Mongolia: Hunger Strike and Protest

Date of publication: 
5 March 2015

Mongolian Government Gives Green Light to Hundreds of Mining Projects

On Tuesday 10 February, nine members of Upright Blue Mongols and the Save Noyon Mountain Movement began a hunger strike in Ulaanbaatar, aiming to prevent the Mongolian Parliament passing damaging changes to the country’s environmental law as it came up for debate.

Known as the Long Name Law, at the time of the hunger strike’s inception, this environmental legislation prohibited mineral exploration and extraction in or near headwaters, protected zones, or forests.

Adopted five years ago, the Law is regarded as a keystone in the struggle to prevent over 300 mining licenses being granted in Mongolia’s most delicate ecosystems. It has been credited with helping to reduce pollution in water systems, especially from gold mining, and resolving conflicts where communities faced displacement by mining projects. As an international precedent for making key ecological regions ‘No Go Areas’ for extractive industries, this legislation also meaningfully boosted Mongolia’s environmental credentials.

However, concerns over implementation and the government’s reticence to enforce the law have dogged the it since it was brought into being. Mining in areas theoretically protected by the Long Name Law has continued in secret, resulting in conflicts between miners and nomads, further pollution and mass protest.

The Mongolian Government indicated its intention to weaken the Long Name Law in late January 2015. Those gathered on the 10th of February took their places determined that the Long Name Law should be strengthened, not diluted.

Protest grows in defence of Noyon Mountain

One mining venture whose fate is of particular consequence to Mongolians belongs to Centerra Gold, a 100% Canadian-owned mining company that hopes to exploit the Gatsuurt wilderness area in Selenga Province.

Centerra Gold’s planned mining activities have aroused anger and distress amongst both Gatsuurt locals and the Mongolian public at large, as their operations would impact Noyon Mountain. Home to countless historical artifacts, archaeological sites and the tombs of Mongol rulers and noblemen from across the ages, the mountain is a sacred site of national importance.

In January 2015 the government granted Centerra Gold permission to mine on its property in Gastuurt, designating this a project of strategic importance despite the protections afforded to the area by the Long Name Law at the time.

In reaction, during their first week of protest the hunger strikers were joined by hundreds of other citizens mobilising to protect Noyon Mountain.

Long Name Law diluted

Despite the hunger strike, the accompanying protest, and without acknowledging either, on the eve of the Mongolian New Year, when public oversight is minimal, the Mongolian Parliament passed amendments enabling it to alter the Long Name Law, citing economic hardship as their justification.

The amendments will allow the Mongolian authorities to further interfere with the law at implementation level, opening previously protected areas up to mining license-holders once more. Initially this will mean allowing mining to resume for a two-year period, favouring the short time frames of highly toxic alluvial gold mining that is ravaging mongolia’s rivers, in particular. Beyond that the picture is less clear.

The Mongolian Government believes this development will help re-build trust between Mongolia and potential international investors, boosting the economy. Campaigners, community groups and environmentalists such as those gathered in protest believe it constitutes a renewed right to facilitate ecological destruction and social unrest with little to no benefit to Mongolia at all.

In the aftermath of the government’s overwhelmingly negative decision and despite the critical condition of one 67-year old hunger striker who had to be hospitalised, the protestors received some encouragement from the visit of supportive MPs. Members of the country’s Mongolian People’s Party, Mongolian Revolutionary People’s Party, Mongolian Democratic Party and three independent MPs all turned out to show their support for the protest. All promised to do everything in their power to resolve the issues around the Long Name Law and prevent Centerra Gold’s plans to mine in the Gatsuurt wilderness.

Manifesting their own solidarity, thousands of Mongolian citizens visited the protest camp over New Year. Over twenty two thousand people signed a petition delivered to Mongolia’s President, demanding the protection of wilderness and cultural heritage. And in Yarmag region, a gathering of one hundred and sixty shamans held a ceremony in support of the protest.

Police aggression and protest break up

Since the beginning of the protest, eyewitness reports and photographs testify that Mongolian Police Forces behaved aggressively towards the protestors despite their having obtained all appropriate legal permissions to demonstrate.

Following the Mongolian Parliament’s decision on the 18th of February, this aggression increased.

After considerable harassment, on the 21st of February protestors supporting the hunger strikers were served a warning. This stated that at the least sign of disorder the protest would be disbanded.

On the 22nd of February, between 11 and 12am, the continuously peaceful protestors and hunger strikers were surrounded by police who attempted to intimidate and disperse them by force, without success.

In response to this aggression the hunger strikers intensified their protest into a dry one; renouncing fluids as well as foodstuffs on the 23rd of February.

Still without any response from the Mongolian political authorities, tensions reached a head on the 24th of February at 1am in the morning when police surrounded the protestors and strikers once more. Dispersing the protestors by force, the hunger strikers were forcibly removed and taken to hospital. Their 5 official protectors were arrested and later released at around 5am whilst police confiscated cameras and memory cards from protestors and reporters and brought the protest and the hunger strike to an end.

Peaceful gathering

On March 1st Upright Blue Mongols and DMNN organized another peaceful gathering at Chinggis Square in downtown Ulaanbaatar. Hundreds of supporters turned out to show their support, including well-known Mongolian musicians who sang songs praising the country’s uniqueness and beauty. Many people gave moving speeches, expressing their dissatisfaction with the Parliament’s recent actions.

Reporters from networks and TV stations that might have recorded and broadcast the event were conspicuously absent. With or without them, global support for Upright Blue Mongols, DMNN and their efforts to protect Mongolia’s wilderness is growing.

Speaking after the event, DMNN member Odno Shourd confirmed the deep rooted commitment of the protestors, saying: “Our fight has not ended, we are looking for more effective ways to reach the mass and ways to have a serious impact on the Parliament.”

The people of Mongolia will not be silent as the government gambles their future.