Mine Aesthetics and OT as National Symbol

By Julian Dierkes

{This post continues a series of posts based on a visit to Oyu Tolgoi at the invitation of the company.}

I think it’s fair to say that Mongolians have had an ambivalent relationship with Oyu Tolgoi ever since Robert Friedland’s infamous 2005 “t-shirt” speech that suggested to North American investors that Mongolians would be happy with a tiny share of profits generated by the mine. Whether or not suspicions about a fair share would have arisen without those comments, these suspicions are deep-seated. Repeated announcements by MPs that the 2009 Investment Agreement or its 2015 Dubai amendment needs to be re-negotiated are partly rooted in the ambivalence many Mongolians have felt toward the project. Rio Tinto’s standoffish attitude and long-time refusal to seriously engage Mongolia as a context for its operations has heightened this ambivalence.

Yet, there would be many things about the project that some Mongolians at least would embrace. Mongolia’s economic growth in the 2010s has been fuelled by OT construction. Employment targets are consistently surpassed and Mongolians are beginning to rise within the OT managerial ranks. Omno Gobi is being transformed into a noticeably better-off region…

Taking Pride in Oyu Tolgoi

Recently, Oyu Tolgoi does seem to be making efforts to address the Mongolian public more extensively and more directly.

They have launched an #OTProud campaign that frequently showcases Mongolian OT employees and they pride they take in their jobs and in the project. It remains to be seen whether this catches with the Mongolian public.

A recent tweet by Armando Torres, Oyu Tolgoi’s current CEO, suggests a similar theme.

On site, however, signs of the important of the OT project for the Mongolian nation abound. I was delighted to see the artistic and craft care that is taken with some of the signage during a recent underground visit. Frequently, as in the examples shown here, this artistry takes symbols of the nation as a motif, the soyombo as it also appears in Mongolia’s flag shows up with particularly regularity.


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Beautiful metal craft work at 1,400m below the Gobi.

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It would be very interesting to learn how employees perceive the project and the extent to which they perceive it as something to pride in and to discuss with others who are not involved in the project. I would not be surprised, however, if the pride, camaraderie and esprit de corps carried over from the site to employees’ lives.


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More artwork underground at OT, here with distinct national pride.

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About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots @jdierkes@sciences.social and tweets @jdierkes
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