On a hillside overlooking the steppes of northeastern Mongolia, an entire family shovels jet-black chunks of coal into a truck. Every half-hour or so, they fire up a machine that steadily pulls a steel cable attached to what looks like a roller-coaster car emerging from a hole in the ground. It takes five minutes before it arrives at the surface, full of more coal, extracted by cousins working half-a-mile beneath the earth.
For some rural Mongolians, risking their lives in crude, makeshift mines is the only way to survive.
“The leather factory I worked at went bankrupt,” says Enkhbat, 47, as he wipes sweat from his face. “I looked for other jobs, but most employers in my town have stopped paying their workers. Here, inside the mine, we bring out coal with our bare hands and sell it for cash. We are our own bosses.”
Mongolia’s $11.8 billion economy, based heavily on mining, boomed in recent years but now has tanked alongside the falling prices of coal, copper and other commodities. Facing mass unemployment as companies go bankrupt, the Mongolian government and the International Monetary Fund are working out an emergency bailout.
A 2014 report by the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation estimated that one in five rural Mongolians — 100,000 people — are mining coal and gold on their own to make ends meet. Such mining is legal with the proper license, but Nalaikh’s abandoned mines are filled with several unlicensed brigades that are mining illegally.
These workers commonly are known as “artisanal miners.” Enkhbat — Mongolians go only by their first names — shuns the pleasant-sounding label, saying that he and his coworkers are simply mining to survive. His team belongs to a “brigade” — 15 workers, family and friends who have pooled their money to buy equipment to extract what’s left from an old, Soviet-era coal mine, abandoned in the 1990s.
“They say there is still enough coal under the ground here to last more than 50 years,” Enkhbat says.
And that’s why this mine, a former ghost town in the northeastern Mongolian city of Nalaikh, is now filled with life. Among the brick skeletons of warehouses and train depots, the landscape atop the abandoned mine is sprinkled with dozens of cream-colored gers, the tents of nomadic herders, each one housing a do-it-yourself mining brigade.
Batbayar, a sturdy 34-year-old whose long hair is contained under a headlamp, says wherever there’s a tent, there’s a shaft. It can take weeks of digging to find an untapped vein of coal. His brigade — a different one than Enkhbat’s — has found one, after digging a tunnel nearly half-a-mile down. Now he and others shovel enough coal to fill seven two-ton trucks a day. Most of it is sold to people in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, to heat their homes.
Each brigade member earns the equivalent of $200 a month, more than enough to feed their families, though less than two-thirds the country’s average income.
“It’s pretty dangerous work,” says Batbayar. “We place logs inside the shaft for support, but sometimes they collapse under the weight of the earth. Last week, five people from a brigade next to us were killed when their tunnel collapsed.”
According to official figures, about a dozen workers die inside these mines each year, but because many of the brigades aren’t regulated by the government, the actual number of those buried here is likely much higher. Coal miners also are known to have have high rates of lung cancer, dust-induced chronic bronchitis and pneumoconiosis.
Inside a neighboring brigade’s tent, a father straps on a headlamp, grabs a shovel and kisses his two-year-old son. He leaves him with the only woman in the brigade before descending into the mine shaft on a cart attached to a cable. The child screams for his father, tears making trails on a face that’s black from playing in mounds of coal outside. The woman tells him to stop crying or, she says jokingly, “The foreign journalist will beat you.”
The child screams even harder.
She finally gives him her phone, and he plays a video game on his bed, calming himself. The woman’s name is Sainaa — she’s 35 years old. She recently lost her job as a nurse, so she came here to cook and clean for the family brigade.
“I’ll have to stay here this year, and I hope to find a more proper job next spring,” she says with a look of worry. “If I can’t find anything, things will get difficult. What I make here is next to nothing. At least I can take care of this poor child.”
She watches the toddler on the bed, his father now working deep beneath our feet.
“This is no place for a child,” she says — after a pause adding: “This is no place for me, either.”