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The Ninja Miners of Mongolia

A look at the harsh life of the “ninja” miners of Mongolia.

By Alvaro Laiz and David Rengel/TransterraMedia for
The Ninja Miners of Mongolia

Otgoi,55. “When you’re old, nobody loves you, and no good and you have to be able to get yourself life. Hopefully I can get 15 euros a day.”

Credit: Alvaro Laiz and David Rengel/TransterraMedia
The Ninja Miners of Mongolia

Children often get up at 5 a.m. all year round, even in winter. Without proper gear, they enter tunnels up to 12 feet deep without any protection, carry heavy stones and put them in cold water to look for gold.

Credit: Alvaro Laiz and David Rengel/TransterraMedia
The Ninja Miners of Mongolia

The mining process begins with a group of ninja miners (up to four) digging a hole. It ends only when they dig deep enough to find gold.

Credit: Alvaro Laiz and David Rengel/TransterraMedia
The Ninja Miners of Mongolia

Tuul and her husband left the capital of Mongolia Ulan Baatar, where the unemployment figures are alarming, to seek their fortune as miners. “Half the day we are numb to the bone.”

Credit: Alvaro Laiz and David Rengel/TransterraMedia
The Ninja Miners of Mongolia

Evening in the mountains of Bayangol. The day has been hard and unproductive, the night is cold, winter is coming and the tent is small for the group of men who must share it.

Credit: Alvaro Laiz and David Rengel/TransterraMedia
The Ninja Miners of Mongolia

“You move tons of rock, you crack your hands hands, have a deep cough that never leaves you, but in the end you get gold, and gold heals everything.” Chinzoring, 60.

Credit: Alvaro Laiz and David Rengel/TransterraMedia
The Ninja Miners of Mongolia

Hundreds of handmade mines operate without any technology and without protection from the extreme danger. Many of the miners end up trapped in landslides.

Credit: Alvaro Laiz and David Rengel/TransterraMedia
The Ninja Miners of Mongolia

The black market for gold generates huge dividends. The buyer offers the price per gram. This woman goes to the official market in Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital, for the transaction. The general attitude of mining companies towards the “ninjas” is negative. The areas where the “ninjas” operate are the areas where the companies are hoping to get an exploration license.

Credit: Alvaro Laiz and David Rengel/TransterraMedia

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.