This is Mrs. Mungun (not her real name), a single mother with two children living in Central Mongolia. When times got tough for her, she became a “gold ninja” to feed her children.
About 20% of the rural Mongolian workforce are “gold ninjas” — artisanal and small-scale gold miners who are said to resemble Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because of the gold pans they carry on their backs.
Between 1999 and 2002, Mongolia experienced three consecutive dry summers followed by extraordinarily harsh winters. During this period, 11 million livestock animals perished, wiping out the income for much of the rural population. These events, combined with a surge in the price of gold, enticed more than 100,000 Mongolians into the small-scale gold mining business by 2007.
Mrs. Mungun joined the gold rush just a few years later, under similar circumstances — she had lost almost all her goats and sheep following an extremely hash winter in 2009/2010.
Looking for work, she moved her family to Zaamar county, the heart of Mongolia’s gold industry. Then tragedy struck again. Her husband died soon after the birth of her second child. Desperate, she turned to illegal gold mining, using toxic mercury, which the Mongolian government banned in 2008.
It was a difficult time. She could only afford to buy a small amount of mercury. Twice a month, she would secretly use that mercury to mine, extracting tiny pieces of gold.
She lived in fear of being caught and sent to jail, and most of all, of being separated from her two young children. She did not even consider the danger of toxic mercury exposure.
It was a way of life that was not sustainable. She knew she had to find a better way, and she did.
In December 2014, Mrs. Mungun attended a Pure Earth training course on mercury-free gold mining. The workshop changed her life. She learned the skills needed to make a living in a safe, legal way without the use of toxic mercury, and without fear of being arrested.
Now that she is able to work freely, her earnings have increased steadily. And because the new technique enables her to extract extra fine gold, she can work closer to home and her children, processing the “waste” left behind by other miners.
The proud mother was recently able to make improvements to her gher (a traditional Mogolian dwelling), adding a new wardrobe and floor cover. As a mercury-free “gold ninja,” Mrs. Mungun is indeed a superhero to her 10 year-old daughter Sanchitrmaa and three year-old son Enkhnaata.
(This project was supported by the European Union delegation of China and Mongolia.)