The Muslim Miners of Mongolia – by Saleem Ali (National Geographic – June 9, 2015)

Five years ago I wrote a book called Treasures of the Earth, in which I developed an argument around how redefining our relationship with primary geological resources is the most elemental means of charting a pathway for environmental and social sustainability.

Extracting resources can bring much pain and promise to the people who are involved or impacted by the process. Nevertheless, the advent of extraction has been an essential part of the development of modern society.

The allure of mineral wealth is a common human impulse shared by most global cultures and creeds. Mining rushes are moments of convergence and nowhere is this more apparent these days than Mongolia – that vast land-locked country which once sent hordes of gallant warriors to conquer more than half of Asia.

The country is booming with mining professionals from all over the world as one of the world’s largest forecasted copper mines got approval to move forward with expansion in mid-May.

The history of mining in Mongolia, and the resulting migration of multiple cultures, is certainly not new. The mining town of Sharyn Gol in northern Mongolia exemplifies the convergence of cultures that mining booms can catalyze. During the 1960s, a coal rush brought Kazakh Muslim communities from the far West of the region to this remote locale nestled between rolling grasslands.

Islam and Mongolia have intersected for centuries as the great conquering Mongol nomads clashed with Muslim lands in Turkik regions further west. The progeny of these Khans built empires such as the Mughals, which headed back east to reign over South Asia for several centuries.

Yet many of those intersections are now mere vestiges of occasional common words found in languages, rather than substantive cultural connections. For better or for worse, State nationalism and religious trajectories have taken dominant Islamic and Mongolian societies in different directions.

My first visit to Mongolia was in 2002 when the country was opening up to the world. A majority of the population at the time were living a nomadic existence and moving through the landscape with the seasons. Privatization brought a rush of investors from far and wide, including a little known American investor named James Passin, who started buying resource ventures in the country.

Through the acquisitions of his Firebird Investments, Passin was featured by Bloomberg media as “The American who Bought Mongolia.” Among Firebird’s recent acquisitions is the Sharyn Gol coal mine which has also benefited from an investment injection by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

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