Mitigating the impact of mining in Mongolia

A project coordinated by the School of Geography and the Environment, and involving multiple stakeholders in Mongolia, is helping to mitigate the impact of mining on the nomadic pastoralists of Mongolia. 

Mongolian horses and tents at dawnNomadic pastoralists of Mongolia.
Mongolia’s vast territory, ranging from the Gobi Desert in the south to the mountainous Taiga, is home to nomadic pastoralists who depend on mobile herding of Bactrian camels, yak, goat, sheep and horses to provide them with food, goods, and income. The area also supports widespread mining activities and licenses and taxes generated from these are an important source of government revenue.

But the social impact of mining is significant and can result in forced displacement and loss of income, without adequate compensation. Mining operations can also affect pastoralists’ mental and physical health and their social and spiritual well-being.

Whilst large international companies are usually held to the high environmental and social impact standards expected by donors such as the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, smaller national companies need comply only with the more basic environmental legal standards set by the Mongolian government. Companies and government departments are often unaware of how mining impacts traditional mobile communities and have little understanding about how to engage with those affected and to manage negative social impacts.

‘Mining companies may look at the land they wish to develop and consider it unused or empty,’ explains Dr Ariell Ahearn. ‘They may not be aware of pastoralists on the land, how they use it, or what it contributes to their livelihoods. They may also imagine that nomads can simply move to another area to avoid mining operations. But not all areas are suitable for herding and the presence of other groups in an area may make this impossible.’

New research by the Department of Geography and the Environment, in collaboration with Mongolian colleagues, has provided robust evidence of the social impact of mining in six rural communities in Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan. Wider engagement with a network of Mongolian human rights and civil society organisations has brought the evidence to the attention of government, mining companies, international agencies, and the public.

‘Our research enabled our partners in Mongolia to show that it is not just isolated incidents of mining activity that affect pastoralists, but that mining has a sustained impact on many groups of herders across a wide area,’ says Dr Ahearn. ‘In this way they have been able to make the case for new social standards and guidelines to inform mining operations and address negative impacts.’

The network has worked with the Mongolian Cabinet office to develop the first Social Impact Assessment guidelines (SIA), which take account of traditional mobile pastoralist forms of land use and set out routes to engagement with local herders. The guidelines were initially reviewed by the Cabinet Office, who instructed the Ministry of Environment on the 8 February 2023 to finalise the standard in the first half of the year. The goal is that social impact assessment will be undertaken by all mining companies, rather than being a voluntary exercise undertaken by only some.

The network was also instrumental in setting up a Policy Impact Working Group which is building on the research to develop new policies on compensation, resolving conflict, herder rights, and social impact obligations. A wider programme of public engagement and knowledge exchange has helped to raise awareness of the social impact of mining, and there is evidence that companies are seeking more information and making unilateral attempts to change their practice.

Ahearn adds: ‘Mitigating the social impact of mining on mobile pastoralist communities – an often-excluded group, living on state land without legal rights but with customary protections – is extremely complex. We hope that our research and engagement will help to foster trust, transparency, and cooperation between mining stakeholders in Mongolia, and contribute to efforts to protect pastoralists’ way of life, maintain social cohesion, and ensure inclusive and sustainable economic development.’

Dr Ariell Ahearn is Departmental Lecturer in Human Geography in the School of Geography and the Environment

Key partners
Bayarsaikhan Namsrai, Director of Steps without Borders, Mongolia
Munkhtseren Sharav, Head of the Government Cabinet Working Group, Mongolia
National University of Mongolia, Department of Anthropology and Archaeology

Funders: ESRC, GCRF, Oxford Policy Engagement Network