Under the Eternal Sky: Multinational Mining Hordes Eye Mongolia's Earthly Fortunes

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After spending several months in the epic clamor of industrializing China, I went to Mongolia looking for open spaces and unspoiled nature, for clean air, for hiking and horseback riding, and for nights still dark enough to terrify. In the countryside (and most of it remains countryside) the Eternal Sky held sacred by Mongolians since well before the time of Genghis Khan levitates with majesty over wide-open grassland prairie, steppe, subarctic evergreen forest, wetland, alpine tundra, mountain, and desert. It stretches above yak, goat, reindeer, camel, wolf, bear, marmot, squirrel, hawk, falcon, eagle and crane, and above some of the last traditional nomadic peoples and wild horses on Earth.

The seemingly infinite Mongolian sky also hangs over the largest mining boom on the planet.

On my flight from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, I sat next to a miner named Tim. Tim had a wife and two children back in Nova Scotia, with another on the way. He was trying to convince his wife to relocate to Mongolia, but she wasn't going for it yet. So his mining career kept him away from his family as he traveled to Colorado, Nevada, Australia, and now Mongolia. Tim kept his taupe outdoorsman's hat on for the entire flight, but I forgave him for that because he shared his Lonely Planet Mongolia and enthusiastically told me about his work at a new copper mine in the Gobi Desert.

"It's just a camp now, but we're investing $40 million this year alone, and when it really gets up and running, it'll probably become the second largest city in Mongolia," Tim told me. "It's going to be huge."

Tim was almost certainly talking about the Oyu Tolgoi mine, or "Turquoise Hill," a copper and gold ore deposit in Southern Mongolia that's larger than the state of Florida. Oyu Tolgoi is the world's largest mining exploration project, a joint venture between a Canadian company named Ivanhoe and the Mongolian government, with significant financing from Chilean mining giant Rio Tinto. Together, they plan to invest $5 billion into operations in the next few years, making Oyu Tolgoi the largest foreign investment in Mongolian history. Over the forecast 65-year lifespan of the mine, its revenues are expected to become a third of Mongolia's gross domestic product. It's a big deal, and the discovery of it and a wealth of untapped deposits of coal, gold, silver, tin, uranium, and "rare earth minerals" used in most of today's advanced electronics has mining-industry shills proclaiming Mongolia the next "Saudi Arabia of insert-name-of-precious-metal-here."

Despite projections that the mining boom is expected to triple or quadruple the size of Mongolia's economy in the next five years, times are tough for most Mongolians, and the relationship between the country's great natural resources and the wealth of its people is still to be determined. The United Nations estimates that 27 percent of Mongolia's urban population lives below the poverty line. In rural areas, nearly fifty percent of people live in poverty. During the past decade, a series of unusually severe zuds--storms that turn winter snow cover into solid ice, causing the mass starvation of livestock has had a devastating effect on a country where a quarter of the people make their living (or attempt to make their living) raising livestock.

And so, like people in many other impoverished nations, Mongolians are choosing between remaining with their traditional ways or mortgaging their natural resources. "Living off the cashmere is not economically sustainable. But is living off mining sustainable?" says Onodelgerekh Ganzorig, director of the Mongol Environmental Conservation (MEC), an Earth Island Institute-sponsored project that works to preserve the environment and cultural heritage of the country. "Half of Mongolians say 'Yes, we want mining.' But the other half that lives off the land is saying 'No, we don't support it, because it's going to destroy this whole area and we're not going to have grazing lands or pasture lands. …