The beginning of the 21st century saw a veritable gold rush in Mongolia. Restructuring of the Mongolian state had resulted in high unemployment. Then, when three consecutive "dzuds" — dry summers followed by harsh winters — devastated livestock between 1999 and 2002, many herders turned to mining to make ends meet. With the price of gold rising, the veins of ore attracted others as well. The number of miners soon swelled to 100,000 individuals (two-thirds men and one-third women), amounting to roughly 20% of the rural workforce.
With artisanal and small-scale gold mining and its social and environmental impacts beginning to spiral out of control, the Mongolian and Swiss governments decided in 2005 to launch the Sustainable Artisanal Mining Project (SAM).
Legalisation and formalisation of small-scale mining
In many people’s minds, the 100,000 informal miners digging up the ground with no regard for the environment represented a threat to nature and rural Mongolian traditions. The families of miners, seen as criminal groups, increasingly faced discrimination. Some had their equipment confiscated by environmental inspectors who demanded payment before returning it, while others experienced violence from the security forces of the large mining companies. In introducing the concept of sustainable artisanal mining into the public dialogue and advocating responsible and formalised gold mining, the SDC contributed to defusing these conflicts.
In 2010, following the SAM project’s plea for the miners, the parliament of Mongolia transformed the temporary regulation governing small-scale mining into a permanent legal framework. For the first time, the legislation afforded legal protections to Mongolia’s artisanal miners. Registered miners would henceforth pay taxes and benefit from the country’s social security system. Thanks to land tenure rights, they can now invest more securely, adopt technological improvements and take action to enhance workplace safety. All of this ultimately means better public health, fewer accidents, rising productivity and a guaranteed livelihood. Moreover, since allocation of mining territories was coupled with remediation obligations in previously mined areas, water and soil pollution have progressively declined.
Finding alternatives to mercury
One of the main problems for the environment is amalgamation, a technique that uses mercury to extract gold from ore. The method’s low cost and ease of use have made it very popular. In 2008, the abrupt prohibition of mercury by the Mongolian government was a major challenge for miners, who either became unemployed or were forced to continue working illegally. The SAM project, undertaken in cooperation with the mining sector and local authorities, played a crucial and innovative role in showing that ore can be processed without mercury. A mercury-free pilot plant was built with the support of the SDC.
Strengthening miners' capacities
By formalising the miners’ activities, they are encouraged to respect legal, social and environmental requirements. They are also better able to develop their organisational skills, techniques and workplace safety practices. The SAM project has made it possible to enhance the miners’ abilities, and they have begun to organise to demand their rights.
In addition, the SAM project is working to set up an international platform for the exchange of information in sustainable artisanal mining. The International Knowledge Hub will allow miners from all backgrounds to talk to each other, share experiences and best practice, create synergies and find shared solutions.
Sustainable artisanal mining makes it possible to transform mineral resources into a means of subsistence for poor populations and future generations, all without adverse consequences for the environment. To date over 7,000 miners have directly benefited from the SAM project.