Mongolia's Long Road To Mining Wealth Mongolia is undergoing a dramatic transformation from a pastoral society to one whose economy is based on mining, especially copper and coal. With the change has come opportunity — and loss.
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Mongolia's Long Road To Mining Wealth

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Mongolia's Long Road To Mining Wealth

Mongolia's Long Road To Mining Wealth

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President Trump is meeting with the president of Mongolia today at the White House. Mongolia is strategically important. It's landlocked right between Russia and China. It's also a country in transition with its economy and workers moving from agriculture to mining.

In the final part of our series on Mongolia, NPR's Emily Kwong flew to a mega mine to meet people finding work along the coal road to China.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Mongolian).

EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: We touched down in mining country at 9:22 in the morning.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ladies and gentlemen, we have landed at Khanbumbat Airport in Oyu Tolgoi.

KWONG: Outside our plane window is Mongolia's biggest mining project. Oyu Tolgoi has a movie theater, an apothecary, a hair salon. My interpreter, Ganbat Namjilsangarav, and I visit the cafeteria for lunch, bustling with miners in orange uniforms.

How are you doing, Ganbat?

GANBAT NAMJILSANGARAV: Good. Very big mess hall.

KWONG: People here shake hands, a very Western practice, which slightly unnerves Ganbat. They're not behaving like Mongolians, he jokes as we scoop fried noodles onto trays. I tell him the cafeteria reminds me of Google.

It's very regimented and clean. And the Gobi's like your Silicon Valley.

Mongolia rapidly transitioned from Soviet-style communism to free-market democracy in 1990. Herding has diminished, while mining has only grown. It's introduced volatility to Mongolia's economy but also opportunity. In a nation where jobs are drying up in the countryside and people are desperate for work, the Gobi has become a destination for jobs, both formal and off the books. And it's a younger generation, the sons and daughters of herders and agriculturalists, taking on this work. Gulnara Dariiga grew up among mountains on the opposite side of the country.

GULNARA DARIIGA: (Through interpreter) Selenge is beautiful, with a nice river and berries. The problem is there's no jobs for young people.

KWONG: In addition to copper and gold, Mongolia exports millions of tons of coal to China every year by truck. And Gulnara is one of thousands of these drivers ferrying coal from Tavan Tolgoi, another major mine, across the southern border. Mongolians go by their first names. The 38-year-old mother of four does her makeup in this cab and sleeps here, too. Trucks idle in gridlock like a row of dominoes. Gulnara has waited up to seven days in this line. It's exhausting work.

DARIIGA: (Speaking Mongolian).

KWONG: So why do it? Over the rumble, she tells us the money makes it worth it. Her Chinese employers pay her in yuan upon delivery - the equivalent of 260 U.S. dollars. That kind of money goes far here.


KWONG: Gulnara's monthly income is double what most Mongolians make. Those with ancillary services to support the mining industry are making money, too - fuel suppliers, car mechanics, cooks selling hot meals.


KWONG: In fact, a whole community has emerged from the dust to support coal truck drivers right before this border trip. Locals call it Tsagaan Khad or White Rock.


KWONG: The cellphone of 53-year-old Batdelger Genden won't stop ringing. She just opened a new restaurant in White Rock and word has gotten out.


KWONG: The restaurant tables are heaped with candy and soda for the grand opening. The playlist is all Dolly Parton, music befitting an outpost on the mining frontier.


DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Come take my hand now...

KWONG: And for locals in White Rock, Batdelger is like a mother hen.

BATDELGER GENDEN: (Through interpreter) I wanted to create a warm atmosphere with this restaurant. The drivers experience all kinds of problems - truck breakdowns, getting cheated of their salary. I try to help them.

KWONG: Mining may be lucrative, but the conditions are harsh. Trucks stir up fragile topsoil with their constant coming and going, turning the streets of White Rock dark and blustery. But the dust was far worse in the early days before the coal road was paved, Batdelger says. Drivers eager to reach China were cutting across herders' pastureland.

GENDEN: (Through interpreter) Local herders protested. They even smashed truck windows.

KWONG: Mining may be a boon to the national economy. But locally, tensions persist, not just around dust storms but environmental issues, too, like water scarcity and desertification. Herding groups have taken the industry to court around their environmental and economic impact. Fifty-one-year-old Otgonduu Khuudeg remembers when mining came to Omnogovi province. The usual quiet of the pastureland was disrupted by the rumble of trucks.

OTGONDUU KHUUDEG: (Through interpreter) The road to the Gobi became like lines on a human palm. These coal trucks, they're hitting and killing animals.

KWONG: Half a dozen of his camels were killed by passing trucks. And when Oyu Tolgoi, that massive copper and gold mine, was preparing to break ground, he had to relocate. Otgonduu and his wife were one of 11 families physically displaced. Ironically, that payment allowed them to continue herding, not with camels but with cows. They purchased a bull with Oyu Tolgoi's money to breed cows. If they are successful, Oyu Tolgoi has pledged to buy their beef to feed to miners in the cafeteria. Such a relationship was unheard of 15 years ago, but Otgonduu feels like he has no other choice.

KHUUDEG: (Through interpreter) We are already old. And no one will hire us. We can't do other jobs. This is what we know how to do.

KWONG: Mongolia has a tradition of herding animals and a deep cultural connection to the land. But as the nation focuses on mineral extraction as a means for participating in the global economy and lifting people out of poverty, what will become of that land? Plenty of Mongolians fear the country's direction. One herder in the Gobi told me Mongolia is like a small island in a blue planet. If we help preserve the environment, I think it will be helpful for the rest of the world.

Emily Kwong, NPR News, Omnogovi, Mongolia.

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