Centerra Gold’s Gatsuurt project is about a two-hour drive north from Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar, in the sparsely populated Selenge province. The area is home to springs that are tributaries of the Selenge river, which flows into the Russian lake Baikal. The province boasts some beautiful scenery: forests, farmland and pasture.
As we drive into the Mandal district township of 25,000 or so residents, my first impression is that this small provincial city was much like any other quiet settlement. But appearances can be deceiving. Meetings with families, activists, NGOs, and local authorities over the next two days reveal grave concerns among locals over the projected impact of the Gatsuurt open pit mine. Certainly, it was clear that Mongolian activists are viewing this issue as a threat to the local way of life, aside from the public dispute with Centerra over the right to access and worship Mount Noyon, a sacred place in Mongolian culture and history which, according to local accounts, has been fenced off on legal grounds shrouded in ambiguity.
In 2013, the Canadian government recommended that Centerra engage more effectively with local communities after complaints by a coalition of Mongolian and Canadian NGO’s over the Toronto-based miner’s alleged misconduct in Mongolia. However, Centerra’s record in the province and nationwide remains controversial, given a lack of communication, allegations of corruption directed at Mandal district authorities, and reports of harassment of community activists by the Mongolian police.
According to Chimedregzen, leader of the Save Mount Noyon Movement, “Boroo gold mine came into place when the socialist system collapsed. No one was aware of the mining impact then, it was a wake up call. Mount Noyon feeds eight small rivers in the area and contamination of this water resource will have an impact on Baikal lake across the states. There are 360 medicinal herbs at Mount Noyon and in the surrounding territory. The crops, pastures and soil will be affected by mining blasts. Mandal population is against the Gatsuurt mine.”
Chimedregzen claims that the local government and MPs have ignored the issue, despite the filing of 14 public complaints and petitions and the collection of 160,000 signatures opposed to the mine. Indeed, one of the major concerns raised in Mandal district, during meetings by the Mongolian NGO’s and local environmental activists about levels of arsenic in ground wells and surface waters in this region, has been substantiated by a 2014 environmental study. A team of Mongolian and German researchers investigated the incidence of arsenic in ground, surface, waste and drinking water in Northern Mongolia, concluding that concentrations of arsenic in the tailing ponds (Boroo and Gatsuurt mines) could contaminate the environment in the coming years. To be clear, Gatsuurt was mined before Centerra arrived on the scene. The previous miner’s tailing pond is a reminder of the potential impact.
A few miles from the gated Gatsuurt gold mine, local herder Lkhaijav and his family are grappling with the effects of the mining. Lkhaijav and his wife said that drinking water is not the same anymore and it has contributed to a growing number of illnesses among local residents in recent years. Lkaijav’s child had hepatitis last year, although the source of the illness was unclear. Perhaps the most visible effect of the mining is evident in the skin discoloration of locals, who in fact insist that their livestock was suffering the most from the contaminated water, and animals were being born with deformations. The herder said the local government had ignored the complaints and grievances.
Instead, authorities harass the environmental activists and locals opposing the Gatsuurt operations. Meanwhile, local residents are claiming corruption in the Mandal district administration, which reportedly is in close contact with Centerra Gold. The Canadian mining company provides financial resources to the local administration for use as a development fund. The fund lacks oversight, residents say. Local communities believe that Centerra is failing to communicate with the local population and as a result the company’s efforts to promote social benefits from the mining project have created public mistrust rather than approval, further dividing the community. Locals living near the mine stressed that Centerra’s social projects (a dairy shop that has since ceased operation and a health facility for seniors) have benefited only the relatives of the governor of the Mandal district (who, incidentally, was formerly an environmental officer in the same district). Following a public campaign in 2013 organized by the Mongolian United Movement of Rivers and Lakes, this year once again locals are petitioning against the Gatsuurt project. Centerra Gold representatives declined to meet with our team in Ulaanbaatar, or to discuss public concerns emanating from the Gatsuurt mine.
Essentially, Centerra’s conduct in Mongolia resembles its two decades in Kyrgyzstan. The Kumtor mining project there has accounted for 80 percent of Centerra’s profits. In both cases, Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan, the impact of mining on local communities is triggering mass discontent against the company, even as Centerra denies the negative social impact. I have co-authored series of investigative reports on Centerra Gold’s links to the corruption and bribery of former Kyrgyz government officials, even as the Canadian company undertakes the latest contentious restructuring of the Kumtor mine, its third in the last decade. The reports have looked at the company’s environmental record with the Kumtor project and its unwillingness to take responsibility for destroying the Davydov and Lysyi glaciers in the Kyrgyz Republic. Centerra Gold has blamed global warming for the accelerated melting of the Kumtor ice sheet, even as it has excavated glaciers an average 30 meters per year since 1998 (compared with a climate change effect on nearby glaciers of 10 meters over the same period) and dumping waste rock on the mine premises.
Local Kyrgyz communities are also now facing the prospect of the toxic tailing dam at Kumtor contaminating not only the local water resources but the regional trans-national river Syr Darya, which flows into Uzbekistan. And just as in Mongolia, Centerra Gold operations have caused mass protests and social unrest in the Kyrgyz Republic, which led to allegations of torture during sweeping arrests of Kyrgyz environmental activists and local residents in October 2013. The Canadian mining company denies any involvement in wrongdoing in Kyrgyzstan, insisting that it strictly follows domestic laws and international standards. Despite the denials, Centerra’s impact (direct or indirect) on social processes and political developments in both Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia is very real.
Ryskeldi Satke is a contributing writer with research institutions and news organizations in Central Asia, Turkey and the US. Contact e-mail: rsatke at gmail.com. Special thanks to Fidanka Bacheva McGrath, CEE Bankwatch, Sukhgerel Dugersuren, founder of OT Watch, Aldraa with No Nukes Asia, Solongo Zorigt with Rivers Without Boundaries, and Baatarkhuyag, leader of the Fire Nation coalition.