How the Violence of “Green” Extractivism Enforces Sedentism in Nomadic Mongolia

In the age of green capitalism copper is the “new oil.” Since Mongolia has plenty of it, its ruling class has initiated a violent transition that brings to the fore the precarious existence of nomads – and thus serves a starting point for common struggles against the economic-ecological complex, as Shuree Sarantuya shows in her text to the BG series “After Extractivism.”


Urban people are becoming homeless, houseless, and stateless, while the non-sedentary population modernizes to establish economic security for themselves. This de- and re-nomadization occurred through violent urbanization, for the sake of the comfort of modern living, because of capitalism-induced environmental catastrophes, and, last but not least, due to the bordering as well as enclosing resources. The “savage” metropolitans hurry to sign up for deals without reading its terms and conditions. Simultaneously, the urban poor are re-wilding in the parking lots, underneath a bridge, or between the highways.

During a student exchange program in Shanghai, a cashier at a convenience store was curious about my nationality; when I explained that I am a Mongolian, she asked why “we are nowadays so many, so suddenly.” According to the International Organization for Migration, “every eleventh Mongolian live abroad for economic reasons.” If one can, they would study, live, and work abroad, like I was privileged enough to do so. However, the immobile city Mongols voice their frustration via a “pop-up youth protest” or full-blown “riots” on their present economic issues. Most of Mongolia’s financial success comes from companies that venture into “trades and services or mining and quarrying.” Yet the entire nation cannot comprehend its struggles and is not able to produce solutions on its own.

Sedentarism by labor extractivism

During the “political repression,” Mongolia lost almost 3% of its population, predominantly Buddhist monks. This number does not include those who fled to China and Russia, missing or changed their identity and those sent to Gulags. By becoming a satellite state of the USSR, Outer Mongolia (State of Mongolia) secured its independence from China, which engulfed Inner Mongolia (Autonomous Region of China). Officially, Mongolia was “never part of the Soviet Union,” yet one will frequently hear “we” in the capital when talking about Stalin’s Soviet Union and Putin’s Russia. Repression as an instrument of sedentarization was remarkably effective. Shortly everyone appeared to unite under the promise of a modern nation. In the contemporary stance, non-sedentary people are regarded as “Mowgli” to be rescued by someone from a jungle of savageness and beastliness. By pinpointing who is not suited to join, the majority can rush to the town where everyone is the same and equal to an actual modern human.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

The capital city Ulaanbaatar, built by the brotherhood of the USSR and the Mongolian People’s Republic, is where residents settled shoulder to shoulder. Inside the contemporary metropolis – mixed with soviet “Khrushchyovka” – the city inhabitants call themselves “we” and look down onto the “they” which lives in the overgrowing slum surrounding the city center. “Yurt District” is an organically emerging sedentary settlement of nomadic individuals who permanently choose to be immobile but cannot access housing. Slum-dwellers came in forced or voluntarily because the rest of the country is not altogether metropolitan. Today, semi-nomadic herders are still living in the wilderness and are pushed to sedentarize due to the exclusion of modern essentials such as secure income, education, and health care.

In the recent decade, extreme weather events are occurring increasingly and interrupting the intricate ecosystem of the land. “Over exhausting grazing land from cashmere goats” favored mono-livestock herding, resulting in devastating grassland desertification. The rest of the world offered the last nomads of Mongolia only two options. Either immobile by a property – Ulaanbaatar’s dream is to possess a house or apartment. Or immobile by security – occupation in trade and service or mining and quarrying.

Sedentarism by copper extractivism

Before I left Mongolia, a few of my acquaintances in their mid-twenties moved to South Gobi to work for the recently opened copper mine “Oyu Tolgoi” due to a scarcity of well-paid job opportunities in the capital. By working in the mine, the employee acquires a stable income, the possibility to take courses for further education, daily meals plus takeouts, company housing, and even an auto. Since the surrounding area is middle of nowhere except for a few sedentary towns, other mines, wild animals, and nomadic herders, the campus of the copper mine is a true Shangri-la. According to the biggest shareholder, “Rio Tinto”: “Oyu Tolgoi is the largest human-made construction built in Mongolia. It is also the biggest known copper and gold deposit in the world.” The entire country hopes to be someday the next Saudi Arabia since copper is the “new oil” in the era of “green capitalism.” As the world’s wealthy demand green living, developing countries go under “solid” extractivism with “liquid” investors that promise “long-term” cooperation. Particularly in the case of mining, there is never longevity as all mines perish of old age.

In the course of the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the ‘inflation’ in Mongolia has taken a toll on the “we” and “they” of Ulaanbaatar. Be it sustenance, energy, or pharmaceutical – 21st century Mongols are entirely dependent on their two borders being open. Besides having rich metals and minerals underneath, Mongolia has “twenty-three times” more livestock than its three million human occupants. People might even say that livestock has a better life than humans because it has security for at least food and water. Nonetheless, in the city, the price of groceries is at the point of not being able to afford them. As of June 2022, one liter of packaged milk costs approximately 1.10 Euro in a supermarket in Ulaanbaatar, the exactitem can be bought in Germany cheaper.

How can a country with millions of livestock experience food insecurity of such epic proportions? From a colonial to colonized, feudal to socialist, nomadic to capitalist country, from 20th to 21st century: Mongolia is in perpetual lateness and in great hurry. Young adults of Mongolia also received only two alternatives to reach Western “modernity” – either relocate to another country or wait until it catches up. The copper mine is a “temple” of the hopes and dreams of those who could not leave Mongolia. Metal and mineral ores are tucked away under the earth’s crust, ignored or forgotten by the nomads for centuries. Once they stopped and looked at their land, they only noticed wealth and richness that needed to be extracted by somebody.

Re-wilding after extractivism

From Chloe Zhao’s 2020 film “Nomad land” (adapted from a book by Jessica Bruder that shares the same title), we can experience the Western transition from “solid to liquid modernity,” resulting in poverty-driven re-nomadization of sedentary people. Re-nomads are only houseless, not homeless, due to access to mobility and a moveable space. For easterners, affordable housing is worrisome in heavily populated metropolises expanding violently. Beijing “rat tribes” dwell in the old bomb shelters; in South Korea, there is tiny housing “gosiwon,” and in Japan “doya-gai” slum lodge for men. While the nomads are rushing to toss their tent homes on fire, the rest of East Asia cramped up in urban settlements with no way of re-wilding.

For nomads, home is the native land, and a house is not more than a shelter – “a Yurt or a Teepee.” As the partially urbanized Mongolia is busy trying to catch up with modernity and its latest update, no one sees warning signs of the future. Because of the rush, nomadic people went through a transition. Some became “techno-nomads.” These new nomads are equipped with the latest devices, living self-sufficient via clean energy, and living off the grid without getting disconnected. Furthermore, most significantly, the birth of the “techno-nomads” is a direct outcome of the abnormality of its territorial extremities, such as size, climate, and landscape, that preserves the land from adapting altogether non-natural environment.

Today, economically inferior but resourcefully rich countries are waving their hands to invite the old sedentary nations that depleted their resources by becoming wealthy. The expansion of mono-culture economies in third-world countries signified the elimination of intergenerational security. Territories are utilized, disposed, and re-habilitated from the sedentary viewpoint. This one-dimensionality projects a mono-civilization that acquires its primary resources from parasitic extractivism.

Anglo-Australian company “Rio Tinto operates in thirty-five countries” – from diamond to aluminum, from South Africa to Canada. Most of its mines and smelters employ ethnic minorities, Indigenous – first nation – Aboriginal, and nomadic people. For them a stable economy means entitlement to their land rights, conservation of the cultural heritage sites or wildlife, attracting back the youth or migrated population, and having long-term security in their communities. While the final sedentarization of the nomads finishes, simultaneously the rest of the world undergoes forced and voluntary nomadism. When do we tell the people who just spent the last two generations urbanizing that this is a dead-end and we must turn around?

Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here:

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