“Mongolia, the land of Genghis Khan and nomadic herders, is in the midst of a remarkable transition. Rich in coal, gold and copper, this country of fewer than 3 million people in Central Asia is riding a mineral boom that is expected to more than double its GDP within a decade. The rapid changes simultaneously excite and unnerve many Mongolians, who hope mining can help pull many out of poverty, but worry it will ravage the environment and further erode the nation’s distinctive, nomadic identity.” — NPR

Oxidized copper from Oyu Tolgoi (which means Turquoise Hill in Mongolian). Photo by John W. Poole at NPR.

Is mining in Mongolia a mixed blessing as this quote suggests? I suppose the answer is “yes”. And I guess it will always be “yes” when it comes to burgeoning industrialism. But I still ask the question because I thought (or maybe I hoped) that after the industrialization of many countries across time, we (humanity) would have figured out how to do it right. How to industrialize without collateral damage. There are definitely benefits to industrialization. The benefits include long-term improvements in economic opportunities (more jobs, more investors) and health outcomes (availability of doctors, more treatment options). But we still haven’t figured out how to avoid the pitfalls. The costs of industrialization include loss of traditional practices (family structure, cultural traditions) and the threat to environmental resources (pollution, depletion of natural resources).

In Mongolia, the expansion of Oyu Tolgoi (the main mine which yields copper and gold) has brought similar benefits and costs. The benefits include lots of new and good-paying jobs and the education (on the job training) to perform them. The costs include pollution and competition between the mine and herders for land use. For a detailed account of how Mongolians are experiencing these benefits and costs, I highly recommend the NPR series on mining in Mongolia (which is where I found this information).

I wondered if Mongolia would be different, though, because of the pervasive philosophy and faith* of Buddhism in Mongolia – a philosophy that teaches compassion over materialism, collective harmony over individual gain, and conservation over development. How would this system of beliefs reckon with a wave of change laden with both prosperity (for miners and investors) and devastation (for nomads and to the land)? Maybe Mongolians will decide rapid mining development is not for them, like they decided about this development project:

“The Ulaanbaatar government [Mongolia’s capital city]…turned down a lucrative proposal to develop a premium Japanese-funded golf course just outside the city when they found out that chemical fertilizers were needed to cultivate the grass.”** — Mongolia Briefing

But so far, mining is still developing…rapidly. Indeed, so far it’s not really clear to me whether or not Buddhism is playing a major role in adapting to a massive mining industry. There have been protests against rapid expansion of mining and some of the protestors mention Buddhism in their demands, but Buddhism doesn’t appear to be the driving force behind the protests. This was really curious to me. Maybe I just don’t understand the depth of Buddhism in Mongolian culture. It may well be that any cry for preservation of human rights and cultural tradition is inseparable from Buddhist beliefs. If that is the case, then most of the protests related to the rapid expansion of mining are rooted in Buddhism.

Or maybe I’m looking in the wrong place for Buddhist influence in Mongolia. Maybe I should look outside country borders. There are efforts by Buddhists monks to mitigate the costs of the mining industry. Last year, three monks traveled to mining towns in the U.S. to learn about their history in the hopes of avoiding their mistakes. The monks learned about the Good Neighbor Agreement, a contract between local citizenry and mining companies in Northern Plains, ND. Frith in action, baby!

Some argue that Buddhism will not (or cannot) help Mongolians navigate the mining boom because of the country’s geographical placement, because Mongolia’s neighbors carry more influence on its policies than Buddhism ever can or ever will. Mongolia is situated below Russia and above China and has been ruled by both. From 1691 to 1911 Mongolia was ruled by China and from 1911 to roughly 1992 it was ruled by Russia. And right now, both are vying for a place at the mining table. China and Russia are either trying to invest in the mines, or to purchase the goods from the mines, or both. China is winning that bout so far, though Mongolia appears to be seriously considering limiting China’s role in the development of their mining industry. But don’t feel bad for Russia. (Not that you really were feeling sorry for Russia.) Mongolians may be leery of new Chinese influence, but there is likely no lost love for Russia. Stalin virtually exterminating their Lama population (Tibetan high priests). “…in the 1920s there were over 112,000 Mongolian Buddhist monks, representing more than 13% of Mongolia’s overall population. By the 1940s, nearly every monk was either dead or had apostatized.” — Buddhism in Mongolia. I suspect the large proportion of atheists in Mongolia is a results of 70 years of communist rule.

This article helps to explain the relationship between Mongolia’s geography and the current influence of Buddhism. Sort of. It spins a tale of clandestine maneuvers and political cloak-and-dagger plots in an effort to get the Dalai Lama into Mongolia last year without the Chinese government finding out or interfering. He got there alright. And China about had a cow. Mongolia, it seems, is fearful of China’s influence not just because they were under their thumb for 300 years, but because China is resolute against the Dalai Lama having influence in Mongolia. Which seems a little ironic to me since Buddhism flourished under Chinese rule during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. This ties into China’s history with Tibet, its economic stake in the Mongolian mines, and its international reputation for suppressing religious and political expression. Egads! There is more happening than I fully understand. And I still don’t really understand it.

Layer this political and religious history with the history of mining in Mongolia and it the seemingly minimal role of Buddhism in this country’s transition makes a little more sense. The mining industry in Mongolia began in the 1980s, while Mongolia was still under Russia’s communist rule — while religion was still disallowed. When Mongolia shed communism in the 1990s it experienced a revival of Buddhism. But by then, the mining industry had been growing for over 10 years. Maybe Buddhism hasn’t shaped the industrial spurt in Mongolia because it wasn’t “at the table” when the table was set.

*sigh* I really don’t know the answer to the question I pose in the title. But I am still fascinated by this story. What do you think readers? Is industrialism always a double-edged sword? If you can find anything more on how or if Buddhism is shaping the mining industry in Mongolia, please share!



* I hesitate to call Buddhism a religion. I think most Buddhists would say it is not a religion, it is a philosophy. But I have a hard time wrapping my head around a system of beliefs without using the “R” word. But maybe I’m just lazy. Jax and I talked about this earlier in the week. Maybe she can tell us more about this in a future post. *wink*

** Instead of building a manicured golf course, it appears the city of Ulaanbaatar opted instead for a “natural golf” course, a course that fits into the natural landscape instead of a course built on an altered landscape. I think that’s pretty awesome.

+ Featured image: herder Mijiddorj Ayur, 76, outside his home in South Gobi, Mongolia. Photo taken by John W. Poole.