“Poorly regulated artisanal mining benefits no one, pushes people into criminality”
Tugsbilegt spoke to Andre Xavier, Honorary Assistant Professor at the Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering at the University of British Columbia, about a recent study titled “Assessment of the Social and Economic Impact of COVID-19 on Women Artisanal Miners in Zaamar Soum of Tuv Province in Mongolia”. What was the context of the project?
There are over 40 million artisanal miners globally, and with most of them forming vulnerable communities, the World Bank has been working in this area for many decades.
Presidential Election with Unbalanced Power
On May 24, 2021, U.Khurelsukh (MPP), S. Erdene (DP) and D. Enkhbat (National Labour Party), candidates for the 8th Presidential Election of Mongolia, received their certification from the General Election Committee and officially started their election campaigns.
This election has several interesting features. First, according to the Election Law revised under the amended Constitution, the candidates will promote themselves to the public for only 14 days and stop the campaigning on the day prior to voting day (06.09). Never has such a short campaign taken place in Mongolia’s history. The previous shortest campaign, which was carried out within 15 days, took place in 1993. Of course, this period is too short for candidates who are not well-known and accepted in society, who have limited team support and financial resources. I think that it is clearly seen for whom the current Election Law is aimed at.
Only new deposits can make the gold sector a stable source of revenue
When policy makers said turnover in the gold sector would be between $1 billion and $2 billion, some felt this was being wildly optimistic, but last year’s figures have proved them wrong, with the total value of the gold trade reaching almost $2 billion. The question now is: can this continue? That will depend very much on the success of geological studies in discovering gold deposits and registering fresh resources, as well as on grant of new exploration licences for such discoveries in future.
Informal estimates put our total gold reserves at 2,000 tonnes, of which 1,000 tonnes is mixed with the copper in Oyu Tolgoi. According to information provided by the Ministry of Mining and Heavy Industry (MMHI), about 90 percent of the reserves of 489.5 tonnes outside the Oyu Tolgoi deposit, are in hard rock deposits, with placer gold deposits accounting for the rest. Much of the gold in hard rock deposits is mixed with other minerals such as copper, lead or zinc.
BUM Gold work to define geological research: Monpolymet
The national Gold 2 programme envisages two separate geological research projects for the western and eastern regions of Mongolia. BUM-Gold 2019, executed by Monpolymet, is responsible for thematic research on gold mineralization and prospects in the Western, Southwestern and Khangai regions -- covering the 12 aimags of Bayan-Ulgii, Uvs, Khovd, Zavkhan, Gobi-Altai, Bayankhongor, Uvurkhangai, Arkhangai, Khuvsgul, Bulgan, Dundgovi and Umnugovi. The project started in August, 2019 and covers an area that is 1/3 of the total territory of Mongolia, giving an idea of how large its scope is. It involves studying 5,000 to 6,000 individual sites in the region, such as primary and placer gold mining occurrences, scattering ranges, and geochemical anomalies.
China’s ban on Australian coal: Russia edging out Mongolia to fill market vacuum
While China barred the import of Australian coking coal, an interesting competition was on to fill the large space thus left vacant in the Chinese market, the world’s largest. Data from December, 2020 show China imported no coking coal at all from Australia, 1.5 million tonnes from Mongolia, and 1.1 million tonnes from Russia, some 700,000 tonnes more than the monthly average. A China-based coal news agency, Today Think Thank, has wondered if Australian coal entered China through a third country. Even with the year-end ban, figures for 2020 as a whole show that Australia was the major coking coal exporter to China, accounting for 35.5 million tonnes or more than half of China’s total import of this major component of steel manufacture. The ban is unlikely to be lifted in the first quarter of the year, though in January China did allow some ships carrying Australian coking coal that were stuck in ports to unload their cargo.
MSE BOSS SEES EXCITING TIMES AHEAD
Several factors are behind the MSE being so active since the beginning of the new year. Banks have lowered their interest rate on savings with them, thereby pushing citizens and companies to look for new places where their investments will earn better returns. Some of this money has been put into the stock market and this has kept us busy. Also, most commercial banks will become public ones, and this means a lot of preparatory work for us, but, of course, before they offer their shares to the general investor, their accounts and balance sheets have to be properly audited and their credit ratings done by international agencies.
Much at stake in the upcoming OT negotiations
Oyu Tolgoi is at a turning point, with clear indications that conditions would be created to allow Mongolia to benefit more from the project. In a change of stance, Rio Tinto has announced that it is open to revise and modify the project agreement. While once the company’s then CEO, Jean Sebastien Jacques, insisted that any negotiation had to be only within the existing agreements, the present CEO, Jakob Stausholm, has expressed his readiness to make changes in them.
Rio Tinto’s flexibility could very well be due to the fact that the project becomes more attractive as it gets closer to the start of sustainable production at the underground mine. Extraction cost is relatively low, ore content is high, and as a green metal, copper is a prize asset for any diversified miner.
ARTISANAL GOLD: OPPORTUNITIES FOR RESPONSIBLE INVESTMENT
Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is a significant source of livelihood for millions worldwide. The industry is diverse and can range from individual panners to larger and more mechanized operations. Often an informal business, ASGM is the chief source of income for many rural, low-income communities in the developing world for whom alternative jobs pay less. Globally, the sector accounts for approximately 20% of the gold supply, making it around a USD 35 billion per year industry. Poorly practiced and unsupported by governments, ASGM can be a source of significant negative social and environmental impacts, including the widespread use of mercury, a highly toxic metal. However, when governed well and conducted responsibly and with appropriate environmental safeguards, ASGM can generate significant income and positive social and health benefits for miners and their surrounding communities.
Gold glitters in the economic gloom
It is heartening to see that the gold sector is being developed in the proper professional way, following strict business principles. Mongolian gold export was the highest ever in 2020, and because prices were high, gold earned almost the same as copper concentrate and coal. In a way gold glittered in the gloom of the pandemic.
Aware of gold’s contribution to the foreign currency reserve and thus helping keep the MNT stable, the government is putting a priority on increasing both extractable gold reserves and production and also building a refinery.
The market has never been better than it was in 2020. In August, the price reached $2067/oz, beating the previous highest recorded in 2011. The year’s average price was $1769.6/oz.
Committee set up to help MONVAL Code secure international approval
Given that revenue from mining is the mainstay of the Mongolian economy, it is important to create conditions that would help bring more investment in our exploration and extraction sectors, so that in time we have more mineral resources to export. One way to do this is to follow methods and processes consistent with the global best practice when putting a value on mineral deposits and mining operations. Investment in both exploration and extraction will come only when potential investors can be sure that the object of their interest has been reliably valuated, using internationally accepted methods and codes. Apart from bringing foreign investors into Mongolia, this would also help domestic companies place their assets in stock markets, both international and local.
We have a mining policy; is it implemented?
The Mining Sector Policy 2020-2024 which forms part of the Government’s Action Plan was developed in cohesion with Vision 2050, a document of long-term development. The Khurelsukh government was in power for only seven months so it will not be right to talk about its success or failure in implementation of the policy, except in very general terms, but we could look at the status of certain individual projects, remembering that the entire period was marked by unforeseen economic and social difficulties generated by the pandemic.
The Government must be credited for ensuring that mega projects such as the oil refinery, development of the Oyu Tolgoi underground mine, and construction of the railway moved forward without interruption. This showed that the focus is shifting from extraction to export of value-added products. However, we heard nothing about the copper smelter.
Will 2021 be the year of copper?
Last year was not good for Mongolian coal, with exports earning almost $1 billion less than in 2019. This year, too, exports are not expected to top the 28.6 million tonnes in 2020, which was the lowest since 2017, when the figure stood at 33.4 million tonnes.
According to the National Statistics Office, the total revenue from mineral exports in 2020 was $5.26 billion, down 17.6 percent from the previous year, mainly because of the decline in coal exports. The loss to the country would have been greater if gold had not come to the rescue. The more than 30 tonnes sold by The Bank of Mongolia earned around $1.8 billion, offsetting the loss from coal`s underperformance. However, gold is unlikely to repeat its feat in 2021. In any case, of the 30 tonnes exported last year, only 23.6 tonnes had been bought by the central bank during the year, the rest comong from its reserves.
An ambitious plan needs prudent handling
The Government has prepared a list of 100 projects for implementation in the coming four years, and will release it as it completes 100 days in office. The focus is on import substitution and production of value-added products for export. MNT10 trillion would come from the state budget for some of these projects, and long-term loans – there is no word on their amount -- from foreign donor organizations would be used for some others. Another MNT47 trillion would have to come from foreign investment, in the form of public-private partnership/concessions, and as private investment. The government is exploring where to look for the money. The Spring session of parliament, beginning in April, is expected to approve the projects and their investment source.
BoM to continue financial support to gold miners
In 2020, the Bank of Mongolia (BoM) bought 23.6 tonnes of gold, 8.3 tonnes more than in the previous year, helping raise the country’s foreign exchange reserve to $4.5 billion, 4.2 percent more than what it was a year earlier. The amount of the difference is enough to meet import needs of the country for 11 months. P. Erdenetuya, Director of the Treasury Department at Mongolia’s central bank, tells L. Nomintsetseg more about how the BoM buys precious metals and how it plans to support gold mining.
Mining to be main issue in presidential election
Note: The first part of this article was written before U. Khurelsukh resigned as Prime Minister. As such, all references to “the Prime Minister” in it should be understood to refer to him as the ex-Prime Minister. Recent days have found the president frustrated as it becomes clear that the amended Constitution has reduced his power, while granting more to the Prime Minister who once compared himself to “a lion with no teeth”. At one time, they felt the same about many things, both expressing themselves in favour of bringing under state ownership deposits where exploration had been carried out with State money, confiscating oligarchs’ assets in accounts abroad, and implementing an equitable policy on distribution of wealth to citizens. Such unanimity at the top made people wonder if Mongolia was going back to being a socialist country, and a vocal group came up applauding the possibility and berating “the 31 families” which, it said, had become rich by cornering mineral deposits.
Foreign trade shows $2.28-billion surplus in 2020
Mongolia’s foreign trade turnover for the full year in 2020 reached $12.9 billion, 6.4% or $876.9 million less YoY. Exports accounted for $7.6 billion, down 0.6% YoY, and imports fell 13.6% YoY to $5.3 billion. The foreign trade balance shows a $2.28-billion surplus.
In terms of mineral exports, 28.6 million tonnes of coal were exported, 7.9 million tonnes or 21.6% less YoY. Revenue from this fell 30.9% to $2.12 billion. The figures for December show that 1.6 million tonnes were exported, 5.6% less YoY and 49.3% less than in November.
Gold was the second largest earner among minerals exported, with 30.5 tonnes exported for $1.79 billion, showing a YoY increase of 236% in volume and 327% in value. Exports in December stood at 2.8 tonnes and earnings at $163 million.
Atomic Energy Law to be amended to attract investment
The Atomic Energy Law, amended six times since it was passed in 2009, is going to have fresh changes to bring its 8 sections and 51 articles in conformity with the post-amendment Constitution. A working group headed by N.Myagmar, Chairman of Legal Department of the Government Secretariat, and with members representing several departments has been set up to prepare the draft amendments. It is still early days and the group is yet to determine the overall rationale for the amendments, but it has started receiving ideas and proposals from the Government Secretariat and from ministries and agencies.
2021 promises to be great, but we must make it so
The year that has just ended was one that changed the way we live anywhere in the world. A pandemic held human interaction hostage and stalled economic progress, and no one can say how long it would take to undo the damage. Mongolia has not been exempt from the disruption in all areas of life, with exports and revenue falling, but our sparse and widely distributed population, helped by strict Government measures, has kept the number of casualties low. Hope springs eternal in the human breast, and as we begin a new year, Mongolians, individually and collectively, look forward to an end of the crisis and to new opportunities opening up.
Building Mongolia’s railway of hope
Trucks with some cover over their cargo of coal move at speed in a seemingly unending line along the road to Gashuunsukhait. Not all make it to the border, though, as accidents are common on the often potholed road, but the overturned or otherwise affected trucks are quickly moved to a side so as not to impede the flow. There is a similar flow in the reverse direction of empty trucks returning from the southern border. The road is kept clear for the economically important traffic, but there is garbage of all kinds on the sides, with the lighter stuff blown in all directions by the wind. Everything is made dark by the dust from the coal and the soil dispersed by the heavily laden trucks. This is how the lifeline of our coal export has been like for the past several years, as we have watched in dismay a decade pass by with much talk and more politics but no progress on the ground on building the TT-GS railway.
How miners are being successfully protected
With the number of locally transmitted cases rising, the mining sector is also in a vulnerable situation, but as it is the mainstay of the national economy, the government is determined that normal mining operations are not interrupted. Special efforts are being made to keep the virus away from Umnugovi aimag, Mongolia’s mining hub. A “green zone” has been demarcated near the border and there are also “safety zones”, intended by the Government to protect all inside them from the risk of being exposed to the virus. A working group headed by O.Batnairamdal, Deputy Minister of Mining and Heavy Industry, is camping in the mining zone to supervise strict compliance with the infection control regime put in place, so that mining does not stop and export continues.