The exploitation of Mongolia

More from the Green Party conference in Liverpool

Saturday at conference in Liverpool is a relative day off for me, at least compared with yesterday.

In a way I went back to my roots today (I used to be national campaigns co-ordinator before being Principal Speaker), chairing two fringe meetings about issues-based campaigns.

The first was planning and brainstorming for how we can promote and grow the Census Alert campaign to stop the UK census in 2011 from being run by arms company Lockheed Martin.

Greens campaigning locally can make a real difference here, because local councils depend on the data from the census for their funding, and also have to work closely with the chosen contractor to help ensure compliance in the kind of ‘hard to reach groups’ we think will be most put off by giving the contract to Lockheed.

Because the campaign is cross party, even Green parties without councillors can help by getting councillors from other parties to object to this involvement. There were lots of other ideas at the meeting of course, but I won’t mention them here – out of studying-Lockheed-induced paranoia.

After that, I showed a film by the International Chair of the Mongolian Green Party, Purevsuren Shah, given to me when he visited London earlier this summer.

An accomplished journalist and broadcaster, he directed the film himself to draw attention to the huge problems being caused by rampant gold and copper mining across Mongolia.

With only half a translation of the Mongolian language dialogue, plus my notes from being talked through the film, I had to put together subtitles myself. They got a bit sparse and comical in places, but the presentation got across the gist of the problem, which is anything but amusing.

The problem is that Mongolia has some of the best and largest gold and copper deposits in the world and since 1997, with a massive acceleration since 2000, the government has been selling licences to mine these at a huge rate. The area of Mongolia covered by mining licences is now about 45%, and they are going for a relative song - $20 a hectare for a 30-year license is typical.

One ‘stock watch’ website I consulted just before conference said that Mongolia is literally a gold mine for investors because of, "the incredible ease and speed of securing exploration and mining licenses." There are literally hundreds of mining companies involved in this new gold rush, but most of the biggest offenders are based in Canada, Australia, South Africa and London.

Not all of these licenses have been exploited yet, but those that have are causing immense problems already – literally carving chunks out of Mongolia’s beautiful landscapes and leaving a legacy of pollution that will be there for years to come. More than 2,000 of the country’s small and medium sized rivers have disappeared, due to mining operations digging up their sources, and there is widespread soil and water pollution from the mercury and cyanide used in the mining and extraction process.

Only 20% of the land used for mining is rehabilitated afterwards, and the film is full of images of gorgeous hills and valleys being turned into dried up, uninhabitable rubble.

The environmental problems will become bigger and more irreversible if something isn’t done soon, so Perevsuren Shah is aiming to draw international attention to the issue in order to increase pressure on the irresponsible mining companies and the irresponsible government that is encouraging the destruction.

He also wants help to bring environmental scientists and investigators to Mongolia measure properly the pollution and damage caused so far. He is a soil scientist himself, and much of the research shown in the film is his own, but it’s too big a job for one team and they badly need more investment in their projects.

We talked about how the Greens in the UK can help and plan to make contact with other green groups to help get this onto the agenda here. One obvious task is to sort out a full translation of the film, so anyone out there with skills in both Mongolian and English, please get in touch.

Oh, and finally, there’s an awful lot of talk here about the upcoming referendum on whether to have an actual Leader and Deputy (or Co-Leaders) instead of the two Principal Speakers we now have as our main representatives. But the main debate on that is on Sunday, so I’ll save that for later.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.