Alarm over damage from mining and resource use

Martin Khor

That the world faces multiple environmental crises is widely acknowledged. Much attention has been paid to climate change in recent years, as well as deforestation and biodiversity loss.

But also worthy of concern is how the extractive sector – mining, oil, gas – is running out of resources, and the often immense ecological damage caused in getting these resources out of the ground.

And there are also social consequences, as when the lands of local communities are poisoned, or when local people have to move out to make way for the industry.

A new report, Opening Pandora’s Box, launched last week by the London-based Gaia Foundation, provides a wealth of information and case studies on the extractive industry, whose growth and impacts in the past decade has been staggering.

The value of metals, minerals, oil and gas to the economy is not doubted. They have been an essential part of economic growth, first in the industrial countries and now in many high-growth developing countries.

But these resources are exhaustible. They will not last, and so a switch to renewable materials and energy is needed.

Global economic growth has led to a high increase in extraction. For example, iron ore production is up by 180%; cobalt by 165%; lithium by 125%, and coal by 44%. The massive growth will continue if concessions are granted as freely as now.

In developed countries, where resources have long been depleting, a new lease of life to mining is being given by the technology of “fracking”. This involves the high-pressure injection of toxic chemicals into deposits of shale rock to release the natural gas trapped within.

Developers are now targeting the large shale oil and gas deposits under North America and Europe. The Gaia report says the toxic chemicals inevitably leach into aquifers and local water systems, and pollute them.

In recent years, mining concessions and activities have tremendously increased in the developing regions. For example, in 2005-2010, China’s mining sector grew by nearly a third, Peru’s mining exports grew by a third in 2011 alone, and in South Africa, international investors have applied for the rights to drill for shale oil and gas over a significant part of the country’s surface.

The report gives details on how community lands, rivers and ecosystems are being despoiled and displaced by mining activities, with case studies of specific sectors and countries.

Among the environmental effects are industrial wastelands created from vast open pit mines and mountain top removal; voracious use and poisoning of water systems; deforestation; contamination of precious topsoil; air pollution; acid leaching.

The social effects include a threat to health of people living in the area and to the land and water resources of farming and indigenous communities.

This recent high growth in extractive industries is due to several factors: rising prices of metals, minerals, oil and gas providing an incentive to exploit new territories and lower quality deposits; and new technologies that extract materials from areas which were previously inaccessible and uneconomic.

Extraction from less accessible deposits requires more removal of soil, sand and therefore the removal of increasingly larger areas of land and water.

But the driving factor is the underlying cause is the rapid rise in consumption of products that make use of energy and materials.

Much of the over-consumption and associated lifestyles are evident in rich countries. The average American born today will use close to 17 tonnes of minerals, metals and fuels during a year, according to data from the Mineral Information Institute. But as lifestyles change and incomes rise in developing countries, they also increase their demand for the same materials.

There will be a tripling in global annual resource extraction by 2050 at the current rate of use and growth, according to the UN Environment Programme. This is clearly not sustainable.

The extraction and use of mineral resources makes good sense within the present commerce-driven system, but only for the period in which the resources are still around. Meanwhile, the longer term costs of the social and environmental damage are offsets to the benefits.

The Gaia Foundation report acknowledges the potential of green energy solutions, such as electric cars and solar and wind energy, but points out that these also require significant amounts of minerals, including rare earths. As green technologies and products scale up, this would also increase extractive industrial activities.

Re-using and recycling materials and using materials more efficiently would help reduce waste and the need for minerals. But this has to be combined with a change of lifestyles itself.

Will the lessons be learnt in time, or only after the environmental and social crises overwhelm us?

This piece was originally published by the Third World Network.

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