Bowl Use

By Julian Dierkes

In recent workshops we asked participants to list the most pressing policy challenges that Mongolia faced. A relatively small number of problems were listed repeatedly, by participants based in Ulaanbaatar as well as those from other aimags. Among those, unemployment was prominent. But, another topic that was mentioned everywhere was garbage.

Sadly, garbage is everywhere in Mongolia. Outside of the city, this is in part because of the wide-open landscape, meaning that once garbage “gets loose” it is distributed across the landscape.

There have been some successes, for example the availability of garbage cans in towns and cities, a price on plastic shopping bags (or their outright ban, coming to Ulaanbaatar), and legislation restricting smoking with has had the side effect of reducing the number of cigarette butts.

But Mongolians still perceive garbage to be a blight on their country, whether it is litter, that is carelessly thrown away items of garbage, or landfills that contain garbage inadequately.

There are some policy options that present themselves. Most of these might focus on some kind of deposit system for glass and plastic containers at least.

But, recycling facilities are missing and the recycling business has proven challenging in many countries. In the long-term, the aim thus would have to be to reduce garbage in the first place.

For Mongolia, one might hope that traditional nomadic life might offer some inspiration and some culturally appropriate solutions here.

At certain times of the year, it is common to see nomads on the move in the countryside.

It doesn’t have to be a yak cart or Porta on moving day in #Mongolia.

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The entirety of a household fits onto a vehicle here. The sparsity of possessions is caused to some extent by “poverty” of herders moving from a subsistence livelihood to a cash economy, but it is also dictated by the requirements of periodic moves.

The sparsity of possessions means that there are many multipurpose items, and that household items have been reduced to their greatest need.

The Milk Bowl as an Example of a Reusable Tool

I would not be surprised at all if some campaign has already focused on the milk bowl. After all, it seems an obvious symbol of a focus on reusing tools.

Wonderful August trip to #Mongolia lingering in bowl of #aruul.

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The milk bowl has significant cultural meaning. It plays a role in welcoming visitors, but also in gift-giving, typically offered along with a khadak (blue silk scarf).

The milk bowl also emphasizes one of the useful aspects of the deel, Mongolia’s traditional outfit, where the chest area is used as a storage pouch for essential items like a snuff bottle, but also a milk bowl.

Today, it seems to have become a rare sight for a herder to arrive somewhere only to pull out his or her bowl to participate in a meal.

But with chain coffee having arrived in Ulaanbaatar at least, disposable cups have become more common. In development workshops and other professional settings, cases of 0.5l bottles of drinking water are typically offered to participants.

This strikes me as an opportunity for a campaign that reminds Mongolians of their previous habit of brining a vessel along with them. Perhaps a bowl is less practical in purses, but it could certainly fit in some backpacks. Or, it could be replaced by the various water and coffee bottles that are so common on North American university campuses.

While a campaign for reusable vessels will not solve Mongolia’s garbage problem, if it met with any success, it would contribute to reducing garbage.

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Nalaikh Mining Education Centre

By Mendee Jargalsaikhan and Julian Dierkes

The 25th of December 1922 was a very important date in Mongolian history. It was the day that the first government-operated coal mine at Nalaikh was re-opened. This was the birth of industrial mining, with all its ancillary industries, but also the birth of the town of Nalaikh and of the Mongolian proletariate.

The 100th anniversary of this momentous occasion should be celebrated.

We suggest that the celebration focus on the creation of a multi-disciplinary mining museum and education centre in Nalaikh! It would be a centre of excellence for sharing Mongolia’s past and current experience with mining, educating the public on the importance of mining in the country’s development, and the example of linking mining activities with community development and tourism.

Education Centre, Museum, and Historical Site

People, who worked and lived in Nalaikh during the socialist period, have lots of memories to share with new generations – to talk about the Nalaikh mine, railroad, power plant, Mongolian-Soviet military bases, glass factory, 14th transportation company, mining vocational school, military sewing company, etc.  Many may have artifacts – ranging from photos, equipment, and to all types of mementos from the socialist period.

Unless we save these artifacts before they disappear and capture oral histories, all would be gone in next 5 to 10 years.

Mining Education

Public mining education has largely been missing from Mongolia. There have been some limited projects to bring knowledge about the mining industry to specific audiences, but there has never been a large-scale effort funded by the government or the mining industry to familiarize the Mongolian public with the basis for and operations of the industry that is coming to dominate the Mongolian economy.

While a Nalaikh mining education centre would not substitute for broad public education, it could target the Ulaanbaatar-area public at least, and could serve as a think tank for the development of wider campaigns or the introduction of knowledge about mining into school curricula, for example.

There currently is no education centre that explains how mining (both industrial and artisanal) work to the Mongolian public. Except a very few curious mining students, no one might be interested in going to Nalaikh, the very first mine of Mongolia, which is within 35-40 kms from the capital city. The Mining School of the Mongolian University of Science and Technology still does not have an educational centre, where mining students run experiments, learn about the country’s mining industrial history, and discuss implications of policy failures (not having a proper mine closure plan, for example, in the Nalaikh case).

A mining education centre at Nalaikh could target different audiences. Initially, it might serve as a destination for school-aged children from around the Ulaanbaatar region. It might also attract families to visit, especially during vacation, and foreign visitors might come as well.

Then it could serve as a centre of excellence in mining education that could be involved in the drafting of materials to contribute to public education, or for inclusion in school-based teaching.

The Mongolian military is slowly taking over and maintaining the old military bases, but still do not know what to do with old Soviet planes and equipment.  There is a small, albeit growing activities, originating from Russia. For example, Russian Legend Tour company offerring tours for many, who served and lived in Mongolia, to visit Nalaikh. Successful business and political entrepreuners from Nalaikh would hopefully make commitment to re-build the memory of Nalaikh – which would narrate the history of the industrial mining and ups and downs of the Nalaikh coal mine.  If the Nalaikh mine could successfully restored its past and becomes the part of the sustainable mining (the mine still possesses 2/3 of its deposits) and tourism, it would be the most visible ones.  It is right under everybody’s nose – as the district of Ulaanbaatar.

Historical Significance

The historical accounts indicated that Nalaikh was one of the few mines, operated in Mongolia.  The Nalaikh coal mine was run by four Russian managers, 80 Chinese workers, and Mongolian horse-cart transporters. From 1915 to 1922, the mine provided coal for the capital city settlers as well as royalties to the Bogd Khaan’s treasury.  The state took over the mine in December 1922.

Mongolian socialism faced an even greater theoretical hurdle in Marx’ prediction of a succession from feudalism to capitalism to socialism. Well, there had been no capitalism to speak of in Mongolia prior to the revolution, much less than even in Russia. No capitalism = no industry = no working class. Nalaikh became as meaningful a project to the foundation of socialism as Erdenet later did to its modernization. The Nalaikh Coal Mine emerged as Mongolia’s first industrial site of any kind.

Fuelling Ulaanbaatar and a Resource Economy

But Nalaikh had other big implications. Its coal heated Ulaanbaatar and made the settlement, construction, and growth of the capital possible.  For example, in February 1939, the first power station (2500 kw) was built in Ulaanbaatar.  This resulted in building the first-ever railway (narrow-gauge) between Nalaikh and Ulaanbaatar in 1938 to deliver the coal for the first power station.

Looking back at Nalaikh coal mining today, it is also very significant as it was a milestone in the development of a resource economy. Yes, there were mining activities before then, of course, but Nalaikh was the first industrial scale mining, and thus presaged the future of Mongolia as an emerging mining economy in the 21st century.

The coal mine was further expanded in 1947 to fuel newly established light industry in Ulaanbaatar and first-ever government and residential buildings. By 1947, there were 700 employees and the annual production reached 246,200 ton. To meet growing demand for coal, the Soviet Union provided extensive assistance (169 million tugrug) to modernize the coal mine to the highest standard of that time. With the Soviet assistance, 200 Soviet specialists worked in 1954-1958 and trained over 200 Mongolian specialists in the Soviet Union between 1956 and 1966. As a result, Nalaikh became the first mechanized, underground coal mine in Mongolia.

Nalaikh Coal Still Sells High in Ulaanbaatar, 2017, by Mendee Jargalsaikhan

Many early mining engineers were first trained and employed at Nalaikh given its central status to industrialization and to Ulaanbaatar. Since all other new coal mines, especially in connection with urbanization as well as construction of provincial centres, came after Nalaikh, it is not surprising that most of local mining specialists began their careers in Nalaikh. At the same time, the mining vocational school in Nalaikh was the first and largest to meet the rising demand at the 1970s -80s for mining specialists.

Kazakhs in Nalaikh

Nalaikh demonstrated another interesting facts of Mongolian ethnic groups, especially the Kazakh minority.  The expansion and modernization of Nalaikh mine had required over 1500 miners; as a result, the government encouraged in bringing more workers Western provinces, including Bayan-Ulgii, a muslim-dominated province. As a result, Nalaikh gained a substantial muslim population, which had two separate Kazakh khoroo (sub-administrative unit) and Kazakh-secondary school.  This pattern was replicated in many later mines, including Erdenet.  All have substantial number of Kazakh workers and culturally distinct communities.

The Soviet Air Base

Later on, Nalaikh gained significance as a location for a Soviet air base following the Sino-Soviet tension in 1960s.  Nalaikh hosted the largest Soviet-Mongolian airbase, equipped with the fleet of MiG 21, supersonic inceptor-fighter jets, and several M-24 combat helocopter squadron.  The Soviet military positioned extensive radar units in surrounding Nalaikh, with a central HQ at the outskirt of the city, while Soviet-Mongolian military logistical units were hiding at several key locations.  For many Soviets, Nalaikh was one of the largest military base in Mongolia, where family members were allowed to accompany.  Therefore, two separate military-family housing town (with Soviet-style high-rise complexes), secondary school, medical facility, and shopping centres were built in Nalaikh.

Post-1990 Collapse

And, finally, in terms of its historical significance, Nalaikh has become a symbol of the post-1990 collapse of state enterprises and its most dire consequences with slumification and ninja mining.  According to the district authority, about 1,200-1,500 people (depending on the coal demand) have been engaged in artisanal mining activities while many others making their living by selling or transporting the coal.

Nalaikh Mine, 2016 by Mendee Jargalsaikhan

Nalaikh is now considered the world’s most dangerous underground coal mining site, as reported in the International Business Times.  As reported by the mining rescue unit, 198 people died from the artisanal mining activity since the state abandoned mine in 1992.  The mining rescue unit saved over 600 people during this period.  Just to take a look at the last few years statistics, the mining rescue unit responded to 16 accidents in 2014 (5 died, 35 rescued), 8 in 2015 (8 died, 23 rescued), 9 in 2016 (11 died, 13 rescued), and 17 in 2017 (5 died, 32 rescued).

Mining Rescue Unit, 2017, by Mendee Jargalsaikhan

Archival and Curatorial Opportunity

We see a number of opportunities linked to the Nalaikh site.

Building remains

There are two significant buildings that are in ruins, but remain at the coal mine site, the administrative building and part of the old processing plant. The administrative building is in significantly worse shape than the photo below suggests, however.

The remains of the factory can be seen here, and in many other photos from Nalaikh. While these buildings are in disrepair and may even be beyond repair, they do hold the promise of a site that includes original buildings.

Another interesting historical building, the Nalaikh railway station, which could be sentimental to many, including families of Soviet military personnel, who rode the train from Ulaanbaatar to Nalaikh. Whenever the weather acted badly, the train had been the most convenient transportation to the next closest station in Khonkhor, where passengers got on trains – travelling on the trans-Mongolian railway between south and north – or just going to Ulaanbaatar. The train did provide convenient travelling with several stops all throughout the capital city.  For many, this prototype socialist period railway station could easily demonstrate the history of the Mongolian railway – along with one stationary locomotive and one passenger train restaurant could bring the memory of the railroad in 1950s, 1970s and 1980s.

Nalaikh Railway Station, 2017, by Mendee Jargalsaikhan

Potential for Collaborations with Existing Mine Museums

There is a significant number of mining museums around the world that would provide examples of exhibits, curatorial and pedagogical approaches, etc. For us, based in Vancouver, the Brittania Mine Museum is closest, but there are other examples of such museums in =Australia, Europe and North America, possibly even beyond. In many locations, these museums have been built on decommissioned mines as we are proposing for Nalaikh, suggesting that this is a viable opportunity.

Community Development

Finally, we see a Nalaikh Mining Museum and Education Centre as an opportunity for community development in Nalaikh.

Planning would emphasize re-training opportunities for miners still active in the area (those with licenses, as those who may be mining illegally), offering employment in museum and tourist infrastructure that would provide a boost for the local economy.

Nalaikh could form the centre of an emerging tourism cluster built around the Chinggis statue and Terelj, requiring further infrastructure and thus also providing employment.

Requirements and Plans

There are numerous hurdles to the establishment of a Nalaikh Mining Museum and Education Centre. Obviously, many actors, from local and national officials to the local community would have to be consulted and invited to participate in the planning.

Ultimately, the Centre might hold some promise for economic development, but few of its activities would be fee-generating and the desire to educate the public about mining activities would prohibit a fee-base for the budget of the Centre. Financial contributions would thus have to be secured from local and national governments. And, we would hope that the domestic and international mining industry may be interested in supporting such a centre.

Beyond beginning to talk about this idea as we are doing here, a first step might be a feasibility study that could expand this post to include more definite plans, particularly on budget, alternative approaches, opportunities for funding and collaborations, etc. We are hoping to apply for funding from various sources to support such a feasibility study as a first step.

Posted in Education, Kazakhs, Mining, Museums, Nalaikh, Primary and Secondary Education | Tagged | Leave a comment

MNB World Interview

In August, Julian Dierkes was interviewed on MNB World by Belgutei Tumendemberel.

Posted in Air Pollution, Civil Society, Corruption, Democracy, Elections, Governance, Party Politics, Politics, Younger Mongolians | Leave a comment

Pervasive Sense of (Political) Crisis

By Julian Dierkes

During my most recent visit to Mongolia, I heard talk of political crisis everywhere. [A strong argument for visiting more often!] Not the kind of crisis that could be resolved by a change of government, although rumours of that are in the air as well – as is customary for the Fall. And also not the kind of crisis that can be resolved by constitutional change, proposals for which may well be introduced in parliamentary committees in the Fall session. No, this is perceived to be a crisis of leadership, lack of delivery on policy aspirations, and corruption.

I heard talk of this crisis among acquaintances and friends, but also in public fora and in smaller discussions. Such talk was pervasive among all, well-connected Ulaanbaatarites as well as folks in aimag centres and in the country.

This crisis could be viewed as a crisis of democracy when we think of democracy in part as an attitude, not just as the sum of rights and legally prescribed paths for participation. Much of the research on political transition (see for example H Hartmann’s “The Erosion of Democracy in Developing and Transition Countries“) is focused on legal rights and rule of law, of course, rather than on the spirit of democracy. When it comes to rights, Mongolia is still in a very fortunate situation as is demonstrated by many global indices, but it may be voters’ perception of their opportunity to make their voices heard that is declining,

Elements of Crisis

Three topics recur in most of the currents discussions of crisis:

  1. Corruption
  2. Leadership
  3. Lack of implementation of laws


At this point and as I have written before, corruption is perceived to be pervasive and intractable. Most Mongolians I speak to would say quite literally that there is no single person or group in national politics whom they don’t suspect of being corrupt. This corruption is mostly of the kind that MPs and politicians more generally are acting on their own behalf, not on behalf of the nation. This is generally linked to the prominence of businessmen (and some women) in politics, but also to the factions and particular individuals in leadership positions. Perceptions of corruption are in no way limited to one particular party or grouping, but hold for all current actors, even those who might represent a party that an interlocutor is affiliated with. The pervasiveness of corruption is also indicated by a perception of the inefficacy of anti-corruption institutions or anti-corruption claims by politicians.


At this time, both large political parties appear to be unable to reform themselves.

While factional fights had previously been somewhat contained within the MPP, they seem to be breaking out in the open more. Last year’s battle before Khurelsukh was elected as prime minister were a sign of such battles, but so is the loss of some of the energy around Khurelsukh from his initial drive for reform. Khurelsukh has been a very quiet PM for the past six months or so in my observation and appears to be somewhat resigned to resistance against any kind of change.

On the other hand of the MPP divisions is M Enhkbold. It is a rare circumstance where a political leader ran a very lacklustre presidential campaign and has been accused of the most corrosive kind of corruption (!) for two years now (the alleged pricelist for state offices associated with the ₮60b scandal), but is still clinging not only to a parliamentary seat, but to his role as speaker of parliament. The fact that allegations have been known for two years now, but that no concrete action towards an investigation that might lead to real and actionable conclusions seem likely, heightens the sense of crisis for most Mongolians and observers.

Of course, the DP is not immune to this leadership crisis in public perception. While Pres Battulga is nominally of the DP, he is perceived to be largely in politics for his own good, for his power and, allegedly, his profit. In that he is perceived as not entirely dissimilar to M Enkhbold by partisans from the opposite side.

Factions in the DP persist, but what may weigh even more heavily on Mongolians’ perception of the party is that there is no sense of the likelihood of turnover in the party’s leadership, despite the devastating defeat the long-time leadership suffered in the 2016 election. If Mongolian voters stick to their habit and decide to alternate between parties again, they will give the DP an election victory in 2020, something that seems to be assumed to be a likely outcome by many, including many in the MPP which – it needs to be noted – is currently governing with a super majority! But what would a victorious DP do in policy terms and who would lead it? Most Mongolians have no idea and very little hope in this regard.

Meanwhile, the MPRP may be regaining some credibility with a solidifying alliance between N Enkhbayar and S Ganbaatar at the (sometimes-disputed) helm of the party. But few would see the MPRP as a driver of meaningful reform or concrete policy changes.

While this leadership crisis does fuel a hunger for some kind of third and, possibly, fourth party, confidence in the chance at success for any new party appears to be low.

Lack of Implementation of Laws

The perception that Mongolia has many good laws, strategic plans, and intentions, but that few of them ever get a chance at impact through implementation has been a topic on this blog before. Many Mongolians now appear to agree with that assessment.

This agreement, of course, is devastating to any activism on specific topics. A common response to musings about reforms in particular areas is, “But will that be implemented?”. An example is the current projects aiming at a civil service reform. Yes, most would agree with the need for and even some elements in such a reform, but confidence that a reform would be a major step in combatting corruption, for example, is low.


Mongolians are in a political funk. That is obviously cause for concern in Mongolia, but also beyond in a world where democracy seems to be on the defensive.

Clearly, what appears to be a consensus on the presence of a crisis is important. The general agreement on the causes of this crisis is also important, the diagnosis appears to be agreed upon.

But, now what? Since the crisis is perceived to be one of the political leadership not being able to or willing to address challenges, many Mongolians seem disheartened and are shying away from addressing this crisis through personal or even collective action, many people seem resigned to the crisis.

Yet, this resignation must be a pool of potential support for any reform movements that might emerge, whether these might be within formal (party) politics, or outside of it, aimed at gradual reform or at more rapid change.

The formal and legal situation is such that collective action is quite possible, of course. Rights to association, protest and participation in the political process continue to be in place. Even when some people may be wary of taking action for fear repercussions from powerful actors or out of a sense of resignation, they do have the formal opportunities to organize.

[See what I did there in my optimism?]

Posted in Democracy, Governance, Ikh Khural 2020, Nationalism, Party Politics, Politics, Public Opinion, Social Media, Social Movements, Society and Culture | Tagged | Leave a comment

Inside Policy Workshops

By Julian Dierkes

This will be very familiar to Mongolian readers, but perhaps of more interest to non-Mongolian readers, or those who have not travelled in the countryside beyond tourism.

My experience comes from election observation on the one hand, and various workshops and projects on the other hand. I have thus been in Mongolia during the campaign period of the last six national elections, and have served as an election observer on election day during five of them (2008, 09, 12, 13, 17).

During election campaigns, I have visited propaganda yurts, party headquarters, election commissions, and other offices.

Elections themselves are always held in public offices, most likely kindergartens, and schools.

I have also conducted many workshops with Mongolian and international participants, typically in institutional buildings in Mongolia, including a recent series organized and funded by the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation Mongolia.

Institutional Buildings’ “Look and Feel”

There are many common elements to institutional rooms and buildings in Mongolia. Some of those have disappeared or are disappearing in Ulaanbaatar, but are still very present. Most of the buildings are of indeterminate age. Obviously, Mongolia’s climate is hard-wearing on buildings and materials are generally of somewhat low quality so that even newer buildings often look well-used.

Generally, walls of Mongolian buildings are very thick for insulation. Windows are thus deeply recessed which means that direct sunlight into rooms is also quite rare. (Scroll through photos in Instagram posts below for examples.)

To make up for the absence of direct light, almost all rooms seem to be lit by the whitest of neon lights, very often in a fan-like formation without any kind of decoration.

Floors are generally made of broad wooden panels, but they are almost inevitably covered with a roll-out layer of parquet-printed plastic of some kind. You can see these floor-coverings from governors’ offices, to schools, into families’ gers. I do not know whether such floor-coverings already existed during the socialist period. I imagine that they protect the floors, but they are also easier to maintain as they are easily swept. In gers, they also provide a level of separation from nature by providing a wooden-looking floor instead of a dirt floor.

Carpets appear surprisingly often in public rooms. Many rooms have a stage, whether that is schools or meetings rooms of administrative buildings or even hotels’ meeting rooms.

Details of institutional buildings in #Mongolia

A post shared by Julian Dierkes (@jbdierkes) on

Furniture ranges from a rough, log-cabin look, to some traditionally-decorated items.

And then, there’s always that awkward half-step on the stairs of almost all but the most recent buildings.


Posted in Architecture, Curios, Development | Tagged | 1 Comment

The Tavan Tolgoi Study: Disenfranchised Drivers

By Mendee Jargalsaikhan and Byambajav Dalaibuyan 

Who Are They? 

There are about 7000 ~ 9000 drivers – carrying out massive coal transportation from three mines, Ukhaa Khudag (known as Energy Resources LLC), State-Owned Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi, and locally-owned Tavan Tolgoi company.  They came from all across Mongolia to make their living in the harshest and least regulated work environment, as succinctly described by one of our respondents, “they are in Mongolia’s Syria.”

Only a few hundred drivers belong to the Energy Resources LLC and other properly-run transportation companies – that comply the country’s labour, health, and transportation laws, regulations, and standards.  They have annual medical check-ups, all types of insurances, and receive salary and benefits. Another hundred drivers have homes or relatives in three soums – Tsogttsetsii, Khanbogd, and Bayan-Ovoo.  The rest 6000~8000 (the number changes depending on job availability and Chinese demand) literally live and work in their trucks, except a few nights in their ger camps.

The most, nearly 99 percent, don’t own their trucks.  Without proper labour contracts and legal protections, they make their living by driving for someone, who either Chinese or Mongolian, owns trucks and exploits vulnerable, disenfranchised drivers. But they are, along with these secret owners on either side of the border, powerful enough to cause the force majeure for Oyu Tolgoi and all mines at Tavan Tolgoi by blocking or delaying the only export routes for the country’s copper and coal.

What They Do? 

Obviously, driving for 24 hours and seven days in a week.  They drive along the 270 km road between three coal mines at Tavan Tolgoi and Chinese buyers across the Sino-Mongolian border.  Although in the past, drivers used to only transport the coal directly to Chinese side, a new customs control zone, known Tsagaan Khad Customs Control Zone, was established about 20 kms from the border crossing (Gashuun Sukhait/Gants Mod Port) to unload and reload the coal.  For anyone, especially for mining companies and buyers, the extra unloading and reloading doesn’t make sense.  But, the key rationale behind the unnecessary (un)loading zone for local authorities to increase the value of the coal, but for the government officials to ameloriate drivers – who had been complaining about the long lines.  Drivers choose one of three routes:  long & long (270 kms from mines to across Chinese border), long (170 kms from mines to Tsagaan Khad customs zone), and short (20 km from Tsagaan Khad customs zone across Chinese border).  A typical task for the driver is queuing along the dusty road in the scorching Gobi climate.  The length of the wait time depends on how many trucks have been permitted to enter by the Chinese customs (average is 500-600 trucks per day).  A driver will spend 2-4 days for getting the coals from mines, 12-15 days waiting in the line to cross the border, and 3-5 days to return.

Tsagaan Khad, June 24, 2018 Photo by Byambajav

What are Problems? 

All fine laws – respecting human rights and labour rights – have not been enforced.  Local authorities, especially law enforcement, starting from traffic police, police, inspectors, and to health professionals, are overwhelmed by the number (7000 – 9000 temporary residents, plus another 1000 for providing services (e.g., delivery taxis, mechanics, ger restaurants, prostitutes).  Moreover, public servants dispatched from the government agencies (e.g., customs, borders, professional inspections, road transportation) are understaffed and, again, overwhelmed by numbers.  One can easily imagine when the police chief frustrates over the challenges of his small police detachment, with a few vehicles, handle unorganized thousands of drivers.

Congestion at the gate of a customs control area, Tsagaan Khad, Source: Apple Maps

Just like mining companies, these drivers want to maximize their gains and to minimize their expenses. In addition to paying fees for truck owners, they try not to pay insurances (health, social, driver’s), to split his pay by having alternative drivers, and even not to pay road taxes. Some look for all possible opportunities to make money – smuggling (contraband) appears to be tempting choice.  But, this increases their risks of getting into accidents, paying enormous penalties to truck owners, and being charged by either Chinese or Mongolian authorities.

According to the authorities, there were 1500 traffic accidents and 8 deaths in 2016 and another 1000 accidents and 7 deaths in 2017.  By March 20, 2018, four people died because of traffic accidents.  Causes are multiple:  low visibility for driving during the dusty days and nights, poor road maintenance & markings, inexperienced, careless, or intoxicated drivers, and, tired drivers who had been at the wheels more than 8-10 hours per day.

March 20, 2018 Photo by Byambajav

The most daunting problems, or disenfranchised labour rights – to have good work environment.  But, their basic sanitary needs have not been fulfilled.  No washrooms, showers, and rest-areas are on the Mongolian side along this 250 km route.  But, there is a well-regulated rest area on the Chinese-side, where drivers usually get refreshed.  Alcoholism, prostitution, and fighting are obvious problems among this mostly male community.  Without any effective enforcement of public laws, all three problems have been making the work environment for these drivers worse.  All doctors, local and private ones, in our interviews, highlight the prevalence of STDs among drivers and potential threat for the public health – as they become careers of different types of infectious disease.

Inside the cab of a coal truck. Truck June 24, 2018 Photo by Byambajav

How to Fix?

The most logical solution is to build the railroad as soon as possible.  But, if the current political pattern continues, it is very unlikely to see that’s happening.  This leaves us three solutions.

Keeping the Status Quo – the informal economy prevails.  Hidden Chinese and Mongolian owners of coal trucks continue benefitting from the massive, environmentally unfriendly coal transportation while paying no taxes to the government.  Frustrated, stressed drivers remain disenfranchised while risking lives of their own as well as others.  Poorly represented, powerless public servants become the victims of the blame game. One could easily imagine abandoned war zone images along the 270 km roads – trashes, salvaged vehicles, abandoned empty camp grounds.  Certainly, politicians would pay visits prior to next election cycles (2020/2021) and government dignitaries continue to have their televised stop-overs while making false promises.

Closing down the coal transportation – one might try to enforce the rules by stopping the coal transportation by informal drivers.  But, it would present devastating ‘lose-lose’ scenarios.  Groups, whose informal cash flow have interrupted, would easily assert their influence over the government.  Drivers would easily force the Oyu Tolgoi and Tavan Tolgoi mines declare another force majeure as it happened when Chinese haulers protested in January 2018.  Since Tavan Tolgoi is becoming the most important honey pot for the government and politicians, the closure of the coal transportation solution appear to be costly.  But, it happened once briefly in the past.

Enforcing the Rule of Law  – appears to be the rationale solution even though there are many would like to keep the ‘Wild Wild West’ scenario.  First, the government needs to provide more resources for the government services along the coal transportation routes.  This means it should place more human resources – police, health, customs, and professional inspections, and emergency responders.  The government agencies improve its interoperability and data-sharing.  Second, the state-owned enterprises (Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi), whether like or not, must establish and enforce contracts with transportation companies – requiring these companies – to comply labour and health standards, to maintain their own camps, and to control trucks.  A simple solution such as requiring GPS in all coal trucks could easily reduce the traffic violations and queue jumping or even the police-(bribed) escorted queue jumping. Finally, the taxation officers and labour/health/transportation inspectors should increase their inspections and auditing on these transportation companies.  This will help the informal economy shrink and hold those owners accountable, responsible for these drivers.  It will require transparency and accountability from 120 companies with international transportation licenses (C and D) for coal transportation.

Even though all understand concerns of coal miners and exporters, private and state alike, to open more routes and ports for the coal transportation from Tavan Tolgoi to China.  For example, many suggesting to open the Khangi port, which is over 400 kms from Tavan Tolgoi.  But, if the government cannot properly run and control the 270 km coal transportation route, how can one be sure that the other route would be environmentally and socially responsible one?

Unlike artisanal mining operations, which is, indeed, difficult to control and enforce laws, the coal transportation business is less complicated to control when there is a political will to rule out the corruption and to enforce the laws, regulations, and standards.

Posted in Corruption, Environment, Mining, Mining Governance, Tavan Tolgoi | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Preliminary Results of Tavan Tolgoi Study: Irresponsible State, Disenfranchised Drivers

By Mendee Jargalsaikhan & Byambajav Dalaibuyan 

The Mongolian Institute for Innovative Policies conducted a human rights assessment in areas affected by Tavan Tolgoi coal mining and transportation operations in Tsogt-Tsetsii, Bayan-Ovoo, and Khanbogd soums of Umnugobi province in March – July 2018.  The study was mandated by the National Human Rights Commission of Mongolia and funded by the United Nations Development Programme. However, violations of human rights issues have been raised by multiple stakeholders, ranging from local herders, local government, and affected drivers – to all possible levels of the government as early as 2010.  But, our study finds the situation has not been changed and it might even worsen if the government opens another route (i.e., Khangi Port) to Chinese border.

The sudden growth of the fleet of drivers with mostly Chinese-owned heavy coal trucks now caused more rights problem not only for the local community in Tsogt-Tsetsii and Khanbogd soums, but also for themselves and government officials working along the 270 km coal transportation route. Besides the failed railroad construction project, which could have reduced the need for coal transport by truck, and strong desire of mining companies to export as much as coal to China, has exacerbated irresponsible mining operations in Tavan Tolgoi. Instead of enforcing all fine laws of labour, health, environmental protection, and transportation, and relevant regulations and standards, the government has not provided sufficient resources for enforcing the rule of law. Even though parliament and government decided to take several measures – to build rest areas for drivers and to require mining companies to establish contracts with the transportation companies following visits of senior government officials – all decisions remain on paper only.

Upholding our academic neutrality to any biases, researchers found that operations of Energy Resources LLC have shown more concern for sustainable and responsible mining than the state-owned Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi and local Tavan Tolgoi companies. Energy Resources is the only business entity which follows all labour and health related legislations, regulations, and standards in regards with coal transport (e.g., insurance for drivers and vehicle, camps, and technical/safety inspections). In contrast, the other two companies have been extremely reluctant to follow standards. Since the state and state-owned entity have not been obeying the very laws of the state, this results in irresponsible, powerless state image in Tavan Tolgoi and 7000-8000 disenfranchised drivers – conducting coal transportation in most hazardous, unhealthy, and uncontrolled terrain.

Here, we would like to share a few survey results from drivers. Based on random sampling, 150 truck drivers participated in the survey, including 4 women.

What are the most challenging issues related to your work?

In your opinion, how often does any of the followings occur among drivers? (Please rate each of the following objects on a rating scale of 1-5)

Posted in Business, Environment, Erdenes Mongol, Gobi, Human Rights, Infrastructure, Mining, Mining Governance, Policy, Public Opinion, Tavan Tolgoi | Tagged , | Leave a comment


By Julian Dierkes

I have been encountering “unemployment” as a political challenge in Mongolia for many years. Most recently, in a set of six workshops on policy-making and political parties organized by the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation Mongolia for the Mongolian People’s Party youth organization (НАМЗХ) and the Trade Union Federation (МYЭХ).

[This is the first of a number of blog posts that benefited very much from conversations with Niels Hegewisch of the FES office in Mongolia, and with Mendee and Gerelt-Od.]

When we asked participants in the workshops to list the most pressing policy problems that Mongolia is facing, unemployment is inevitably named among the top 10 problems.

Unemployment is also a challenge that has been top-of-mind for voters in recent elections as I learned repeatedly in talking to campaign works for various parties, but as confirmed by surveys (presidential election 2017) as well.

But, What is Employment in a Mongolian Context?

When countryside residents or even inhabitants of the provincial capitals list unemployment as a challenge, what does that mean? Or, asked differently, what would employment be?

The frequency with which unemployment is mentioned as a challenge suggests that Mongolians have very high expectations of their government for providing employment. After all, even the most neoliberal perspective will be challenged by countryside residents living in a 2,000-person county that is battered by an extreme continental climate and the virtual absence of most kinds of infrastructure. Any kind of manufacturing or and most element of a service industry other than small-scale retail seems almost unimaginable in these contexts.

But, of course, there are many forms of recognizable employment. Even the smallest accumulation of houses will have a kiosk and some kind of basic fast food on offer. Gas stations have also become common at least in soum centres. The small retail businesses in particular are small private businesses with a lot of family involvement. They are supplied by occasional deliveries, but surely also by local herding/agricultural activities.

There are various other services such as repairs of cars, motorcycles and machinery.

Xaan Bank has branches in many small towns, sometimes at least a cash machine. More varied retail (clothing, electronics, etc.) is typically only available in aimag centres.

As the road network has been expanding, construction is clearly also a business that is very present with gravel pits along highways, construction sites, etc.

If there is manufacturing, it is well-hidden to me, but there must be small workshops for some basic countryside needs that I simply do not see. I do not think that herders have any retail needs to be herders, as they do not buy feed, fencing, or any equipment to handle animals.

That, basically, leaves the public sector, i.e. administration, schools, health.

Given the patronage nature of Mongolian politics, it is these jobs that are up for grabs and to be distributed after elections.

However, the frequent mention of employment suggests that Mongolians are either expecting different kind of jobs, or more of the kind that does exist.

Herding as Employment

In the discussions of (un)employment it is unclear to me whether herding is seen as employment. There are anecdotal reports that larger herds are increasingly managed by herders-for-hire suggesting that employment in this sector is becoming more common.

Traditionally (that is, with privatization of the national herd in the early 1990s), herders are seen as self-employed. As herding is continuing to change from a subsistence to a cash-crop/meat/wool business, the nature of that self-employment is also continuing to change.

There seem to be few (political) discussions of herding that see this as an employment sector for investment, although there are various public subsidies for and recognition of herding.

Employment in Cities

Obviously, there are many more viable forms of employment in Mongolia’s cities, including manufacturing and service enterprises. Here, unemployment takes a form that may be much more similar to unemployment in an OECD economy. And, employment initiatives would focus on a more varied type of business, as well as a different scale. Clearly, Ulaanbaatar is a large enough potential market to make a variety of businesses potentially viable, but even Darkhan and Erdenet offer some such opportunities.

(Un)employment as Cleavage for Definition of Political Parties

Curiously, despite the frequency with which voters/citizens mention unemployment as a if not the central policy challenge, political parties have not defined themselves in programmatic terms around employment. Yes, there are occasional claims from the MPP that it is a social-democratic party, just as the label “liberal” is sometimes attached to the DP, but even though these two characterizations could be treated as ends of a political spectrum of employment policies, in part elections the parties have not presented programmatically different positions on (un)employment. More typically, candidates/parties claim that they will create jobs, but not how.

Is job growth meant to come from private employment? If yes, what would these businesses be? What would the look like in cities, in provincial capitals, in towns? What role would the state play in the emergence of businesses or in the creation of jobs? Should herding be a privileged kind of employment that is supported or protected by the state? Given continued population growth, where will employment growth come from in the future?

These are questions that would lend themselves well to programmatic debates between the parties given their salience to voters, but also the pronounced differences between market-led employment policies vs. arguments for state involvement or investment.

Please, a Dissertation, Someone!

But, it’s not just Mongolian political parties that should be talking about employment more and more substantively. This would be a topic that would be a great focus for a dissertation.

What does employment mean in a Mongolian context?, could be the guiding question for ethnographic research. Is herding employment? Is employment primarily a source of income, or is it akin to a Weberian “Beruf”? What varieties of employment forms exist across different contexts? Are there any jobs that appear to offer job security?

If you are considering focusing on such topics in graduate school, let’s talk about supervision possibilities!

Bottom Line: Some Heretical Thoughts

When considering employment, I sometimes have a creeping suspicion that elements of a planned economy may actually have suited Mongolian industrialization quite well. I’m not advocating a return to a fully planned economy, but when it comes to some forms of industry, particularly in the countryside, private enterprise and entrepreneurship faces overwhelming hurdles, so it seems that an active state investment aimed at job creation, diversification of the economy, and some kind of allocation of industrial capacity may serve a good part of Mongolia’s geography and population well.

Posted in Business, Countryside, Diversification, Economics, Employment, Policy, Public Policy | Tagged | Leave a comment

New to Ulaanbaatar August 2018

By Julian Dierkes

I’ve been keeping a list of things that are arriving to/disappearing from central Ulaanbaatar: October 2017June 2017 | May 2016 | December 2015 | May 2015 | May 2014 | October 2013. More informal versions of these observations also appear in the /ulaanbaatar/change/ category.

I’ve copied the 2014-17 lists here and am adding to it. New items since previous posts appear in italics.

What has arrived?

  • sadly: Louis Vuitton, KFC, Burberry Kids, Ugg and a Porsche dealership
  • Mini, Bentley
  • child seats
  • sidewalks
  • parks
  • farmers’ markets
  • yoga
  • dogs on leashes
  • Sunday morning joggers and bikers
  • burgeoning coffee culture
  • river walkway along the Dund River (under construction in May 2015 but looking very promising)
  • city park along the Tuul
  • sports cars
  • organic shopping
  • gated communities (virtually all the new developments towards and in Zaisan)
  • wheelchair accessibility (moved from “What Will Appear” category as ministries are now (meant to be) wheelchair-accessible
  • the “#замчөлөөл” hastag, a city campaign to shame property owners about their infringement of public space. Seems – quietly – very successful when you look at many photos posted.
  • large-scale BBQ extravaganza on the banks of the Tuul river, particularly near the ASEM Road. On summer weekends, so many cars parked right on the riverside, BBQs planted right next to them, families camping out, some literally
  • Harley-Davidson (now seemingly endorsed by new PM U Khurelsukh)
  • drive-home service for drivers who have been drinking. You call the service, they drop off a driver who drives you home in your car and is then picked up again. Given – fortunately – much stricter enforcement of drunk driving laws, a great service!
  • bike lanes and bike parking, being shooed off bike lanes by riders
  • street names and signs in the city
  • fat tire bikes
  • home air filtration systems that everyone is talking about
  • Hummer stretch limousine
  • airport road is getting ever fancier, now there’s a giant overpass under construction just before crossing the Tuul on the way into town. Lots of fancy on/off-ramps popping up everywhere on roads.

What has disappeared, or at least nearly?

  • stationary 80s-office-phone-looking old-granny cell phone booth
  • for-pay scales (actually, they seem to be hanging on)
  • free WiFi on Sukhbaatar, er Chinggis Khaan, er, Sukhbaatar Square, er, Chinggis Khaan Square
  • open gullys/missing manholes
  • street kids (they seem to come and go. In summer 2017 there were very few of them again.)
  • packs of dogs
  • smoking
  • the sixth-floor souvenir shop at the State Department Store (though perhaps seasonal)
    oversized sunglasses for women that were so popular across Asia (?) some years ago
  • Nescafé (see above on coffee culture)
  • surprise at seeing bicycles
  • hillside Chinggis visible from the city centre as more tall buildings are constructed

What will appear in the future

  • navigation systems
  • mental maps shifting to street names/addresses instead of landmarks
  • new airport, apparently opening in 2018. I drove by there in summer 2017. Oh my, it far from the city!
  • subway (really, I wish they had selected light rail instead)
  • urban renewal and historical restorations embracing district north of government house (National University of Mongolia, German embassy, etc.)
  • road signs in the countryside (and not just the very random, very occasional ones that can be found now)
  • network of cross-country riding trails (though not in central Ulaanbaatar)
  • parking (meters)
  • Combined Heat and Power Plant #5 (yeah, right!)
  • hipsters discovering УАЗ (minivan and jeep)
  • Canada Goose, Arc’teryx
  • giant whole blown into Bogd Khaan mountain to “drain” polluted air out of the valley (that actually is a proposal, but it will not appear!)
  • some kind of traffic routing system with overhead displays

What will disappear in the medium-term future

I’m going out on a predictive limb here… 2-3 years is what I mean by “near future”.

Actually, since I have been predicting this as “near future” change for some years now, I guess I was wrong with all these predictions, and have changed the listing to medium-term future.

  • stray dogs
  • stretched-out hand to signal for a car ride
  • that awkward extra half-step on most stairs
  • whitening make-up.

What will disappear in the long-term future

I mean around 7 years or so. None of these seems to be coming true quite yet, so I’ve changed the name of this category from medium-term to long-term.

  • new (to Mongolia) cars that are right-hand drive
  • the neo-classical Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, with its Stalinist (if that’s an architectural style) spire [Tough call to make as the MFA building is now dwarfed by its own annex]
  • deels in the city
  • some of the downtown university campuses
  • buildings of 4 floors or less in the urban core
  • Russian minivans (УАЗ452) but see above
  • the Winter Palace. It won’t disappear entirely, but it is more-and-more surrounded by a very urban and very tall landscape making it look somewhat forelorn.
Posted in Change, Curios, Ulaanbaatar | Tagged | Leave a comment

Local Level Agreements in Mongolia: A Need for Government Leadership and Policy Clarity

By Byambajav D

Before any mineral exploration and mining can take place in Mongolia, the country’s 2006 Minerals Law requires that the host local government and license holders sign a “local level agreement” (LLA). LLAs typically include commitments and obligations that help enhance environmental protection, local content and infrastructure investments.

And yet the implementation of the law has been inconsistent, and local governments and mining companies alike have pled for clarification around LLAs’ objectives and scopes. With this in mind, the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI) and the Open Society Forum (OSF) have worked together to improve the legal frameworks for LLAs as well as improve practices on the ground. We do this in various ways: establishing the independent monitoring of LLAs via civil society organizations; presenting research-informed policy recommendations; and facilitating regional capacity building workshops for all relevant actors.

There is now growing momentum to define the core objectives and principles of LLAs. But in order to attain true clarity around this issue, the national government itself must do a better job of facilitating a national dialogue. Below, I outline the main reasons why this is necessary, and suggest how the government can take the lead in improving LLAs.

Government-issued model agreement has caused more confusion

Mongolia’s national government showed a commitment to improving the uptake of LLAs when it issued a model for LLAs in 2016­­, called the “Model Agreement on Protecting the Environment, Developing Infrastructure related to Mine Operation and Plant Construction, and Creating Jobs.” Unfortunately, this five-page document did not provide much help to either local governments or mining companies—at best, it has been used as a reference, but most actors ignore it entirely because of its narrow scope and ambiguity about the model’s legal power. In fact, participants in regional workshops have said that the model has led to more confusion than clarity.

For it to become useful, the Ministry of Mining and Heavy Industry (MMHI) should revise the model agreement and define it as a hybrid document that consists of a) a mandatory framework that defines the core elements of an LLA and b) a non-binding guidance document for potential agreement processes and content that local governments and mining companies can adjust to their respective contexts and needs.

Mining-affected communities are marginalized in the current subnational revenue sharing system

In 2015, the national government took an important step when it increased the share of mining revenues for host areas: the budget law was amended to transfer 30 percent of royalty payments of non-mega-projects and 50 percent of license fees to host provinces and districts. However, that 30 percent figure was reduced to 10 percent by the end of 2016. Worse, in 2017 the revenue-sharing scheme was suspended entirely until 2020. LLAs are perceived by local governments and communities as the main mechanism through which they gain benefits from resource projects, and such unpredictable shifts in the revenues to which they are entitled creates both confusion and frustration. To remedy this, the national government––especially the Ministry of Finance and the MMHI­­––should urgently foster clarity around its sub-national revenue sharing policy and which financial flows should be included in LLAs.

State-owned enterprises (SOEs) should play by the same rules as private companies

All license holders should obey the LLAs requirement in the Minerals Law. However, EITI Mongolia reports show that SOEs do not establish LLAs in Mongolia. (The Erdenet Mining Corporation was the only SOE to establish an LLA, for three years beginning in 2013.) The lack of transparency and accountability of SOEs needs to be remedied if the overall governance of the country`s extractive sector is to improve. Local governments and mining-affected communities are increasingly frustrated by the weak performance of SOEs on environmental and social obligations—making these enterprises comply with the LLAs requirement can help improve their relations with local communities, as well as increase their contributions to local sustainable development.

Both the national government and donor-support civil society should adopt a collaborative and scaled-up approach

Mongolia’s civil society organizations (with support from donor organizations) are most concerned about ensuring consistent and effective implementation of the legal mandate around LLAs. They have developed toolkits and sourcebooks, provided capacity building, and directly engaged in agreement-making on this subject. But the impact of these sporadic efforts has largely been localized and subject to the changing winds of local political dynamics. The national government must take the lead in helping to consolidate these efforts into a larger, national push that can make a real difference.

The way forward for LLAs

Despite the inconsistent implementation of the LLA requirement in the Minerals Law, local governments and mining companies have established at least 100 LLAs in the past decade, and there are examples of good and bad practice. The lessons learned from these LLAs can help improve the existing regulatory framework and agreement-making on the ground. The government can reaffirm its commitment to promoting LLAs by leading a national dialogue on the core principles of legal and policy frameworks for LLAs in Mongolia, collaborating with donor organizations, and facilitating multi-stakeholder deliberation.

Note: This post first appeared on the blog of the Natural Resource Governance Institute on 17 April 2018.

Posted in Governance, Mining, Mining Governance, Public Policy | Tagged | Leave a comment

Guest Post: Flooding in Mongolia

By Jangar Ts

Recent floods in Mongolia have brought about a lot of discussions. Continuous heavy rains all over the country quickly resulted in multiple floods, destroying communication lines, affecting some villages and infrastructure. In the northern part of the country, where Ulaanbaatar is located, heavy rains resulted in flooding rivers and occasional submergence of some ger district areas or basements of certain buildings by raised water table. Most of the interest, however, is continuous and heavy rains in the Gobi Desert regions, unseen for more than 3 decades.

Flooded desert

In the past, semi-arid and arid zones of the Gobi desert had small populations dispersed over a vast area. However, the development of the mining industry increased human activity in this region. Paved roads, and thus an even more extended, dense network of dirt roads, and growing soum centres and mining towns increased the possibility to be hit by disasters such as heavy rain. There were multiple reports of damage to paved roads caused by flooding road, or recent accident in Airag soum, when locomotive with several cars run off the rails, fortunately without fatalities.

Whom to blame?

Partially, floods can be explained by global warming; according to Science Magazine summer temperatures are rising higher than winter temperatures especially in Mongolia. But, no lesser than important cause is human activity. Pasture management and a dense network of the dirt roads should be carefully planned and managed. The first one is commonly known; the number of livestock grows continuously for decades. The vegetative cover is heavily grazed and the soil beneath is compacted simultaneously. Another reason is a dense network of unpaved or earth roads that acts as an extended channel, delivering substantial amount of rain-water to the nearby river or area with lower elevation causing floods. This was clearly seen from a photo of Airag Soum flood in the picture taken by Mr. Zorigt Munkhchuluun. Compacted soil hardly saturates, and when heavy rain even for the short period of time falls in area, it causes so called Hortonian overflow. Many herders, nowadays, are using cars and motorcycles; adding more roads; I even have seen nomads herding on the car!

Nature “works”

Overgrazed pastures, with dense network of roads, fire suppression that breaks natural way of vegetative growth and climate change with other multiple factors will generate disasters such as a desertification, volatile wildfire or flooding. I am not saying that flooding or other disaster is something unseen in Mongolia, these are types of abiotic disasters typical and required to sustain our ecosystem. But increase of occurrences, when every extensive rain becomes a disaster regardless of its location is evident and based on our activities.

About Jangar

Jangar Tsembel was born in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (1974). After graduation from the School of Foreign Services of the National University of Mongolia (1996), Jangar worked as an interpreter in ongoing development projects in Mongolia and since 2000 was employed in consulting companies such as PCI and CTI Engineering International, as acting resident representative of company in Mongolia until 2014. Currently he is a graduate student in the Faculty of Forestry, University of British Columbia.


Posted in Countryside, Environment, Flooding, Gobi, Grassland, Jangar Tsembel, Natural Disaster, Ulaanbaatar | Leave a comment