Mining is risky business in Altai

Mining for gold, copper, and other metals in Altai is on the rise due to rising commodity prices, interest from Chinese investors and international mining companies, and scarce availability. Most of Altai’s metal and mineral deposits are relatively modest in size.Bogusha near Chikhacheva Ridge (photo by S. Spitsyn)

Where is mining occurring?
Alluvial gold has been placer mined since ancient times in Altai Republic from riverbed deposits in the forested Choya and Turochak Districts. Placer mining has significant environmental and social impacts. It destroys riverbeds, contaminates water with chemicals (including mercury), disturbs animal and fish habitat, contaminates drinking water, and harms vital fishing grounds used by indigenous residents. In southeastern Altai, cobalt, silver, tungsten, and copper are all found in Kosh-Agach District. In particular, five cobalt-containing deposits have been bundled as the proposed Karakul cobalt mine. Global Cobalt, a Canadian mining company, proposes to develop this mine for overland ore export to China. In 2014, Chinese investors and international mining corporations renewed negotiations and contacts with Russian authorities (both federal and regional) regarding all of deposits, including silver and iron ore located along the Russian/Mongolian border.

What are the ecological risks?
Northern Kosh-Agach District and southern Ulagan District are home to significant and critical populations of snow leopards, Altai argali mountain sheep, eastern imperial eagle, steppe eagle, saker falcon, and other IUCN and Russian Red Book listed species. The area contains the regional Ak-Cholushpa Nature Park, the southern end of Altaisky State Nature Reserve (and UNESCO World Heritage Site), Sailyugem National Park, and five Important Bird Areas as defined by BirdLife International. Anticipated impacts include: noise disturbances, habitat destruction or disturbances during mating and nesting/rearing seasons, erosion and water quality issues, increased access by poachers and other human presence, further destruction of inadequate road, public health, and energy infrastructure.

How are humans affected by mining?
Residents of the area are semi-nomadic indigenous peoples (mainly Telengit and Kazakhs) who still practice traditional lifeways. Their livelihoods depend on livestock grazing surrounding steppe and mountain rangelands. Planned mining activities will block the only practical routes to traditional pastures. Mining operations could destroy the livelihoods of no less than half the resident population of eastern Kosh-Agach District.

Will we see this in Altai?

Will we see this in Altai? (Wikimedia Commons)

What is being done and how can you help?
The Altai Project and its partner organizations in Altai have significant concerns about all of these mining projects. Altai-based organizations will be educating local residents, conducting environmental impact assessments and ongoing public environmental monitoring, and addressing regional government agencies and mining companies to limit and mitigate the potential negative impacts. You can help by donating to The Altai Project so we can continue to support the Altai-based organizations listed below. The Altai Project has provided technical and grant support to groups such as:

  • Center for Independent Researchers of Altai Republic (CIRAP) to support public monitoring and education about mining impacts and regulatory violations in northern Altai Republic gold mining operations
  • Gebler Ecological Society to support public monitoring, education, and advocacy on the proposed Karakul cobalt mine in Kosh-Agach District
  • Siberian Environmental Center to study critical raptor habitat in Kosh-Agach District in and around the Karakul deposits
  • Fund for 21st Century Altai to conduct environmental justice advocacy and training related to resource development projects in Kosh-Agach District