August 24, 2020

The Mining sector in Mongolia has grown over the past 20 years. The latest official statistics revealed that there are 2,814 valid mineral licenses, of which 1,665 are mining licenses while 1,149 licenses are exploration licenses. Thus it was timely that Mandkhaitsetsen Urantulkhuur of Centre for Human Rights & Development (CHRD) in Mongolia has discussed the state of environment defenders against mining giants in their country in a webinar last June 5, 2020.

Entitled “The Global Mining Industry and People’s Resistance in the Time of COVID-19,” organized by International People’s Conference on Mining (IPCM), International League of People’s Struggle (ILPS) Commission 19, Asia Pacific Network of Environmental Defenders (APNED), Yes to Life No to Mining, and Asia Pacific Research Network (APRN) last June 5, 2020. Over 150 people took part in the webinar was has opened up a dialogue on issues stemming from large-scale mining in the country.

In the webinar, Urantulkhuur revealed the worrying state of environmental destruction because of mining in Mongolia. She reported that 2,814 licenses occupy 7,457.9 thousand hectares of land or 4.8% of the total land of Mongolia while mining operations destroyed 35,250 hectares of land. The mining problem in Mongolia has also created a variety of social problems. Urantulkhuur explained that mining-related environmental destruction has led to a massive loss of pasture land is a major source of livelihood, thus forcing rural peoples to migrate to the city. Consequently, cases of human rights violations against environment defenders were monitored and documented.

Up Against the Wall

The attacks against human rights in mining have victimized a wide range of personalities: from activists to members of civil society, from groups to individuals.  Urantulkhuur shared the case of young environmentalist lkhagvasumbere who demanded the cancellation of 20 mining licenses alongside the state protection of southern Gobi province, which is the only habitat for snow leopards. Strangers attacked him several times until his untimely death in 2015.  

Another case was on January 21, 2014 where five members of an environmental movement in Mongolia have been arrested during a protest against a revision of a law banning mining near river basins. The protesters were accused of having weapons in their possession and were sentenced to prison ranging from two to 21 years.

One recent case was in 2018 involving Mr. Tuvshinjargal Sambuu  and Ms. Mungunkhun Dulmaa. They are herders based in the Tsagaan-Ovoo Soum of Dornod Province. They are staunch critiques against the Canadian company Steppe Gold. It was reported that Mr. Sambuu was handcuffed and was forcefully put on the ground. They then beat him up by several people resulting in shoulder fracture. Ms. Dulmaa was recording the attack on her phone when the security guards ran after her.  She experienced sexual harassment in the hands of her attackers.

People’s Response to Mining

CHRD and civil society organizations (CSOs) in Mongolia have reinforced their human rights work to address the series of rights violations among environment defenders. They have organized several initiatives to maximize different platforms and public spaces available to push for reforms. One highlight that Urantulkhuur mentioned is their work on public interest litigation (PIL).

CHRD started PIL on mining-related cases in 2005 and since then carried out around 40 cases to protect the rights of local communities. They mostly relate the cases to a variety of issues concerning illegal licenses, inadequate environmental impact assessment, violation of water law, violation of environmental protection law leaving mines without rehabilitation, and the contamination of soil and water by toxic chemicals.  Urantulkhuur stressed that PIL is a strategic tool adopted by CHRD because it promotes the interests of all communities. CHRD worked on the court case to cancel two extraction licenses issued illegally on the Burenkhaan phosphate deposit in Khuvsgul aimag. They have successfully completed the case in 2014 after the court hearings.

Apart from PIL, Urantulkhuur also shared that advocacy work is just as important to undertake ecologically valuable lands into state protection. She discussed the public campaign in 11 soums of Dornod aimag (Eastern province) to consider 13 ecologically valuable lands into state protection. After five years of advocacy work, in 2019, the State Great Khural (Mongolian Parliament) issued a resolution to undertake those lands into state protection.

Marching forward

To close the discussion, Urantulkhuur shared the important lessons in the advocacy work and public campaigns. CHRD has maximized public spaces to raise public awareness on human rights violations. To do this effective, solidarity building and learning from and cooperating with international non-government organizations (INGOs) and regional CSOs because according to her numbers matter.

These efforts by CHRD have resulted in certain policy reforms. There were significant changes in mineral laws, environmental laws for access to information, participation, and justice, and open standing for NGOs on public interest cases. The CHRD is now lobbying for the law on protecting human rights defenders. They strongly recommend to the Mongolian government to strengthen the current draft of the Human Rights Defenders Protection Law in consultation with HRDs, especially those based in rural areas to create an enabling environment for women/human rights defenders.