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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Outer Mongolia has long been a byword for the far reaches of the planet. All this week, we'll be reporting from that vast, remote country. Today, we look at how Mongolia has become a new El Dorado. Its huge gold reserves were only discovered after it shook off communist rule in 1990. Now gold fever has Mongolia in its grip, with illegal miners producing as much gold as the formal mining companies and causing untold damage, as NPR's Louisa Lim reports.

(Soundbite of machinery)

LOUISA LIM: This is the 21st century gold rush in the Wild West of Mongolia. An estimated 100,000 Mongolians, many of them nomadic herders, spend their days panning and digging for gold. These are the Ninja Miners. Named for their plastic gold-panning basins slung over their backs, they resemble the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" of the television cartoon. What they're doing is technically illegal. But the government turns a blind eye.

Mr. DONDOG TUMURCHUDUR (Miner): (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: If I don't find anything, I'll have nothing to eat, says Dondog Tumurchudur. I can't make enough money from herding. He's one of thousands of miners in the Ninja settlement of Uyanga, about 300 miles from the capital, Ulan Bator.

NERGUI (Miner): (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: I spend sleepless nights thinking about where to dig to find gold, says his companion Nergui. And if we don't find any, we're depressed, depressed enough to die.

Mr. ROBIN GRAYSON (Founder, Eco-Minex International): With one-sixth of the rural population of the household somehow involved in this informal business, that an enormous cash-kick to the rural economy. Otherwise, the rural areas have got almost nothing.

LIM: Robin Grayson, founder of Eco-Minex International, has been studying the ninja phenomenon. He says ninjas should be legalized and allocated land for small-scale mining.

Mr. GRAYSON: The main objection is that the official gold rush has been so fast and furious that nearly all the land has been taken up with exploration licenses, or is already state-protected areas because of wildlife considerations.

(Soundbite of machinery)

LIM: In the past, this mining area, Uyanga, was pretty much up for grabs, swarming with Ninja Miners seeking their fortune. But in the past year or so, dozens of larger mining companies have divided up the best land, hemming the ninjas into ever smaller spaces. Miner Nergui says the companies act with impunity against the ninjas.

NERGUI: (Through Translator) Security guards watch their land at night. If they catch us on their land, they break our pans and beat us with batons. I've been beaten up twice. We don't have any laws here. There's a lot of robbery and violence, but the police say it's our fault for being here.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter, pots banging)

LIM: And the environmental damage of the gold rush is clear. Deep holes honeycomb the ground, creating a dusty, lunar landscape. Once-green grasslands have been ripped up. Streams are drying out.

In other places where hard-rock mining is practiced, the ninjas are literally poisoning the landscape, according to the World Bank's representative in Mongolia, Arshad Sayed.

Mr. ARSHAD SAYED (World Bank Representative in Mongolia): But the negative side, of course, is people have been using chemicals like cyanide, mercury, others, which are very detrimental to the environment and to the ecosystem, and over a period of time can seriously damage, for example, water sources.

LIM: On the streets of the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, one group of former herders is calling for action. Addressing onlookers with loudspeakers, they're camped outside the parliament building, holding a hunger strike.

Their tally is sobering: They say 850 rivers have dried up through mining activity. More than 1,000 lakes disappeared. They want more regulation for mining licenses.

Dechindorj Ganbold said he's come here prepared to die.

Mr. DECHINDORJ GANBOLD (Demonstrator): (Through Translator) We've lost our grassland. We've lost everything. How unfortunate we are that we had gold in our land. Without gold, our rivers would flow and life would be normal. Now there's no way back.

(Soundbite of digging)

LIM: Back in Uyanga, the impact of mining is clear. A new breed of nomad is emerging, going wherever the gold is rumored to be, to mine or provide services for the ninjas. Most have abandoned herding or left their flocks behind for others to mind. It's a sign of Mongolia's changing economy. Once based on herding, it's now heavily dependent on mining.

The ninjas can't afford to miss out on this mineral wealth. But at the same time, they fear they're trading their land, their way of life, even their culture for these tiny specks of gold.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Uyanga, Mongolia.

MONTAGNE: And Louisa tells more of this story, along with pictures of the gold and the devastation at the new npr.org.

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