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global action > features > mining less in a sustainable world

Mining less in a sustainable world

Posted: 22 Aug 2002

by Payal Sampat

Johannesburg, South Africa, developed as a �gold rush� city after home builders quarrying for stones accidentally struck the yellow metal in 1886, but for delegates to the World Summit it was a striking example of the environmental and human price that has been paid in the name of mining.

Gold lies a mile or more beneath the surface of the city, and is present as an extremely tiny share of ore � far less than one-thousandth of one per cent � so miners have to excavate massive amounts of rock in order to get a few fragments of metal.

In the decades since that discovery, mining for gold, coal, and other minerals has completely altered the physical landscape of this former farming region, leaving mountains of waste rock and ore in dumps south of the city.These huge dumps were starkly apparent to delegates to the World Summit on Sustainable Development as they flew into Johannesburg.

Holding the Summit in this scarred mining region highlighted the need to reevaluate an industrial activity that today provides less than one per cent of the world�s economic product, yet consumes close to 10 per cent of world energy, and spews nearly half of all toxic emissions from industry in countries such as the United States.

Mining is one of the planet�s leading polluters. Mines use large quantities of deadly chemicals, including cyanide and mercury, to separate metal from ore. Catastrophic spills of mine wastes in recent years have resulted in enormous fish kills, soil and water pollution, and damage to human health. In 2000, for instance, a tailings dam split open at the Baia Mare mine in Romania. This accident sent some 100,000 tons of wastewater, and 20,000 tons of sludge contaminated with cyanide, copper, and heavy metals, into the Tisza river, and eventually into the Danube, destroying 1,240 tons of fish and polluting the drinking water supplies of 2.5 million people.

Most new mining development is taking place in some of the world�s most ecologically fragile regions, including a titanium mine in a Madagascar forest inhabited by rare lemurs, birds, and indigenous plant species; gold exploration in Peruvian cloudforest; and tantalite mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo�s Okapi Reserve, home to the endangered mountain gorilla. Indigenous peoples have disproportionately borne the costs of mining, and continue to do so: according to one estimate, as much as half of all gold produced between 1995 and 2015 will come from indigenous peoples� lands.

Mining has not proven beneficial to local communities or national economies over the long term either. Mining-dependent nations typically have slow rates of economic development, and some of the highest poverty rates. Minerals prices are volatile, so mining regions have been subject to unstable �boom-and-bust� economies. Mining companies in Australia, the United States, China, the Philippines, and elsewhere, laid off millions of workers in the 1990s, when minerals prices plummeted. Between 1990 and 2000, South African mines laid off close to 400,000 workers � almost half the workforce.

Despite major strides in improving mine safety, mining remains one of the world�s most hazardous occupations. According to the International Labour Organization, the sector employs less than 1 per cent of the global work force but is responsible for 5 per cent of all worker deaths on the job.

The short sections devoted to mining in the document negotiated at the World Summit by official delegates from around the world � fell far short of advancing a coherent programme to address these difficult issues.

A more aggressive approach is needed, in other efforts such as the World Bank�s Extractive Industries Review, which is currently underway. In the months and years that follow, governments, lending agencies, businesses, taxpayers, and local communities will need to ensure that societies can obtain the benefits of minerals without incurring heavy ecological and human costs. A meaningful plan of action would include the following elements:

Level the playing field for recycling and secondary materials.

  • Phase out subsidies for mining.
    The United States, Australia, and Canada offer mining rights for absurdly small sums of money�$12 a hectare in the United States, for example. Countries such as Brazil, Ecuador, and Papua New Guinea offer foreign companies incentives such as royalty waivers and the right to expatriate all profits. Eliminating these handouts and charging for mining rights would be not only environmentally beneficial, but would also add income to the public treasury� resources which could be directed toward developing more sustainable materials paths, or to improving social services such as education or healthcare.

  • Pursue sustainable materials strategies.
    It takes far less energy to recycle discarded materials than to extract, process, and refine metals from ore. It takes 95 per cent less energy to produce aluminum from recycled materials rather than from bauxite ore, for instance. Recycling copper takes seven times less energy than processing ore; recycled steel uses three-and-a-half times less. Despite the obvious gains that might come from picking this low-hanging fruit, just 13 per cent of copper consumed worldwide comes from recycled sources. In large part, this inefficiency can be attributed to the distortionary subsidies for virgin minerals extraction, which make it cheaper to dig up new minerals than to reuse above-ground stocks.

  • Enforce the �polluter pays� principle during mine operation and closure.
    Taxpayers and governments have been left with hefty tabs for cleaning up abandoned mines, after companies have gone bankrupt or just walked away from uneconomical projects. For instance, since 1992, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has spent millions of dollars to reduce the damage from cyanide spills at the Summitville mine in Colorado, after the company that operated the mine declared bankruptcy. The cost for cleaning up tens of thousands of closed mines in the United States alone is estimated at between $35 and $70 billion�and India, China, South Africa, and countries in Eastern Europe face sizable cleanup tabs as well. Legislators and environmental agencies must ensure that polluters, not taxpayers, foot these bills.

Protect ecosystems, communities, and workers.

  • Keep mines out of protected areas and other fragile ecosystems.
    Mining moves enormous quantities of earth; altogether, it strips more of the Earth�s surface each year than natural erosion by rivers does. Very little of this material is actually used�for example, on average, some 220 tons of earth are excavated to produce just a ton of copper. Despite the damage to landscapes and ecosystems, mines have been given permits to operate in several national parks and World Heritage sites, including the Kakadu National Reserve in Australia, the Do�ana National Park in Spain, and the Sierra Imataca Reserve in Venezuela. In addition to putting a moratorium on new mines in ecologically sensitive areas, authorities must cancel permits already allotted to mines in protected areas.

  • Protect communities and ecosystems from toxic chemicals.
    A number of farsighted leaders are taking strong stands against the continued use of cyanide, mercury, and other toxic chemicals currently used in mining. The Baia Mare spill in Romania in 2000 prompted the Czech Senate to ban gold mining using cyanide leaching methods. In 2001, the German Parliament prohibited the use of this technology, and in June 2002, the President of Costa Rica declared a moratorium. Groups in the U.S. states of Colorado and Wisconsin are currently pushing for a ban on cyanide leaching.

  • Respect decisions made by local residents about whether or not to mine.
    Local communities must be able to determine whether or not to allow mining or exploration in their backyard�once they have received full information about the proposed project. In June 2002, for example, residents of the Tambogrande region in northern Peru voted overwhelmingly against the continued operation of a Canadian-run open pit gold mine, with 94 per cent opposing the project.

  • Set up post-mining transition plans for workers and communities.
    With miners losing jobs around the world, governments, firms, and unions have a tremendous opportunity to create safer, more meaningful, and ecologically sustainable employment for these workers and the families they support. Following the enormous layoffs of the 1990s, the South African Employment Bureau and the National Union of Mineworkers developed transition plans to retrain and employ former mineworkers. This transition has helped take the South African economy on a more sustainable track, with some mineworkers finding new jobs in steel and paper recycling, for example.

This (updated) World Summit Policy Brief #9 was reproduced with kind permission from the Worldwatch Institute. For more information, email: or visit their website at: www.worldwatch.org

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