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Mining and traditional livelihoods: Mongolia’s future in a changing climate

While traditional livelihoods, or herding maintains a deep-rooted socio-cultural and philosophical significance for Mongolia and its nearly 3 million people, increasing aridity and rampant desertification (also, see here) pose serious threats to the continuity of nomadic pastoral lifestyle. At the same time, a booming mining industry is causing an atmosphere of scepticism amongst Mongolia’s large herder population with regard to growing competition over access to land and water. Impacts from both large scale and artisanal mining on the country’s socio-ecological landscape are evident in varying forms.


Climate change adds a further layer of complexity to this already dynamic relationship between herding and mining, resulting in several implications for the country’s future development. Foremost among them is the critical  dependence of both these economic sectors on suitable natural climatic conditions. Mongolia’s high vulnerability to both gradual and sudden perturbations in the natural climate is largely due to limited institutional capacity to tackle loss and damage resulting from climatic changes. The last two decades particularly have witnessed a series of intense climate-influenced natural disasters (locally known as 'dzud’), causing millions of livestock to perish and several thousand households consequently impacted.  


Three observations in this context warrant further attention. Firstly, the relationship between mining and herding is of particular significance during a natural disaster when traditional livelihoods including herding, and animal product-based businesses may no longer flourish due to harsh living conditions causing livestock deaths. In such circumstances, the mining sector provides a critical source of potential alternative employment and livelihood opportunities for several thousand Mongolian herder households to sustain through climate-influenced natural disasters. Secondly, considering that both mining and traditional livelihoods are vulnerable – although varyingly – to climatic changes, in-situ adaptation, not relocatability is preferred as an adaptation response. To this extent, climate change as a common concern allows the two sectors to move beyond conflicts over access to land and water to facilitate long-term cross-sectoral cooperation and synergistic partnership development from a multistakeholder perspective. Finally, while traditional pastoralism boasts a rich repository of many generations of indigenous knowledge of dealing with natural disasters, the extractives sector has access to sound financial and latest technological resources. By bringing together each sector’s individual strengths to create innovative pathways of dealing with climatic changes in a mutually-inclusive manner, it may be possible to deconstruct some of the complexity underlying Mongolia’s mining-traditional livelihoods-climate change nexus mentioned above.


This formed the premise for a series of capacity building workshops undertaken in September 2014 in Mongolia by The Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining of The University of Queensland, Australia jointly with Civic Solutions, a local civil society group based in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The Asia Pacific Network for Global Change Research based in Kobe, Japan provided financial support for the workshops. Minister (Dr) S Oyun of Mongolia’s Ministry of Environment and Green Development provided further support for the workshops as well as encouragement towards the idea of bringing together stakeholders from across herding groups, mining companies, civil society organisations, media and local (soum), provincial (aimag) and central government departments to a single platform to understand climatic influence on each sector, take stock of current capacity to deal with resulting impacts and identify future pathways to facilitate improved preparedness towards climate-influenced natural disasters and address loss and damage.


Two multistakeholder workshops were conducted in Umnugobi and Bayankhongor provinces with a concluding symposium organised in Ulaanbaatar. A particularly important outcome from these workshop discussions has been to propose the establishment of a Knowledge Hub of key actors from different sectors in Mongolia. The Hub will enable a robust ongoing dialogue on better understanding the interface between Mongolia’s mining and herding sectors in light of current and future climatic changes. Several ideas in relation to the proposed Knowledge Hub were discussed at the workshops and these will play a critical role in informing policy guidance on multistakeholder public-private partnership development that will be available in the final report due to be published by February 2015.


Further, the proposed Knowledge Hub will provide a trigger for several domestically- and internationally-funded projects studying a number of discrete elements of Mongolia’s mining-traditional livelihoods-climate nexus to share findings and cooperate on identified research gaps to allow greater focus – both theoretical and applied – over the coming years on this critical topic in the Mongolian context.