The rugged landscape in Zaamarr, 350 kilometers west of Ulan Bator in Mongolia, is sown with so many holes that it may cave in at any moment. Here, in the shadows of the big mining companies, thousands of “ninjas” labor relentlessly. The workers are named after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because of the green plastic pans they carry on their backs. Mining has become a growth business, with about 100,000 Mongolians joining the industry in the past five years. Many lost their jobs during the country’s transition from Communism and initially became traditional herders. But two devastating winters, known as dzuds, wiped out a third of Mongolia’s livestock in 2001 and 2002, and so thousands of families joined the gold rush, scouring sites rejected by large mining companies for quartz or crumbs of gold. Ninjas have the potential to earn between $5 and $10 a day, often more than teachers, doctors and government officials.
The work is harsh. “If it rains, you’re hungry. If it snows, you’re hungry. If you are sick, you’re hungry. And while you are hungry, you need money to eat. If you’re alive, you can work,” says one female miner.