The guys sitting at the table behind me were discussing what would be needed to set up an office in the city; the one with the North American accent was talking as though money was no object.
His primary concerns were getting enough skilled locals to work in the office and also getting some indication of what the pending new mining-related legislation might look like.
The local assured him there would be no problem getting skilled people who would meet the government’s growing demands that large international mining companies employ more locals.
He acknowledged that given the upcoming elections it was difficult to forecast precisely what the mining-related legislation would look like, but he believed the government would not bow to local demands for higher tax and more stringent environmental regulations.
It could have been the Park Hyatt in Rosebank on any day of the year or the Taj Hotel in Cape Town during the Mining Indaba, but I was in fact sitting in the Grand Khan pub in downtown Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. The place was peppered with expatriates from North America and Australia who were either in Ulaanbaatar running an office or on their way through to one of the massive mining sites that are springing up around a country that is now referred to as Minegolia.
After a week or so in the country, it was difficult not to wonder how much ordinary Mongolians would benefit as huge chunks of their country were dug up and exported at substantial cost to the environment. It was impossible not to believe that the biggest beneficiaries of Mongolia’s massive mining wealth would be foreign mining companies and their shareholders, as well as the Chinese economy, which is set to soak up anything that can be dug out of Mongolia for the foreseeable future.
It is certainly difficult to imagine ordinary Mongolians will see much benefit from their country’s wealth.
After 70 years under effective rule by the Soviet Republic the country underwent a democratic revolution in 1990. Its largely rural and nomadic population of 3 million is no match for the ultra-sophisticated lawyer-backed powerful international mining industry.
The army of economists, bankers, consultants and analysts that inevitably follows in the wake of big industry already complains loudly – on an international stage – about any seeming attempts to restrain the activities of the multinationals.
“The repeated delay of one of Mongolia’s signature markets is sending mixed signals to foreign investors and has the potential to erode investor confidence in the resource-rich central Asian country,” wrote one “expert” about the government’s efforts to adjudicate a licensing dispute involving five countries.
For the average Mongolian it must be difficult to understand the urgency. It’s not as though the stuff – coal, copper, gold, silver, uranium and molybdenum – is going to rot in the ground.
It’s not as though a few years delay is going to make much difference to the Mongolians, who have sat with this “wealth” since the beginning of time and who not only have no concept of landownership but who have traditionally believed it was wrong to dig into the earth.
Earlier that week I had spent a few days with a nomadic family in their ger on the steppes. It was mid-March and although not the depths of winter, the temperature was still inclined to plummet to minus 20ºC. With the exception of a solar panel, which was used to recharge a cellphone and keep a 15 watt light bulb going, not a huge amount had changed since the days of Genghis Khan 800 years earlier.
There was no running water, no electricity, the chief mode of transport was horseback and motorbike and the one-roomed ger was kept warm by a stove powered by dung from the family’s herd of goats. Later in spring the family would dismantle the ger and take all of their belongings and goats to their summer site.
The mother told me she hoped the seasons would return to normal so they would not be forced, like the tens of thousands of other nomadic families, to move into town and try and eke out a living on a meagre government grant. She was angry with the “parliament members” because “they are greedy and just want to sell (mining) licences and get money for themselves”.