Mongolia's mines provide fertile ground for 'eco-Nazis'
Environmental ultra-nationalist groups accuse foreign companies of making money at the expense of the Mongolian landscape
A silver swastika hanging around his neck, Boldbaatar Gombodorj points out his targets on a map of Mongolia like a second world war commander: little flags representing foreign mining firms that he and fellow "eco-Nazis" accuse of destroying their country.
Mongolia's mining boom has brought the vast, sparsely populated country immense wealth but also inequality and ecological damage. Fringe ultranationalist environmentalist movements are now emerging in response.
Herders have roamed Mongolia's steppe for centuries, while the country only threw off the Soviet yoke after decades of domination, creating fertile ground for a mix of communal land rights and nationalism that can turn into unashamed racism.
"Here we want people with Mongolian hearts and Mongolian blood. Those who pollute the rivers and springs taint their purity and they should be punished by death," said Gombodorj, citing the revered Mongol warrior Genghis Khan.
Gombodorj, a 56-year-old retired soldier whose first name means "hero forged from steel", said the swastika was an ancient Mongol symbol and that his group, Fight for the Security of Mongolia, did not support fascism. But others openly identify themselves as neo-Nazis.
Gombodorj is ready to fight for his cause. A few weeks ago his group was in a tense stand-off with guards at a South Korean-owned mine. "We would have fired if they had," he said.
Mining makes up a fifth of Mongolia's economy and it has enjoyed one of the world's highest growth rates since the authorities invited in foreign companies to extract its gold, copper, coal and iron ore.
Anglo-Australian giant Rio Tinto's Oyu Tolgoi mine is expected to produce 430,000 tonnes of copper and 425,000 ounces of gold a year for 20 years, generating up to one-third of the government's revenue.
But it has been embroiled in disputes and Mongolia's foreign investment laws have since undergone changes.
"The foreigners dictate … what laws should or should not be implemented," says Mongolia's best-known eco-warrior, Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, who heads the group Fire Nation.
In Tsagaan Khass, or "White Swastika", the most radical group, members greet their leader Ariunbold Altankhuum with a Nazi salute while clicking their heels. They dress in black, while some sport swastika tattoos and others wear rings adorned with the Germanic Iron Cross.
In their office, tucked in the basement of a Soviet-era building in central Ulan Bator and overseen by a bust of Genghis Khan, Altankhuum said the group was filling the role of local authorities who had failed to stand up to foreign firms.
Tsagaan Khass members show up at sites unannounced to inspect licences, check on Mongolian workers' wages and ensure the revenues benefit locals. If dissatisfied with what they find, they sabotage operations.
But, wearing a Gestapo-style black leather greatcoat, Altankhuum insisted: "We are not a gang of gangsters." The mining firms "violate the rights of Mongolian citizens", he said. "They dig a hole and then leave behind terrible environmental damage."
Mongolians might become increasingly polarised if mining inequality persisted, said Jargalsaikhan Damdadarjaa, an economist and commentator.
"It is a matter of balancing environmental conditions and mining interests and it is not always done properly," he said.