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27-31 August 2019
Poznań, Poland
Europe/Warsaw timezone
programme last update: 23 August 2019
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Contribution Paper

Poznań, Poland - Morasko Kampus, room: 3.129

"Washing dirt" in the desert: Nomadism and precarious labor across a fluid urban-rural divide


  • Stephen LEZAK

Primary authors


Across the Mongolian steppe, women and men use plastic pans and improvised power tools to mine for gold in gravel alluvium. Flakes of gold spill out, along with toxic contaminants and agitated spirits. The Mongolian “People’s Gold Rush” emerged as part of an informal labor economy that filled the vacuum left by the collapse of communism in the early 1990s. Unregulated gold mining found a welcome niche within the newly reconfigured arrangements of production and survival. Known today as ninja mining, this new form of labor has sustained livelihoods through both economic and environmental crises in the past twenty years, mirroring the ebb and flow of rural-urban migration. This study of Mongolia’s ninja miners, documented in a series of extended interviews, explores how the nomadic pastoralist heritage and identity of ninjas facilitates a form of precarious labor that appears to dissolve the rural-urban boundary, attracting university professors and goat herders alike. This analysis critically interrogates how nomadic identities turn the city limits into a fairly porous boundary, and where human mobilities—rather than signify insecurity—become a safeguarding adaptation in a society that is newly-vulnerable to the instabilities of the global economy.