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Gold rush in Mongolia: when shepherds become "ninjas"

Mining and mineral production, particularly gold mining, account for more than 50 per cent of Mongolia's industrial output and more than 60 per cent of the country's export revenues. Half of the country's gold production comes from the informal mining activities of the so-called "ninjas". They are unemployed miners or traditional Mongolian herder families that have been unable to continue their semi-nomadic lifestyle due to loss of livestock caused by severe winters. The ILO and the Mongolian Employers' Federation (MONEF) assist in promoting the formalization of the informal mining sector, including safer and more productive mining activities and the elimination of child labour.

Article | 02 September 2005

KHAR KORIN, Mongolia (ILO online) - Khar Khorin is the old capital of Mongolia where Genghis Khan started building an empire. Today, it is difficult to imagine that this place was the economic and political centre of the world. But Mongolia is now the centre of a modern day gold rush that has gouged deep wounds not only into the landscape but into the lives of families caught up in its path.

Erdentugs cooks the one meal that she and her children will eat all day before going to work. Their daily income is about 2 dollars, enough for some milk to go with their tea and bread. A few days ago, she buried her eldest son who had just turned 18. "I used to have three children, but one died….When I see those miners, I think of my son", she says.

She is not sure why he died, but his heart gave out, the result, she thinks, of the hard work, poor diet and harsh weather. Her son was a "ninja" - so called for the green plastic tubs they carry on their backs that make them look like cartoon Ninja Turtles.

"Children often get up as early as 5 in the morning all year long, even in winter. They work without proper clothes, enter tunnels as deep as 12 meters without protection. They carry heavy stones, staying in cold water looking for gold", explains Sanchir, Head of the Children Centre.

Children work in hazardous conditions around mines and are exposed to mercury used to extract gold from the ore. In addition, they must live with the constant threat of disease, broken families and even violence.

Mining in Mongolia has until recently been solely confined to mining companies, which to a large extent are a mix of primarily Mongolian companies in cooperation with Russian and Korean counterparts. "Ninja gold mining" is a relatively new phenomenon. The first "ninjas" were mainly unemployed workers in the formal mining sector, who with their families were enduring severe poverty due to the collapse of the state driven mineral exploration and mining activities.

As the mining activities were to a large extent traditionally in remote mining towns, in reality there were no alternative employment possibilities. This situation, combined with the fact that former unemployed formal mining workers had some know-how about the exploration of gold and knowledge about the existence of suitable deposits, started informal mining.

Informal mining activities developed rapidly in recent years due to extreme winters. The traditional Mongolian herder families have been unable to continue their semi-nomadic lifestyle due to loss of livestock caused by heavy snowfall. Former herders have therefore gone into "ninja" gold mining, and currently form the largest group among the "ninjas" gold miners.

It is estimated that there are currently some 100,000 ninjas, which in relative terms is quite significant in Mongolia with a population of 2.7 million people. People come even from the capital Ulan Bator as they can earn five to ten times the amount they get in the city. The estimated gold production of "ninja" miners is 7.5 tons annually, which is the same level produced by all the formal mining companies combined.

The "ninjas" contribute significantly to Mongolia's Gross National Product. According to the Mongolian Minister for Social Welfare and Labour, T. Bayarsaikhan, they have also eased the country's transition to a market economy which "causes unemployment, including young people….That is why the government is drafting a law that will regulate informal mining and allow people to work on the remaining formal mining sites."

The new law (currently in draft) is an attempt to regularize informal mining. It stipulates that informal gold miners will only be able to obtain a license in groups of a minimum of two persons, which will then register with the local authorities. On the basis of the new law, informal miners will be taxable and they will have to comply with occupational safety and health rules. Furthermore, the new law, once it comes into force, will prohibit children under the age of 18 and pregnant women from employment.

The general attitude by mining companies towards "ninjas" was usually negative. However, the formal mining companies are affected by the "ninjas" in the sense that "ninjas" are exploring gold in areas where mining companies have an exploration license - where they are either exploring gold or have abandoned the areas.

"The Mongolian Employers' Federation (MONEF) has some 50 mining companies as well as the Mongolian National Mining Association (MNMA) among its members. The MONEF has therefore a natural role in creating awareness about the new law and the implications for its membership. The project has already helped to raise the problems in informal gold mining which is now receiving much more attention from national and international agencies", says Jean-François Retournard, Director of the ILO Bureau for Employers' Activities.

Project activities also focus on improving the safety and health of the informal gold miners, including knowledge on safe mercury use and first aid training. Thanks to the child labour component of the project, some of the younger children formerly working in gold mining under hazardous conditions now receive non-formal education. The older children aged 16-19 have been enrolled at a technical mining college in Erdenet where they receive professional training as solders and bulldozer drivers.