The Ninja of Mongolia
The full extent of Mongolia's gold reserves were only revealed to the world once the Soviet Union had fallen. Since then investment and exploration have surged and today Mongolia's gold output is 14 tons a year. But while foreign investors reaped the rewards of Mongolia's transition, many of the population lost jobs and began to fall beneath the poverty line. It was from this disillusioned population of herders and badly paid government workers that the Ninja gold miners emerged. Today they boast a workforce of over 100,000 and a production rate equivalent to all the mining companies combined.
Alag, a twenty two year old Ninja miner, places his small plastic container of gold flecks on the counter in Nima's supply shop. Her digital weighing scales tallies the amount of gold he and his two brothers have retrieved that day. They look on in anticipation as the amount appears on the screen, finally it settles on 1.8g, which considering the current buying price gives them the equivalent of £8.50 to split. Nima asks them "Do you want cash or supplies". Either way the money she gives them will find its way back to her pocket when the miners require food or supplies. However, for now the young men are proud of their hard days work and walk away clutching their wads of Mongolian Tugrik.
Alag and his brothers are some of the 100,000 illegal gold miners, who are currently subsisting within Mongolia's rapidly expanding mining industry. They have been called Ninjas because of the green plastic pans that they wear on their backs, which make them look like the cartoon characters The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Although the work they do is technically illegal, the government has been slow to condemn them because the Ninja's patient work produces tons of gold that would have otherwise gone unfound or unused. This has made them Robin Hood style heroes as they contribute back into the rural economy and provide much needed growth. However, reports by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) suggest that because the majority of Ninja gold is being sold illegally through a network of buyers and sellers to dealers in China and Korea, the full economic benefits of their handy work are being lost. This is an issue that reinforces calls for new legislation that would legalise the work of the Ninja and thus harness their full economic power.
Geo is one of the many illegal Ninja settlements that have cropped up all over Zaamar Soum, a prolific mining area in Tov province, in the last three years. It illustrates the numerous socio-economic problems and dangers that arise in these Wild West settings. Located 100 miles west of the capital Ulaanbaatar it is a transient settlement of roughly 200 miners, all of whom live in traditional Mongolian Gers pitched amidst the craters of Geo Gold mining company, a small Mongolian run mine. Living conditions are difficult for the inhabitants of Geo Ninja camp. There is no running water for miles and the Ninja are forced to drink contaminated water that trickles from underground springs in some of the craters. The work is dangerous and there is always the threat that Geo Gold's self-appointed security team who are armed with a semi-automatic rifle will arrest them.
© Ivor Prickett