I just wanted to reflect on the Churchill fellowship at the point where the train begins to cross the border into China. Although I’ve met a lot of people, they are not necessarily the contacts I had first envisioned. Email trails often led to nowhere useful. Meeting people face to face was the best way of getting things done.
I’d had a long correspondence with Rio Tinto on the mining side, but they have some well publicised issues at the moment. There’s trouble at Turquoise Hill in relation to financing the expansion of the third-largest copper mine in the world. In the end couldn’t have visitors on site. I met some Canadian interns of theirs who still hadn’t seen the operation at Oyu Tolgoi despite being there for a month, hence I wasn’t so disappointed. On the last day in Ulan Bataar I met some researchers who have a pilot operation at Erdenet copper mine, but by that point it was too late to arrange a trip out there. Only via making a contact in the Mining Dept in government (through a bit of presumptuous visiting) I was able to make it out to Boroo Gold, which was excellent and exceeded my expectations in many ways. It also serves as a useful precedent for visits to come – their openness and willingness to host me indicates that they are taking CSR seriously. In a way this might serve as a litmus test for visits to come.
One of the aspects I’d hoped to cover was artisan miners or “ninjas” as they are known. However, this activity is illegal. When I’d met the people from the environment department in government they told me they do not interact with international NGOs who are working with healthcare for Ninjas. Quite often these illegal miners use mercury to make an amalgam, with serious implications for their families because of exposure to this metal. For the Mongolian government, to support the NGOs is tantamount to endorsing the illegal mining trade. While I’d had some contacts given to me, it proved nigh impossible to arrange anything tangible. The security and safety issues around the illegal mining trade mean that it isn’t realistic to just locate a ninja in the Mongolian steppe and ask him to take a break so we can have a chat about his black market trade. This difficulty isn’t unique to the Mongolian scenario – it serves to underline the difficulty of working with pollution and health problems created by artisanal metal extraction.
In other ways, the Mongolian segment has been more rewarding than I could have expected. Meeting Soninkhishig was fantastic, and spending a couple of days with her, Tongua and Naraa at the National University were enormously energising and inspirational. We set up some small experiments, improvising a bit, but getting a functional system for growing algae in the end. We were so joyful at our little accomplishment when the cultures began to bubble. I will never forget their inclusiveness, and positive attitude. I hope that this is just the beginning of a longer story. It was also a good lesson in allowing the time and space to develop these spontaneous projects during this trip.