Friendship in a Mongolian Mining Town


A review of Treasure Underfoot and Far Away: Mining, Foreignness, and Friendship in Contemporary Mongolia, by Marissa Jo Smith.

The dissertation focuses on a mining town called Erdenet in Mongolia. While Mongolia has experienced a mining boom with international capital flowing in, Erdenet mine is a project from the 1970s, set up with the help and expertise from the Soviet Union. This particular history is important since as the author emphasizes that Mongolia’s engagement in mining and metallurgy is different from the neo-colonial projects in the Asia-Pacific area that both Western miners as well as development agents often place it in.

Mongolian engagement in mining is rather related to ideals of self-reliance in a reciprocal relationship with international agents who are expected to bring know-how but also respect local expertise and cosmology related to mining. In a postsocialist situation where old supply chains often become unreliable and old technologies and equipment becomes ‘morally aged’, the engineers and managers of the mining company have to become creative bricoleurs forging international relationships in order to ensure the continuation of the company. Even more so, this is not only the question of the mine itself but of the whole town that would have no future should mining disappear.

The dissertation does not focus on mining labour or the workplace explicitly but rather the network of relations around mining. Building these relationships which the author describes as accreting can occur on different scales from drinking with a stranger met on the train to building relationships with international mining experts and communities back home in other regions of Mongolia to engaging with inanimate objects such as slag heaps or giant Buddha statues. All of this constitutes a world where building relations is a necessary but also somewhat risky enterprise through which communities can expand and engage in relations with other communities but conflicts can also emerge. In Erdenet mining engineering community the key values upon which new relationships are built are those of professionalism and internationalism. Both of the central values have their roots in the Soviet-Mongolian friendship and joint mining project but have a acquired new dimensions after the ‘Democratic revolution’ of Mongolia in the early 1990s. As the author states, the dissertation is about the  “everyday cosmopolitics of mining, professionalism and international cooperation in contemporary Mongolia” (p.55).

Besides these values, the everyday interactions are rooted in the emic Mongolian concepts that interlace the local world and communication. Through concepts of Nutag, Ovoo and Erdene, a more general Mongolian world view is introduced and then placed in the context of the mining town. Nutag stands for communities of humans and nonhumans with their particular territories. The mining town, Erdenet, can simultaneously be part of different Nutags, such as the communities from elsewhere in Mongolia where the miners and engineers have migrated from or the Mongolian national community. Ovoo stands for heaps or accumulations around which particular rituals or practices are made for accreting different outsiders. When traditional ovoo consist heaps of stones that offerings of vodka, cloth or money are given to, some of the Erdenet ovoos are somewhat special: they are slag heaps from mining which can, through engaging with outsiders, be turned into something valuable. Valuables, or erdene, is the third term central to the dissertation. Erdene can be both people or things which are obtained through interaction of various accretive groups with outsiders. In order to release the Erdene, friendly, collaborative work is required. Thus, in the case of the mining town, international collaboration between different nutag communities is needed to release value (erdene) from the ovoo heaps and turn waste into something precious with the help of Western know-how and local bacteria. As the title of the thesis indicates, there is treasure underfoot, but it requires the collaboration of various human and nonhuman forces to access this treasure. Through collaboration, the outsider is turned into something familiar. People want to access, accrete, control value. In order to do this, they are seeking worthy others and want to be taken as worthy by others.

The author takes the emic terms out of the more traditional, often rural and/or religious context thus being in dialogue with the existing Mongolist ethnography. Her work engages with previous Mongolian ethnographies by Caroline Humphrey, Mette High, Morten Pedersen and others which often deal with similar issues but in rural contexts or in the Mongolian capital. Other bodies of literature that she draws on are postsocialist studies from the former Soviet Union and to a lesser extent central and Eastern Europe and recent historiography and oral history of the region.

The introduction lays the ground for the thesis, introducing the history of the site, the key concepts and situating the dissertation in existing literature. The author gives an overview of her own position as an American who speaks Russian and Mongolian and is engaged in negotiating different, sometimes conflicting relationships with local persons and communities. Her methodology of participant observation involves doing things with people, especially with her workplace community at the technical institute where she is working and strategically moving between different sites in order to uncover the urban-rural  as well as international relations. The first chapter introduces the reader to the different types of ovoo present in Erdenet and the way relations are built around them. The core chapters of the thesis  continue with the theme of building relations between different groups, a useful but risky activity. This is definitely the case with drinking discussed in chapter two. Drinking is both desirable and productive as it can build good relations but also dangerous as it can lead to violence and the erosion of established relations. In the particular community, professionalism and internationalism as the basis of relation creation are central also to drinking. Chapters three and four engage with other ways in which difference is addressed. In a community of both Russian and Mongolian professionals, using a particular language helps to engage in both Mongolian and Russian practices and communities, essentially manifesting mutual respect and continued international friendship between Mongolia and Russia. In shifting political-economic situation, engineers have to take on a role of creative bricoleurs, juggling both equipment and human relations.  Chapter five looks in particular at prominent persons such as politicians, professors and mine directors and key persons creating local and international solidarity networks. Mine directors are key persons who have to maintain boundaries between national systems of accretion and international ones, switching between the roles of a teacher and a student depending on the situation, gathering particular prestige from engaging with international partners.  Chapter six focuses on international collaboration explicitly, as Mongolia is increasingly opening up to mining capital and experts. This is however where the particular history of the Soviet-Mongolian collaboration in the mining town as well as Mongolian cosmology comes to play strongly: Erdenet is still locally, rather than globally focussed mining enterprise that seeks recognition for the local specialists, as well as self-reliance. It is embedded in a deep sense of national value and a particular historically developed idea how international partners should be involved in this value. Unfortunately, Westerners not knowing the local context often have a different idea of relation-building embedded in histories of different types of resource colonialism.

The dissertation skillfully combines local cosmology with international history and political economy, contributing to literature on Mongolia, Soviet and Post-Soviet industry and  anthropology of mining.

Eeva Kesküla
School of Humanities
Tallinn University

Primary Sources
Ethnographic fieldwork in Erdenet, Mongolia and neighboring area, May 2011 to October 2012.

Disseration Information
Princeton University, 2015, 215 pages. Primary advisors: Rena Lederman and John Borneman.

Image: Photograph by Author. Greeting the Sun on the first day of the New Year (*Tsagaan Sar*) at the Mongolian-Russian Friendship Monument in Erdenet, Mongolia.

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