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The Muslim Miners of Mongolia

Five years ago I wrote a book called Treasures of the Earth, in which I developed an argument on how redefining humanity’s relationship with primary geological resources is the most elemental means of charting a pathway for environmental and social sustainability. Extracting resources can bring much pain and promise to the people who are involved...

Take in the stark vistas of Sharyn Gol in summer: cloud-painted sky with green pastures, sheep, and industrial heritage in the background. (Photo by Saleem H. Ali)

Five years ago I wrote a book called Treasures of the Earth, in which I developed an argument on how redefining humanity’s relationship with primary geological resources is the most elemental means of charting a pathway for environmental and social sustainability.

Extracting resources can bring much pain and promise to the people who are involved or impacted by the process. Nevertheless, the advent of extraction has been an essential part of the development of modern society. The allure of mineral wealth is a common human impulse shared by most global cultures and creeds. Mining rushes are moments of convergence and nowhere is this more apparent these days than Mongolia–that vast land-locked country which once sent hordes of warriors to conquer more than half of Asia. The country is booming with mining professionals from all over the world as one of the world’s largest forecasted copper mines got approval to move forward with expansion in mid-May.

Not the First Time

The history of mining in Mongolia, and the resulting migration of multiple cultures, is certainly not new. The mining town of Sharyn Gol in northern Mongolia exemplifies the convergence of cultures that mining booms can catalyze. During the 1960s, a coal rush brought Kazakh Muslim communities from the far West of the region to this remote locale nestled between rolling grasslands.

Islam and Mongolia have intersected for centuries as the great conquering Mongol nomads clashed with Muslim lands in Turkik regions further west. The progeny of these Khans built empires such as the Mughals, which headed back east to reign over South Asia for several centuries. Yet many of those intersections are now mere vestiges of occasional common words found in languages, rather than substantive cultural connections. For better or for worse, State nationalism and religious trajectories have taken dominant Islamic and Mongolian societies in different directions.

Birth of the Boom

My first visit to Mongolia was in 2002 when the country was opening up to the world.

A majority of the population at the time were living a nomadic existence and moving through the landscape with the seasons. Privatization brought a rush of investors from far and wide, including a little known American investor named James Passin, who started buying resource ventures in the country.

Through the acquisitions of his Firebird Investments, Passin was featured by Bloomberg media as “The American who Bought Mongolia.” Among Firebird’s recent acquisitions is the Sharyn Gol coal mine which has also benefited from an investment injection by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

My Mission

As part of their social engagement guidelines, the EBRD has asked for greater vigilance and mitigation measures to reduce the environmental and social impact of the Sharyn Gol mine.

In our field visit to the mine in early June 2015, as part of a research project on responsible mining in Mongolia, we observed some positive efforts at corporate engagement on community issues, although some environmental mitigation measures require better monitoring.

In addition to the massive coal pit that marks the area, there are also a range of satellite small-scale gold mines that speckle the landscape around Sharyn Gol. These mines have ecological impacts as well, which are not fully captured by the larger impact evaluations of the coal mine.

Some of the Kazakh community are also possibly involved in these mines as well as artisanal mining for alluvial gold, which is undertaken by digging deep narrow holes with minimal health and safety concerns. Our research suggested that most of the town’s residents have recognized that the alluvial gold miners are creating more of a problem than the coal mine.

The mainstreaming of artisanal and small-scale mining, including the ethnic minority communities involved, has been the subject of a multi-year research project funded by the Swiss Development Corporation. Yet the broader sustainability of the Sharyn Gol community and its Muslim miners deserves broader attention.

Surrounded by open grassland, with mountains in the distance, and elecrical wires overhead, this view of Sharyn Gol Mosque captures many signs of the key issues in the area. (Photo by Saleem H. Ali)

Impact on the People

The governor of the district, Mr. D. Amarsanaa, has been particularly progressive in showing an inclusive attitude towards the Kazakh miners. Although some respondents in our surveys expressed concern about marginalization from the mainstream, the Faith and culture of the 150 or more Kazakh families comprising around 17 percent of the town’s population of around 8000 remains strong.

A Kazakh district government official hired by the governor shared with us his family dynamics that reflect the dilemmas of modernization that Sharyn Gol is facing. Two of the Muslim official’s seven children have been sent for Islamic learning to a madrassa in Kyrgyzstan where their learning is less pluralistic than the cultural milieu that Sharyn Gol has espoused as a multi-faith community. Cultural displays of music and mirth which the Kazakhs have shared with Sharyn Gol’s residents are tempered in the household when his sons visit home once a year.

The Questions Going Forward

What the future holds for the next generation of Sharyn Gol’s residents, particularly its distinct Kazakh Muslims, will be determined by how well the diversification of the town’s economy moves forward.

Could cultural tourism of Kazakh Muslims complement the extractive economy? Would a paved road that the Kuwaiti government had agreed to fund, partly because of the Muslim heritage of the town, allow for other service sector businesses to move into the area?

Could the remediation plan for the coal mine eventually lead to a seasonal agrarian economy with wind power and other renewable arrays to supplement land use similar to what is done in other cold climates?

Perhaps Sharyn Gol could even develop vineyards of ice wine grapes similar to cold Quebec as suggested by a young Mongolian researcher, Delguun Maidar, who worked with us on this project. The Kazakh Muslims may disapprove of an alcohol industry but grape juice could just as well be sold from these vineyards!

Might Firebird Investments consider further community investments in making Sharyn Gol a “model mining town” to showcase their social performance and economic diversification for responsible investors?

All these questions must continue to be asked and debated as this town, which has endured extremes of communism and capitalism alike, plans for a more sustainable and integrated future of its diverse residents.

Acknowledgements: The research profiled in this article was undertaken as part of an Australian Aid funded research project titled “Managing the impacts of mineral development on women and men and their traditional livelihoods in Mongolia.” Research Director of the project at the University of Queensland, Australia was Dr. Isabel Cane in partnership with the Gender Research Centre for Sustainable Development in Mongolia. Further details on all the partners can be found in the report published by the project in English and Mongolian.

Read More From NG Emerging Explorer Saleem Ali


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Meet the Author

Author Photo Saleem Ali
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.