Mongolia Teaching Van Trailblazes A Path To Mercury-Free Mining

This post is from Pure Earth summer intern Sarah Baer, a youth philanthropy leader in her junior year at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mongolian Teaching Van

In the remote reaches of Mongolia, Pure Earth’s project team has put together a teaching van to educate miners on safe, mercury-free practices.

With massive educational posters plastered on all sides, the van is parked in places where miners live and spend time, such as residential neighborhoods or town squares, and always succeeds in attracting attention.

A miner studies the posters hung from the van.

A miner studies the posters hung from the van.

While Petr Sharov, Pure Earth’s regional director for the former Soviet Union, admits that not all miners are receptive to the van’s presence (especially when they are playing pool), usually about 30 or 40 percent approach the mobile outreach unit to study the posters, or watch the educational video that plays on a screen inside.

A group of locals play pool in the town square. The van can be spotted behind them.

A group of locals play pool in the town square. The van can be spotted behind them.

The project team is quick to take advantage of this interest, engaging those who wander up in conversation, handing them educational pamphlets for future study.

Miners and Team Talking

The team talks with all who approach them, eagerly passing out educational materials.

The van travels all over Bayankhongor province in Mongolia to raise awareness about the dangers of toxic mercury and gold mining–a common livelihood among local residents.

Many of Bayankhongor’s artisanal and small-scale gold miners use mercury to extract gold. As mercury is highly toxic, it can severely compromise the health of those exposed.

Worldwide, artisanal and small-scale gold mining is responsible for 30% of toxic mercury emissions. Pure Earth has similar projects to reduce the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining in Peru, Bolivia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Bayankhongor miners trek to a remote mining site.

Bayankhongor miners trek to a remote mining site.

A miner works to extract gold from the rough terrain.

A miner works to extract gold from the rough terrain.

This traveling van is part of Pure Earth’s partnership with the Environment and Security Center of Mongolia (ESCM), which includes efforts to train miners in mercury-free methods, monitor mining activities and contamination, and increase awareness about the hazards of mercury among local populations.

The finished product - tiny nuggets of gold

The finished product – tiny nuggets of gold

Young children must sometimes spend the day with their parents at the site, exposing them to mercury’s harmful effects.

Young children sometimes spend the day with their parents at the site, exposing them to mercury’s harmful effects.

Training Conferences

While the teaching van has been central to the Mongolia team’s efforts, they have also engaged in a more formal educational process over the past year.

To date, the team has trained about 50 additional personnel on the ground in Mongolia who, in turn, have trained over 1000 miners about mercury health hazards and mercury-free methods of gold mining.

These training sessions occur as part of a series of conferences put on by Pure Earth and ESCM, attended by government officials, scientists, and leadership of mining associations.

Petr Sharov and Pure Earth’s Mongolian partners address a conference room. Conference attendees will pass on their new knowledge to local miners.

Petr Sharov and Pure Earth’s Mongolian partners address a conference room. Conference attendees will pass on their new knowledge to local miners.

School Visits

School visits have also comprised a major part of the team’s work. There have been at least five visits to date, reaching children of middle and high school ages.

During each visit, teachers gather their students into the school’s biggest meeting hall, where posters taken from the van are hung on the walls.

School visits have also comprised a major part of the team’s work. There have been at least five visits to date, reaching children of middle and high school ages. During each visit, teachers gather their students into a school’s biggest meeting hall, where posters taken from the van have been hung on the walls. Students watch a movie on mercury before the team gives them a short lesson and passes around pamphlets for the children to take home. The team tries their best to encourage participation throughout the lessons, asking children to raise their hands and answer questions.

Students study the posters displayed in their school room.

Students watch a movie on mercury before the team gives them a short lesson and passes around pamphlets for the children to take home. The team tries their best to encourage participation throughout the lessons, asking children to raise their hands and answer questions.

Boys Study Pamphlets

Boys and girls study the mercury awareness materials carefully.

Boys and girls study the mercury awareness materials carefully.

Sharov, who has attended a number of these visits, was impressed with how responsive the children were to the presentations.

“They would raise their hands to say ‘yes’ to questions from the teacher about if their parents are using mercury, do they know much about mercury, do they study well at school. It was obvious to me that many of them were surprised by the information we presented. They didn’t know that mining could be harmful to their health. I’m glad we could change that.”

Children raise their hands in response to the project team’s questions.

Children raise their hands in response to the project team’s questions.

Though numbers have not been finalized, the project team estimates that over 2200 miners have been reached through both formal training and informal educational sessions, and over 1500 children have taken part in school visits.

While results have been encouraging so far, those at Pure Earth and ESCM recognize the long-term commitment that is needed to educate the people of Bayankhongor province in a meaningful and lasting way. Miner outreach efforts will continue, and school visits are set to resume in September, when school is back in session.

While mercury-free mining is a significant goal, change can already be seen across the Mongolian countryside. It follows in the path of one small van on a mission.

(This project was supported by the European Union delegation of China and Mongolia.)

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