|To this day, Mongolia is defined by a nomadic culture, a culture where living life with and through nature is at the centre. And it is a tough life, shaped by the harsh climate, the bleak vegetation and the eternal search for new pastures and water for the cattle. »Zud« is the Mongolian word for a natural disaster in which animals cannot find enough food due to the cold temperatures or the amounts of snow and ice. In February 2010 alone more than 2 million animals died as a result of such a disaster. »Zud« implies the constant threat of existential risks. It also implies a lack of financial security for the nomads. The pressures to give up the nomadic lifestyle are substantial. People long for »Western abundance« and dream of a more comfortable and secure life in the cities. However, unemployment and social deprivation are rife in the cities. Chances of making a living in the city are slim for a penniless family of nomads.
40% of Mongolians live under the national poverty line. This makes Mongolia one of the poorest countries on the planet. But Mongolia is rich in mineral resources, gold in particular. However, since the discovery of significant gold deposits, nomadic culture and nature have been under threat. Since the disbanding of the Soviet Union and the transition towards a free-market economy at the start of the 1990s, industrial gold mining in Mongolia has increased substantially. In parallel, however, illegal gold mining has also taken hold, because, according to an old law of the steppe, the gold belongs to the local inhabitants. It is understandable also that news about the exploitation of the precious metal by foreign companies caused major outrage amongst the nomads.
The nomads started to dig for gold independently. Initially there were only a few. Today, however, there are approximately 100.000 people in Mongolia who dig for gold. And they are digging illegally. They are called the »Ninjas«. The majority of Ninjas are former nomads. The Ninjas hope that the gold they find will make them rich. In some cases they abandon their cattle completely in order to dig for the precious metal. If he is lucky, a Ninja can earn between 10 and 20 dollars a day. But many of them fail.
They are unable to make the substantial investments in technical appliances, dynamite and mercury, without which gold mining is not possible. Due to their lack of expertise, in many cases they dig veins of gold which are already depleted or have a poor yield.
There are no immediate takers for the »illegal« gold either. Mongolia does not manufacture significant amounts of jewelry. What remains is the black market, but it is difficult for Ninjas to secure a good price. A Ninja can try to take his gold abroad in order to sell it there. In most cases, however, theillegal gold is sold straight to the big mining companies at poor rates.
Sustainability. This term describes best the nomadic way of treating the environment. It is what their culture tells them to do. Their tradition prohibits them to take precious metals and stones from the soil. If you do it anyway, you are perceived as an outlaw. This is why Ninjas are not held in high esteem in Mongolia. And they are ashamed of digging in the soil. They are aware that they are destroying nature and violating values perceived to be sacrosanct by their parents. Nevertheless, more and more people are digging for gold in Mongolia.
Digging entails beating, drilling and blasting holes, caves and passages into the stony soils of Mongolia with the simplest of means. The Ninjas rarely have the opportunity and the necessary expertise to create safe tunnels underground. There is hardly any wood in the Gobi Desert. Supporting the ceilings of tunnels is impossible. Dynamite is the only means to blow up solid rock. According to gold miners, many Ninjas are buried alive in unprotected mines or they are maimed in the process of controlled explosions. However, there are no official statistics. In order to extract the gold, the stone is broken up and crushed into fine lumps until it finally turns to sand. This is done by tapping the rock with iron bars or in mills with solid stone millwheels.
In the Gobi Desert there is limited running water which is necessary for washing the sand that contains the gold. Because of this, lorry loads of the rock containing gold are taken to the water-rich north of the country, or groundwater is pumped into tankers in order to wash the gold at the original site. Besides, there is the possibility to filter the gold without water using so-called »drywashers«. Mercury is used to extract the gold from the stone. The resulting amalgam is heated up in order to vaporize the mercury and extract the solid gold. The vaporizing often happens near the cooking areas inside the yurts. This is where people cook, eat and sleep. The Ninjas, their wives, children and animals absorb the highly toxic mercury. Mercury reaches the ground water or is spread over time across huge areas by the wind through the vapour inside the yurts as much as through the carelessly spilt leftovers and the contaminated mud which lies around openly. Mercury reaches the wells, springs and waterways, and as a result also the food chain of nomads and animals. In this food chain, man presents the last link. Being exposed to this toxin over years destroys the brain and can lead to complete insanity. Increased numbers of miscarriages and infant deformities with people and animals are another factor.