Mongolians Scramble For A Share Of Mining Wealth

May 23, 2012
Originally published on May 30, 2012 5:18 pm

Mongolia, the land of Genghis Khan and nomadic herders, is in the midst of a remarkable transition. Rich in coal, gold and copper, this country of fewer than 3 million people in Central Asia is riding a mineral boom that is expected to more than double its GDP within a decade. The rapid changes simultaneously excite and unnerve many Mongolians, who hope mining can help pull many out of poverty, but worry it will ravage the environment and further erode the nation's distinctive, nomadic identity.

Third of four parts

Ooarnkoyar Maikhuu spends 12 hours a day behind the wheel of a 60-ton dump truck hauling dirt from a giant, open-pit mine in the deserts of southern Mongolia. The 22-year-old single mother works at Oyu Tolgoi, which in a few years is expected to become one of the world's largest copper mines.

When she started working in the mine's cafeteria two years ago, Ooarnkoyar — Mongolians go by their first names — earned just $96 a month. Today, as a truck driver, she brings in nearly $1,400 a month, compared to the country's annual per capita GDP of about $2,500.

"I just got a loan on my salary and just bought a little plot of land," says Ooarnkoyar, whose work ensemble includes a white hard hat, gold hoop earrings and sparkly lip gloss. "When my son grows up, I want to move into Ulan Bator [Mongolia's capital] and buy an apartment, and I want my son to go to school there."

Mongolia is in the midst of a mining boom and people like Ooarnkoyar are among the prime beneficiaries. Last year, the country's economy grew by more than 17 percent, nearly twice the pace of its southern neighbor, China.

Oyu Tolgoi is scheduled to produce its first copper ore next month, and as more mines open, they're providing good jobs in the country of nearly 3 million people, where about one-third of them scrape by on $1.25 a day.

Good Training, Tough Conditions

Thousands of young Mongolians have descended on Oyu Tolgoi to improve their lives. Oyu Tolgoi — which means Turquoise Hill in Mongolian and refers to the color of copper when it's exposed to oxygen — is more than 300 miles south of Ulan Bator, but it might as well be in the middle of nowhere.

The mine camp is a self-contained city of about 14,000 people surrounded by the lunar landscape of the Gobi, where the nearest neighbors are mostly camels, goats and sheep. Weather in the area features sandstorms, tornadoes and temperatures that drop to 40 below zero in winter and soar to 135 in the summer.

The camp has two bank branches, a grocery store and a barbershop. In the evenings after work, miners play basketball outside and table tennis inside a Quonset hut.

From 7 to 9 p.m., the camp bar serves beer by the case beneath black lights. The clientele ranges from young Mongolian women just out of college to grizzled, 50-something miners from Australia.

Tseren-ochir, who says he is in his mid-30s, is a mine superintendent. He introduces himself as Augie, because it's easier for the foreigners he works with to pronounce.

He is directing workers to dig a nearly 5,000-feet-deep shaft straight down to reach the copper ore. Augie says Rio Tinto and Ivanhoe Mines, the huge foreign mining companies that are majority owners of Oyu Tolgoi, provide great on-the-job training for Mongolian workers.

Peering into the giant shaft that plunges into the earth, Augie says 18- and 19-year-old men who came to Oyu Tolgoi five or six years ago are now "international miners."

"They can operate the latest technology underground. Those guys are fantastic," Augie says.

People work long stints at Oyu Tolgoi, and Augie is no different. His current rotation is 56 days on site, 14 days back home. He says the hardest part about his work is being away from his young family.

"I've got a 5-month-old baby," he says. "I miss her so much, but there's nothing to do" about it.

Augie makes about $24,000 a year, good money in Mongolia.

Privately, though, Mongolians complain that foreign workers from Canada and Australia with similar skills make at least three times more.

The Unofficial Gold Rush

Mining provides opportunities for Mongolian workers, but it also siphons away talent from other important industries — like tourism.

"We lose at least four people a year," says Batbayar Amgalanbayar, who runs Mongolian Expeditions and Tours in Ulan Bator.

He says mining companies routinely poach his best drivers and translators. Mongolian Expeditions offers everything from horseback-riding trips to winter kite-skiing, but Batbayar says he has already had to turn away business this year because he couldn't staff some trips.

"I had to turn down jeep tours. I had to turn down canoeing tours. I had to turn down trucking tours," he says. "This is something that never happened before."

Workers in the Gobi who can't get hired by mining companies often strike out on their own. Mongolia has an estimated 70,000 illegal gold prospectors.

They're called "ninjas," a name a mining union leader says originates from the fact that they cover their mouths and heads with bandanas. Others say they earned the nickname because they carry mining pans on their backs and resemble TV's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

A ninja prospecting camp looks like a scene out of the California Gold Rush, updated for the 21st century. In one ravine deep in the desert, miners park their minivans, SUVs and jeeps along a dry river bed.

After selecting a spot with the help of metal detectors, they dig pits with shovels, pickaxes, jackhammers and power drills. They pour soil through sifters until they find pebble-sized bits of gold or, in some cases, actual nuggets.

"We're finding lots of gold," says Batbildeg, a 30-year-old miner.

Various mining teams display their hauls, pouring small, yellow rocks out of tiny, white pill bottles. They say they can sell an ounce for about $150.

Batbildeg has been mining for two to three years.

"It's quite good. Last year, I made nearly $4,000," he says. "Before that, I used to be a herder. My livestock all died out."

Getting A Piece Of Mining Boom

Another prospector, Batbold Badrakh, hovers over his mine, a 4-foot-deep pit. He served as a soldier in the 1980s when Mongolia was a Soviet satellite, but has struggled since.

"I did look for jobs, but now I'm over 40, no one is going to hire me anyway," says Batbold, who wears a gray cap and has a lined face that looks a decade older than his 42 years.

"I tried with Oyu Tolgoi, but they won't hire me," he says. "First of all, my health is not good enough for them. And I have a family. And I can't leave them for a year."

Batbold can't lift heavy objects because he has a bad back, but he can still manage to run a sifter. That seems to be enough for the three other members of his crew, and it's the only way Batbold can get a small piece of the action that is Mongolia's mining boom.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We've been in Mongolia this week, a country whose economy has grown dramatically thanks to mining. In recent years, Mongolia has been mining a fortune in copper, coal and gold, minerals that are in great demand by its neighbor to the south, China.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And as new mines open, they're providing good jobs in a country where a third of the people scrape by on just over $1 a day.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Frank Langfitt traveled to the middle of the Gobi, a region that's a mix of desert, mountains and grassland. He brings us this story from one of Mongolia's massive mining operations.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Ooarnkoyar Maikhuu spends 12 hours a day behind the wheel of a 60-ton dump truck. She hauls dirt from a giant, open pit at Oyu Tolgoi, which, in a few years, is expected to become one of the world's largest copper mines. Ooarnkoyar says, for her, the job is a great fit.

OOARNKOYAR MAIKHUU: (Through translator) I love machinery. I love technology. For example, when I was in ninth grade, when I wasn't legally old enough, I learned to drive.

LANGFITT: Ooarnkoyar is a 22-year-old single mom with a five-year-old son. She wears a white hard hat, gold hoop earrings and lip gloss that sparkles. When she started here two years ago in the mine's cafeteria, she made just $96 a month. Today, as a truck driver, Ooarnkoyar brings in close to $1,400 a month.

MAIKHUU: (Through translator) I just got a loan on my salary and bought a little plot of land. When my son is older, I want to move into Ulan Bator and buy an apartment, and I want my son to go to school there.

LANGFITT: Ooarnkoyar is one of thousands of young Mongolians who come here to improve their lives. Oyu Tolgoi - which means turquoise hill in Mongolian - is more than 300 miles south of the capital, Ulan Baton. But it might as well be in the middle of nowhere. The mine camp is a self-contained city of around 14,000, surrounded by the lunar landscape of the Gobi. The neighbors are mostly camels, goats and sheep. Weather here features sandstorms, tornadoes and temperatures that drop to 40 below in winter and soar to 135 in the summer. In the evenings after work, miners play outdoor basketball and ping-pong inside a Quonset hut.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

LANGFITT: From seven to nine, the camp bar serves beer by the case beneath black lights. The clientele ranges from young Mongolian women just out of college to grizzled, 50-something miners from Australia.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

TSEREN-OCHIR: My name is Tseren-ochir, but lots of people call me Augie.

LANGFITT: Augie is a mine superintendent. He's directing workers to dig a nearly 5,000-foot-deep shaft straight down to reach the copper ore. Oyu Tolgoi is owned by two big international mining companies, Rio Tinto and Ivanhoe. Augie says they provide great on-the-job training for Mongolian workers.

TSEREN-OCHIR: I got 18 and 19-years-old guys came here, like five, six years ago. And now, they've became just, like, international, like, miners. And they can operate, like, everything, like, the latest technology underground. And those guys are fantastic.

LANGFITT: People work long stints at Oyu Tolgoi.

TSEREN-OCHIR: Now, I'm on rotation, just 56 days here, and then 14 days back home. The difficult thing is, like, living, like, far away from your home. And now I've got, like, a five-month-old baby, OK. I just, like, miss her so much.

LANGFITT: Augie makes about $24,000 a year, good money in Mongolia. Privately, though, Mongolians complain foreign workers from Canada and Australia with similar skills make at least three times more. Mining provides opportunities for Mongolian workers, but it also siphons away talent from other important industries, like tourism.

BATBAYAR AMGALANBAYAR: We lose at least, like, four people a year.

LANGFITT: Batbayar Amgalanbayar runs Mongolian Expeditions and Tours. He says mining companies routinely poach his best drivers and translators. Mongolian Expeditions offers everything from horseback-riding trips to winter kite-skiing. Batbayar's already had to turn away business this year because he couldn't staff some trips.

AMGALANBAYAR: I had to turn down just jeep tours. Then I had to turn down canoeing tours, trucking tours. So, I mean, this is something that never happened before.

LANGFITT: Workers in the Gobi who can't hire on with mining companies often strike out on their own. Mongolia has an estimated 70,000 illegal gold prospectors. They're called ninjas, either because they carry pans on their backs and resemble the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or because they cover their mouths and heads with bandanas and look like real ninjas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY RUNNING)

LANGFITT: I've been driving through the desert for a couple of hours, and I've just come across kind of a remarkable scene, something out of a California Gold Rush. There are scores of people here in this very craggy ravine with pickaxes, shovels, drills, jackhammers - you name it. And they're digging all these holes, prospecting for gold.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL DETECTOR BEEPING)

LANGFITT: The Ninjas use metal detectors to find a good spot, and then dig away with shovels and power drills.

(SOUNDBITE OF POWER DRILL)

LANGFITT: They sift the soil and pick through the rocks to find scraps and nuggets of gold.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLD HITTING PAN)

LANGFITT: I met a 30-year-old miner named Batbildeg.

BATBILDEG: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: We're fining lots of gold, he says. Indeed, miners display their haul, pouring small, yellow rocks out of tiny, white pill bottles. And they say they can sell an ounce for about $150.

BATBILDEG: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: Batbildeg says he's been mining for two to three years. It's quite good. Last year, I made nearly $4,000, he says. Before that, I used to be a herder. My livestock all died out.

(SOUNDBITE OF PICK AX)

LANGFITT: Batbold Badrakh is hovering over his mine, a four-foot-deep pit. He wears a gray cap and a lined face that looks a decade older than his 42 years. Batbold served as a soldier when Mongolia was a Soviet satellite in the 1980s. He's struggled since.

BATBOLD BADRAKH: (Through translator) I did look for jobs, but now I'm over 40, and no one is going to hire me, anyway.

LANGFITT: Batbold has applied to work in mining companies.

BADRAKH: (Through translator) I tried with Oyu Tolgoi, but they won't hire me. First of all, my health is not good enough for them. And I have a family, and I can't leave them for a year.

LANGFITT: Batbold can't lift heavy objects because he has a bad back, but here, deep in the Gobi, he can still manage to run a sifter. That seems to be enough for the three other members of his ninja crew, and it's the only way Batbold can get a small piece of the action in Mongolia's mining boom. Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You can find this story and the rest of our series on Mongolia, including some stunning photo slideshows from NPR's John Poole, at npr.org. Tomorrow, in the final installment, Frank Langfitt visits a goat herder in Gobi whose son has taken a job in the mines.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) Young people have stopped herding animals. There's lot of employment opportunities for them in the mining business and a lot of other stuff. Therefore, I can probably say that the generation of herders is ending with me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.