Mining the Gobi: The Battle for Mongolia’s Resources

August 09 07:00 2013 Print This Article  August 07, 2013

The construction of a huge mine in the middle of the Gobi Desert was supposed to catapult Mongolia toward rapid economic growth. But an ongoing conflict over profits from the gold and copper mined there threatens to capsize the young democracy.

Mongolia is over four times the size of Germany, with nearly 3 million inhabitants and a GDP of $10 billion (€7.5 billion) in 2012.

British-Australian mining corporation Rio Tinto employs 71,000 people in more than 40 countries and is worth about $60 billion.

These two unequal partners — a poor, potentially rich nation and the second largest mining corporation in the world — have joined together to mine one of the globe’s largest deposits of copper and gold. But will they be capable of distributing this wealth fairly?

The mine in question lies an hour’s flight south of the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator, near the border with China. There is enough copper in the ground here to build the Statue of Liberty more than 800,000 times over. Once the planned mine goes into full operation, it could increase the country’s GDP by a third. It could, at least in theory, bring prosperity to this country where many people still live in simple yurts and huts.

But in practice, the transaction between this global corporation and this country that is poor but rich in raw materials looks quite different. In fact, the project serves as a prime example of what is happening in a growing number of newly industrialized and developing countries.

Here we have a weak country that needs the help of a business that is economically far more advanced to tap its own natural resources. One side has raw materials everyone wants; the other has the necessary technical expertise, as well as a great deal of money and smart lawyers. How can the inexperienced country benefit from this relationship without being taken advantage of? And how can the government of this frail democracy explain to its people that in the coming boom years, a few people will get rich very quickly, while most stay poor?

Custodians of the Mine

The conflict surrounding the Oyu Tolgoi mine, which is named for the turquoise-colored copper ore found in the Gobi Desert, began about four years ago. In order to acquire a 34 percent share in the mine’s construction, the Mongolian government had to take out a loan. This loan came from Rio Tinto, the company that operates the mine. When news of that deal emerged, people in Mongolia started asking who will ultimately get more out of the mine, Mongolia or Rio Tinto.

Geophysicist Samand Sanjdorj is the mine’s vice president, making the 67-year-old the highest ranking Mongolian on site. His office is in an air-conditioned glass building that rises out of the Gobi Desert like a blue spaceship. Every few weeks, a company jet flies him and his colleagues back and forth between the capital and the mine. Asked whose side he is on — his country’s or his company’s — Sanjdorj takes a long time to answer. Finally, he says, “I’m Mongolian first, but this mine is my baby.”

One of the men in the capital responsible for the copper mine is Chuluuntseren Otgochuluu, the 35-year-old head of the Mining Ministry’s planning department. His office is on the fifth floor of an aging Soviet building with no elevator and creaking floorboards.

‘The People Haven’t Benefited’

It isn’t far from Otgochuluu’s downtown office to the bleak hills north of the city center, where 800,000 rural refugees have settled — nearly a third of Mongolia’s population. They live in gers, a Mongolian style of yurt, and have no running water, no sewage systems and only sporadic electricity. Even in winter temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit), they go outside to reach their outhouses. And they fuel their heating stoves with anything that burns, including carpeting, tires and plastic waste. The air in Ulan Bator in winter is even more polluted than in China.

“So far, the people haven’t benefitted from the mine,” Otgochuluu says. “Our deal with Rio Tinto hasn’t been a fair one. Rio Tinto is doing great work in the desert here, but if they want to cheat us when it comes to money, then we can’t be friends.”

This is how things have gone all along. The government accuses Rio Tinto of breaking agreements and rejects the company’s future plans for financing the mine.

How this dispute ends will have a decisive impact on Mongolia. The country, whose economy has been growing faster than almost any other, is almost entirely dependent on the export of raw materials. Mongolia has things everyone wants — coal, copper, gold, uranium, rare earth minerals — and that potential wealth is reflected in the high-ranking visitors it draws. Donald Rumsfeld has been to Ulan Bator, as have Angela Merkel and several Japanese prime ministers. Beijing especially is making an effort to reach out to its northern neighbor.

One hundred percent of the materials from Oyu Tolgoi are exported to China. This July, four years after the mine’s construction began, the first flat-bed trucks set out from Oyu Tolgoi to China, each bearing 36 tons (36,000 kilos) of a brown, cement-like powder, from which copper and gold would be extracted on the other side of the border. It was a historic day, whose date had been postponed several times. Geophysicist Sanjdorj had begun to fear he wouldn’t get to experience it before his retirement.

Mapping the Ore

Sanjdorj steers his Land Cruiser to the top of the highest slag heap and points out Oyu Tolgoi’s open-cast mine, as well as the headframe and ventilation shaft for the underground mine, and a crusher the size of an ocean liner, for grinding the copper ore into dust. The first time he stood on the spot, looking for copper, was over 20 years ago. “The Russians didn’t leave us much,” he says. “But their geological maps were good. We knew where we needed to look.”

In the mid-1990s, shortly after the release of those Russian maps, Australian mining giant BHP obtained the first mining license for Oyu Tolgoi and spent several years digging for copper deposits. Sanjdorj and his colleagues worked there in 40 degree Celsius heat in the summers and minus 40 degree Celsius cold in the winters. If they had dug just 30 meters (100 feet) deeper, they would have reached the richest layers of ore back then. But they didn’t, and in 2000 the Australian company lost interest for good, selling its license to Canadian mining company Ivanhoe for about $40 million. The price of copper at that point was $1,700 per ton, a quarter of its value today.

Ivanhoe’s founder, American mining tycoon Robert Friedland, had made a great deal of money through a project mining nickel in Canada and a copper mine in Burma. He continued the drilling at Oyu Tolgoi and soon reached his goal, when geologists found a kilometers-long, banana-shaped copper deposit that extended as far as 2,000 meters into the earth and had a very high copper content. Now Friedland just needed people with the skills and means to excavate that banana.

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Saranchimeg Enkhee
Saranchimeg Enkhee

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