There is no doubt about it: Mongolia is not a land blessed by the gods, a rich land offering wealth to any and every fortune hunter, as the international media would have us believe. Quite the opposite.
While mineral resources may have brought vast financial wealth to the State, social inequality has been made dramatically worse by intensive mining, with serious effects on human health and the environment. And the first victims are the people of Mongolia. With polluted air, water and land, plus poor hygiene and sanitation, health problems have soared. The authorities refuse to acknowledge the facts, determined to promote an idyllic image of the country in a bid to attract ever more foreign investors and tourists.
Since the end of the communist regime, since Mongolia turned to democracy and the market economy, many public entities have collapsed for want of continued funding. The healthcare system and the education system, both now falling apart, stand as examples of the State’s disregard for these sectors and lack of interest in implementing any genuine and sustainable policy on development to benefit the population.
Corruption has undermined every part of society. It may be highly organized, as is the case in the upper echelons where decisions on mineral resources provide personal fortunes for the chosen few, or for the middle classes it may be a way of surviving on low wages. With rampant inflation and the ever-increasing cost of living, this devious system has now become entrenched. Ironically, as capital pours in from mining companies contributing to the nation’s wealth, poverty has become more widespread and is now endemic in both cities and on the steppe. The election promise of a share in the nation’s wealth has not been kept, and discontent is brewing.
Since the early 2000s, many communities have abandoned rural areas for the city, overcrowding Ulan Bator, the economic and political hub of the country. Every year, another 60 000 migrants settle on the outskirts of the city. With traffic congestion in the city center and widespread use of coal for heating, it is now one of the most polluted cities in the world.
In rural areas, the situation is not much better. In some regions, traditional animal farming practices have been abandoned in favor of intensive livestock production systems, for the sole purpose of immediate profit, and mindless of the consequences as the desert encroaches over entire valleys and mining endangers ecosystems, as is the case in the Gobi Desert where the water tables may dry up. The situation is urgent. Mongolia must react, must develop a wide-ranging, diversified policy for sustainable development, must take every step to avoid mining taking over everything, and provide support for other sectors that can bring prospects for employment.
With a population of less than three million, only one-third working and many suffering from serious health problems, it is difficult to understand why the State does not show greater interest in the people so essential for national growth and development.
Mongolia today is a fragile country, like the capital city itself, balanced on a seismic fault and threatened with destruction.
The Mongolian Project is intended as an in-depth documentary report on Mongolian society today. Members of the project team are Anaïs Jumel, Coralie Griell, Antonin Lechat and Tristan Lefilleul.