Text by Anaïs Jumel, photographs by Olivier Laban-Mattei
The little town of Nalaikh stretchs about fifty kilometers away from the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar.
It is from there that come from tons of coal supplying the stoves of almost all the households of the metropolis’ ger districts. The coal, main responsible for the air pollution in the city is also the main source of income of the residents of Nalaikh as hundreds of them go down into the depths of the earth to extract the precious ore.
Ulaanbaatar, designated the world’s most polluted capital in 2013 by the World Health Organisation (WHO), is a city constantly mutating. Here, the number of building sites increase continuously, darkening the sky with future malls, hotels, apartments. Surrounded by mountains, the city is the repository of the carbon dioxide among others. The traffic, the thermal power plants and the industry are partly responsible for the alarming rate of particle matters (PM2.5) spread in the atmosphere. Here, the air can rise up to two hundred times too saturated in PM 2.5, compared with the health security limits established by the WHO. And day after day, it asphyxiates city-dwellers representing from now on almost half of the country’s total population.
The coal, first responsible for this fouled air, is largely used in Ulaanbaatar’s neighbourhoods, excessively named ger districts. Being the major fuel of these deprived areas, it releases during its ignition some toxic smokes which are disseminated into each city streets as an impenetrable and suffocating cloud during the coldest hours of winter. A thick mantle of smoke runs through the clothes and skin with its oppressive smell. Nalaikh domestic coal, of which everybody sings the praises, comes by trucks to be sold to individuals living close-by capital’s ger districts.
In the middle of the steppe, at the crossroads of an old asphalt road with potholes of all sizes is the only main access to the little prosperous mining town where come and go all day long the coal trucks. Far away, the snowy curves of the mountains are outlined with the blue sky background. Nalaikh kept the architecture of its Soviet past, as if it was frozen in times. The massive buildings of faded colours mark off the little streets of the small town. Few shops, canteens succeed each other along the main street. In the morning, schoolchildren and miners groups pass each other on the pavements. At the central square, a monumental statue pompously stands in tribute to the miners. On its base is engraved « let’s keep the sun in the sky and preserve the fire into the ground forever ».
At the premises of the first World War, the city activity has been intensively developed through coal extraction, in order to overcome the colossal needs of the red army. Until the end of the nineties and the fall of the USSR, 1 568 workers were daily headed towards the mines thanks to the railway with which the city was equipped then.
Following the railway now abandoned, after the last ger districts, the scenery gradually turns into a lunar landscape. Again today, although the decline of the legal mining activity, coal extraction remains Nalaikh major economic resource. The post-war devastated landscape, the western movie scenery, the desolated, rugged site stretches in the all valley. Mounds, cairns, rubbish heaps, wobbly shelters made of worm-eaten wood and worn out metal sheets, abandoned and eroded extraction towers, not a single meter appears to be spared from the anarchical activity of the mankind.
Taking over the former veins of the Soviet site neglected by the young and rising Mongolian democracy, hundreds of clandestine miners go down every day in there. About ten meters deep into the ground, with extreme work conditions, on the fringe of the legality. They succeed in digging countless holes and drifts, all over the area, and thus multiplying the collapsing risks. The miners are nicknamed coal ninjas insofar as they behave in the same illegality as the clandestine gold washers, the ninjas.
« The State left the site for lack of money. So the local population, like me, have been carrying on the activity, clandestinely. It is not really illegal as long as the State permits it, despite the risks for our security. The authorities turn a blind eye to what we do here because they know that they cannot offer a better job instead. », Bek supports with a warm voice in spite of the authoritarian look that inspires his impressive stature. An illegal activity so, but tolerated, which provides a living for the 30 000 souls of Nalaikh. « There are laws, but beyond the laws, there is life », justifies himself one of the local policemen.
Bek, with his red hat on his head and dressed with a dusty military vest, seems to do not suffer from the cold despite the freezing wind blowing across the plains which makes fall the temperatures below minus thirty degrees celsius. He is the boss of one of Nalaikh clandestine mining concessions. « In January 1991, a big explosion happened in the mines. Around thirty people died », he carries on. His mine is located only few meters away from the house of cards, the former main building of the disused train station which partially collapsed in 2007. Seven years later, because of the too numerous galleries dug under the foundations, the right wing of the impressive pinkish hued structure with its neat mouldings felt down in its turn. The only remnants of the prosperous hours of the Soviet period are a heap of bricks and even more the cracks on the still standing walls of the edifice.
All around the site, there are still many old mining concessions like Bek’s. He is here for ten years or so. Five people work under his command, more down than thirty meters deep into the ground. This former machinist of the Soviet mine with a jovial and bright smile was born and raised on these lands. His family, with Kazakh origins, comes from the Bayan Oligii region, western Mongolia. They settled down in Nalaikh in the 1960’s, such as many other families, answering the Soviet authorities’ call. They were looking for a strong and voluntary workforce for this laborious job. Nowadays, the Kazakh population, belonging to the Muslim faith, represents around 80% of the town citizens. Still now, many families come here, eager for the hope of a better life in the earth depths.
Women are rare on the sites. More often, they stay in the gers close to the concessions and prepare meals for the miners. « By the time of the Russian mines, women worked on the site, that’s true, because everything was automatic », jokes Bek before pulling himself together more seriously : « but, even if they are able to do this job with us into the mines, they don’t do it. It’s our duty to protect our women. Mine stays at home during winter and works in a tourists camp in summer. »
The mining labour often gathers together men of the same family. Around thousands meters away from Bek’s mining concession, Amarsaikhan is the watchman of another site. Over sixty years old, he oversees the site, sheltered inside his rickety shack covered with metal sheets and put up on oxidized pylons few meters away from the mine. He scans in the vicinity, sat on his bunk next to the coal stove. « The young ones go down to the mines now. Before, I was a miner too, on the Russian site. But in 1991, I started to have some respiratory problems. Now it’s my son who goes down into the mine. » Between two sentences, he jumps off his bed made of planks and glances at the outside, through the little dirty windows. He watches, then carries on : « For ten years, I work here twenty-four hours, then I can rest for the next two days and then I go back to my guard duty. It’s the equipment that might be stolen. So I watch. And I also take care of the stove, I supply it, so the workers will be warm for their breaks. » One month of guard duty brings him 150 000 MNT (64 euros). His boss offers him also a full truck of coal each winter.
Outside, the miners bustle about. With these freezing temperatures, their breath disperse into big condensation curls. In spite of this laborious toil and the harsh weather, they relentlessly work without any complaint, from the early morning till the night fall, under the light beam of the incandescent lamps. Their tatty clothes, black because of the dust, are piled up on their hurt bodies in order to outwit the penetrating cold. Supplied with electricity, the mining site is equipped with a ventilation system which renews the air of the workers down in the ground. At the surface, Bayaraa takes care of stoking the winch with the help of a wooden stake that he directly sticks in the connections of the wobbly electric pannel made out of few planks. Before that, he was working in a gold mine in the Gobi. His problems with alcool made him come here to work. Tirelessly, he sorts out the coal blocks. He sifts the little shards and loads the trucks with the bigger blocks. He repeats all day long a rapid and mastered movement. He discharges in pace the content of his shovel inside the trams in a thunderous noise.
Every day, the « black faces », equipped with their shovel and pickaxe, go down by the strength of their arms into the frozen gallery. They climb back up, each hour, with the help of the winch, the « boats » loaded of 500 kg of coal blocks. The clandestine miners work according to the demand and are paid depending on the percentage of the daily benefits and then on the number of trucks which come to stock up every day in Nalaikh in order to resell the fossil fuel in the Ulaanbaatar districts streets. Each vans can convey around four tons of coal. Depending on the market, one ton worths 50 000 MNT (around 20 euros). The load will then be sold between 280 000 et 350 000 MNT (between 120 and 150 euros) to wholesalers in the capital. Cold is the miners’ ally. It allows them to extract the ore without fearing to see the earth collapsing on them each time they dig. It also provides them a lucrative business. « We wait impatiently for the cold, describes one of the drivers a little bit further, because the more it’s getting cold, the more we will have to bring coal to the city. And to respond to this demand, we will need more workforce. So, we could increase our prices then. » A market logic that does not suit the families of Ulaanbaatar ger districts, where live the most modest households of the capital.
From the mining concession where Amarzaikhan works, the site stretches as far as the eyes can see. The trucks of the coal retailers cut across the heap of rocks and stones. Packs of dogs, like four legged gangs, wander here and there through the mining concessions. The carcass of other mutts frozen to death will be their meal. Winter had frozen some stretches of water, only leaving a thick layer of smooth and immaculate ice. The snow, very little this year, still forms some heaps aside the tracks taken by the joggling trucks, moving clouds of dust on their way. As if they were petrified, the only trees that grow on this stony soil are dry, reduced to stunted trunks. The impenetrable and vertiginous darkness of the disused mines makes the blood run cold. Death lurks. Heavy, unhealthy, it is omnipresent on the site. A hell made of earth, ice and coal.
Towards the west, few meters away from an disused open pit mining site, rests one of the city’s brick factories. These mills mainly belong to Chinese people and are worthless to the Mongolian miners who prefer coal. It is here, below their feet. They are all ready to risk their life to go down into their makeshift holes and to wrest, what some people here call, « the black gold » out. Even if the open pit is currently the property of a Chinese entrepreneur, Batbilget claims his right to exploit these lands. Settled down here with his team, around hundred meters away from another group of miners, he started to dig by the strength of his arms more than a week ago. The Police, who carried out an inspection on the concession site few days ago, cut him the electricity, officially for security reasons. His neighbour, located a little bit higher, refused to connect him the power. Far from giving up, his workers and him are taking turns all day long, till dusk, to dig the narrow tunnel with the only help of picks.
At 34 years old, Batbilegt’s hands are already callous, blackened by the earth labor. His large palms are covered by a thick layer of calluses. « I started to dig the ground around here last year », remembers this father of three little girls, allowing himself a little break. His tatty clothes are covered by a fine and tenacious grey dust. « We invested so much for the equipment. I borrowed a lot of money for this ! But at the moment, I have found nothing. », he deplores while smoking cigarette after cigarette. As a child, he has already worked in the mines, so he allows himself to think that he masters his work and the security of his employees. Few steps away from him, the entrance of his mine looks more like a tomb rather than anything else. Without shorings, at the moment, the gallery vertically plunges six meters into the ground. Into the dark depths, a young miner, twenty years old or so, pulls out one after another, pieces of rocks, without any helmet to protect him. The team is optimistic. They think they could reach the first layer of coal in about two or three meters and so being able to finally start their business. « There is no competition between the bosses and the workers… Quite the opposite ! Sometimes, miners unite in face of big issues, but there is not any miners association strictly speaking…The only problem lies in the authorities. It is always easier to attack the little mines rather than the big companies. But the coal is ours ! We were born here ! We can even eat it if we want to ! », he lets out before going back to work.
The effect of this solidarity and fraternity can be felt daily.
In the early morning, hundreds of miners are gathered close to the former railways. Many have dropped their work in order to mobilize against a private company, appointed by the State, coming to cut their power. The director of this company, beige coat and stylish handbag, waves some papers signed by high leaders which give her the power to put an end to the activity of about thirthy illegal concessions on this area of the site. The reason refers to : the miners’ security. « If you want to close the mines, don’t only attack the Poor ! », rages one of the rare women present among the contesters. Despite the biting cold, she does not have much clothes, seethes with anger : « You take our livelihood ! If we close down our mines we cannot live ! ».
The responsible for the operations, her face hidden in her dark thick scarf, paces up and down, in silence, trying to escape the crowd of pursuers, enduring continual jeering. « Go back to your office ! ». « You just have to cut the electricity to the Chinese too ! ». « We invested too much in our mines ! ». « We don’t have any reason to live anymore ! ».
Aside, an old man with a calm and quiet voice, comments on the scene from the top of a slope. His blank eyes are eaten into cataract. He opens his heart, saying one by one his thoughts at loud : « We work to live. We are not thieves. We work just like others. I did not ask for money to the government ! Me, I am here for my children. » He is the father of twelve children. Like the majority of miners, his entire family relies on the coal economy. « If they close our holes, the young ones will turn into alcoholics, thieves… They will go to jail ! They do not have any other solution », he despairs. Around him, the miners, grave faced, form a block in front of the electric pannel. Impossible to have access to it. Facing them, the policemen try to demand respect. In vain. In their tight uniforms, they are overwhelmed by the situation. Not able to hold back the infuriated workers, they merely escort the security team to their car. And yet, few minutes earlier, one of the representants of the autorities was proudly saying : « here it’s like in the USA. There are sheriffs. And the sheriff here, it’s me ».
The miners won the battle, but they expect them to come back. The epitome of irony, the coal ninjas have to pay each month 400 000 MNT ( 170 euros) for their electricity bill. Their access to electricity is vital for them as it allows them to use the mecanic winch, for which they invested around seven millions of tugriks (2 950 euros) for each mining concession. A financial danger but essential, adds to the precariousness of their situation. Many among the miners are denouncing the authorities excesses regarding the most vulnerable workers. Abuses of authority, racket organized by the Police, intimidations… Nevertheless, the situation seems to get better according to Batbilegt, since the new mayor took up his post in 2012. Despite this, the testimonies abound, once the speech is given to the ninjas. One of them tells his own story, tired of the treatment inflicted to the little ones : « The policemen told me : you give us a full truck of coal or you pay. And then, we will leave you work in peace. Someone called Munkh told me that he would cover me if I gave him 500 000 tugriks (200 euros), it was supposed to be for an exploitation contract. But once the governement asked me to justify my activity, so I discovered that this contract did not worth a thing. And Munkh had already disappeared. »
On the side of the local autorities, the speech aims at tolerance. In his big office overloaded with massive shinny varnished furnitures, Arslan Ganbold, the Nalaikh’s People spokesman admits the atypical situation of the miners and the question about their legality. « We estimate that there are sixty millions tons of coal in our soil, this is why the miners stayed to continue this activity even after 1990 », he describes. On each side of his desk, proudly sit the flags of Mongolia and of the city of Nalaikh. Its emblem reminds the coal mines. « Life and laws are two different things. We just cannot simply expel the miners. »
These last twenty years, the Mongolian Ministry of Mining reported 198 deaths in the mines of Nalaikh, 101 due to direct accidents, while the respiratory and heart diseases, due to the inhalation of the volatile dust, continue to decimate the ranks of the workers. Many miners, like the old Amarsaikhan who suffers of breathing disorders, are obliged to go each month to the hospital in order to get a appropriate medical treatment to their condition.
Despite an up-and-coming « clean » coal on the market, from the Shariin gol mines in the north of the country, Ganbold remains confident about the future of the coal mining sites in Nalaikh. Of an exceptional quality (it ignites quickly and burns for a long time), Nalaikh’s coal stays the best on the market. A reality well known from the miners who keep doing their harsh labor untiringly. Ganbold gives more details : « in January 2013, there were still 319 clandestine mining concessions in which were still working more than 1 500 people ».
An activity that offers jobs even beyond the little town, up to Ulaanbaatar. Here, on the pavements separating the ger disctricts of Chingeltei and Bayangol, in the north of the city, little coal shops come one after another. These little stores settled down near by the roads are everywhere all along the main roads of these areas in order to supply the families in coal.
Among them, Munkhtsegtseg retails the coal coming from the mines of Nalaikh. For seventeen years, in spite of the racket from the policemen, she works here by the side of the road. « Each month, sometimes each week, the Police come to see us and ask us to pay 20 000 or 40 000 tugriks (8 to 17 euros). If we pay, they let us work », she explains, embittered. Once again, even if it is illegal, this activity is allowed once the workers manage to buy their quietness from the autorities.
Wrapped in several layers of clothes, she defies the freezing cold during more than fourteen hours a day, with her two employees. Many cars stop by, mainly regular customers, and the big bags of coal are loaded into the trunks. These bags, aroung twenty kilos each, she sells them 3 000 MNT each (1,30 euros). Three days later, according to the temperatures, the families will come back to stock up.
And the cloud of pollution will keep overruning on the capital, spreading its so particular smell of soot, coming pouring down on the inhabitants, bringing its sinister share of cancers, breathing and cardiovascular diseases and opportunistic infections. Weakening the bodies and its defences, pollution has also a major impact on the health of the inhabitants of Ulaanbaatar, overcoming more strenuously the most vulnerable ones and leading to consequences going beyond the sanitary issues inside families. Repercussions are worsening even more the social injustices that keep increasing during the rush to development that imposes the country on itself.