By Ivan G.Somlai
A foreign company President told an investor conference about his Mongolian mining venture:
“So we're coming in from outer space, landing at Oyu Tolgoi ... and the nice thing is: there's no people around; the land is flat; there's no tropical jungle or NGOs; we're only 70 km. from the Chinese border; it doesn’t snow here; you've got lots of room for waste dumps!
Be it in Ömnögovi, Selenge, Bulgan or Bayan Ölgii, mines are often in formerly pristine, sparsely populated areas.
Notwithstanding the fallacy of that foreigner’s presumptuous logic, Oyu Tolgoi, one of many extractive ventures, did get off the ground: but contentious issues, other than geologic, have persisted. Today, this particular mine is exemplary in its corporate, multidimensional efforts, while nonetheless continuing to gingerly balance concerns that straddle sustainability, environmental conservation, and social dynamics.
Significant obstacles to the responsible and equitable development of mineral resources have included soil erosion, water pollution, and habitat degradation because of inadequate environmental regulations and lax enforcement, putting ecosystems and biodiversity at risk.
Several mines have deservedly borne the brunt of protests and legal disputes arising over the potential impact on fragile ecosystems.
As a water-stressed country, any scarcity caused by industry's high water consumption worsens challenges by competing for limited water resources with local communities and traditional herding practices, thus affecting livelihoods.
Land displacement and resettlement have led to disruptions in traditional lifestyles and loss of access to grazing lands. Mongolia’s integral herding culture, already confronting transformation due to climate change, faces threats from encroaching developments.
Concerns abound regarding inequitable wealth distribution generated by mining.
Political inefficiency and sporadic instability has struggled with the understanding and management of partnership agreements which sometimes have allowed overbearing expatriate input. Modest transparency and accountability have resulted in bribery, fraud, and mismanagement of mining revenues, hampering sustainable development and eroding public trust.
Infrastructure deficiencies –e.g. inadequate transportation networks, energy supply, and logistical challenges-- have further obstructed responsible mining practices, effective implementation and enforcement of regulations, thus hindering the development of downstream industries and limiting the value addition to raw mineral exports.
Commitment to a participatory approach that respects and protects the rights and well-being of local communities is vital.
It is hard to comprehend the complexities of extractive development from the unique perspective of monodisciplinary specialists or a central focal agency, as there are overlaps among all component systems with one another, requiring vertical and horizontal interactions.
Mitigating emergent conflicts lies not in only having subject specialists look at a particular problem, but rather, discrete specialists and sectors collectively identifying, discussing, assessing and addressing solutions to each issue; often one seemingly unrelated discipline could provide surprising insights, and an “interdisciplinary team” could multiply its creativity and response alternatives.
Every stakeholder can make a vital contribution to improved understanding of the whole and may add a unique ingredient; but no single contribution is adequate by itself. The holistic approach makes the difference!
Guest author is Ivan G.Somlai, Director of EthnoBureaucratica and Associate at the Centre for Asia Pacific Initiatives, University of Victoria