Mining Environmental Human Rights in Southern Gobi, Mongolia: Perspectives from Law and Anthropology

Mongolia constitutionalized environmental rights in 1992 with the expectation that doing so would lead to positive environmental results. The outcome, however, has been quite the opposite, as extractive activities continue to cause massive land destruction, grassland degradation, soil and water pollution, and loss of drinking water sources. The environmental harm to local residents and communities are apparent, yet the Mongolian courts are nowhere to be seen when it comes to identifying the violation of the rights. My research focuses on the issue of effective implementation and enforcement of constitutional environmental rights. More specifically, I intend to examine the correlation between constitutional environmental rights and environmental outcomes on the example of extractive activities in a local community. As I am still in process of planning the research, I have not yet determined the precise field sites and extractive activities to be studied. I have, however, identified a number of possibilities: copper mining in Khanbogd sum (district), Umnu-Gobi aimag (province); coal mining in Tsogttsetsii sum, Umnu-Gobi aimag; gold mining in Zaamar sum, Tuv aimag; or uranium mining in Ulaanbadrakh sum, Dorno-Gobi aimag.

A number of factors must be taken into consideration when assessing the effectiveness of implementation and enforcement. I argue that one of the most fundamental of these factors is the lack of integration of a preexisting approach towards protecting and preserving nature and the environment – which I call the ezen approach, from the Mongolian word for ‘custodian’ – with the superimposed rights approach. Or, to view it from the other side of the equation, when the ‘right to a healthy environment’ approach was introduced into the legal system, it failed to acknowledge important, long-standing cultural understandings and norms of nature protection, and it continues to do so. For the purpose of illustrating the ineffectiveness of the constitutionalization of environmental rights in Mongolia, I propose to investigate the tension between the ezen approach, which is closely connected to local norms and traditions, and the rights approach, which is imposed through the constitution and legislation, by combining legal case analyses and ethnographic research.

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