Mongolia to be transformed by giant Rio Tinto copper mine – by Andrew Critchlow (The Telegraph – May 23, 2015)

Land of Genghis Khan to become global copper superpower after mega deal to build giant underground Oyu Tolgoi mine

On the face of it, Mongolia – a landlocked and wild land – hasn’t changed much since Genghis Khan and his Golden Horde pillaged their way across Asia in the 13th century. The country’s population is still predominantly made up of nomadic herders living in yurts and drinking airag – fermented mare’s milk.

But this is all about to change after an agreement was reached between the government and Rio Tinto last week to develop one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines at Oyu Tolgoi, which literally means Turquoise Hill. The development of the mine is expected to trigger a rush to exploit $1  trillion (£638bn) worth of mineral resources that are thought to exist in the country and drag its mainly agrarian society into the modern age.

Signs of this transformation are already apparent on the streets of the capital Ulan Bator where around 40pc of the country’s 2.8m population now live. Skyscrapers and new office developments across the city are confronting signs of the impending change that the arrival of the mining industry will bring. Oyu Tolgoi is at the forefront of this new era, which according to the Chimediin Saikhanbileg, the prime minister, will “benefit Mongolian citizens for generations to come”.

Developing the major next phase of the mine not only signals a new era of modernity for Mongolia but an important turning point for the global mining industry, which has been focused squarely on retrenchment over the past two years as the so called commodities “super cycle” ran out of momentum. Oyu Tolgoi marks the first new major project to move forward in the current cycle and could see other major miners begin to once again look at developing new capacity, especially in copper.

However, reaching a final deal to develop the underground mine, which contains 80pc of Oyu Tolgoi’s monetary value has been a rocky road for both sides. The Anglo-Australian mining company shut down initial underground operations at Oyu Tolgoi amid a dispute over the terms of the project with the previous government.

This had a devastating affect on Mongolia’s economy, which was already becoming dependent on revenue from the project’s above-ground operations. Starved of hard currency, the government was forced to turn to China to fund its budget.

Moody’s Investors Service warns that Mongolia’s economy is fragile. According to its ‘External Vulnerability Indicator’ – which measures the adequacy of reserves relative to external debt payments in the next 12 months – Mongolia stands at 230pc in 2015; significantly above the 100pc threshold that indicates fragility in the balance of payments.

Mr Saikhanbileg, who is known as a moderniser, wants to turn this around but faces opposition from parties who are concerned that Mongolia will lose its identity and ultimately become entirely dependent on the mining industry.

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