- Environmental and social impacts of mining

Mining is a short-term activity with long-term effects. There can be no
doubt that when it takes place in forest zones, it is a factor of
degradation. It is calculated that, together with oil prospecting, mining
is threatening 38% of the last stretches of the world's primary forests.

Mining activities are carried out in various stages, each of them
involving specific environmental impacts. Broadly speaking, these stages
are: deposit prospecting and exploration, mine development and
preparation, mine exploitation, and treatment of the minerals obtained at
the respective installations with the aim of obtaining marketable

During the prospecting phase, among other activities having an impact on
the environment are the preparation of routes of access, topographic and
geological mapping, establishment of camps and auxiliary facilities,
geophysical works, hydro-geological research, opening up of reconnaissance
trenches and pits, taking of samples.

During the exploitation phase, the impacts depend on the method used. In
forest zones, the mere deforestation of the land with the consequent
elimination of vegetation --greater in the case of opencast mines-- has
short, medium and long-term impacts. Deforestation not only affects the
habitat of hundreds of endemic species (many doomed to extinction), but
also the maintenance of a constant flow of water from the forests towards
other ecosystems and urban centres. Deforestation of primary forests
causes a rapid and fluid runoff of rainwater, increasing flooding in rainy
periods because the soil cannot contain the water as it does when covered
by forest.

In addition to the area disturbed by the excavation, the damage caused by
mines on the surface due to the consequent erosion and silting
(sedimentation of the watercourse beds) is made more serious due to heaps
of rock residues lacking economic value (known as tailings), that usually
form great mounds, sometimes larger than the area given over to

The enormous consumption of water required by mining activities generally
reduces the water table around the site drying up wells and springs. Water
usually ends up being contaminated by the acid drainage, that is, exposure
to air and water of the acids formed in certain types of ore
--particularly sulphuric acids-- as a result of mining activities, which
in turn react with other exposed minerals. A self-perpetuated dumping of
acid toxic material is generated that can go on for hundreds or even
thousands of years. Furthermore, the small particulates of heavy metals
that with time separate from the waste, are disseminated by the wind,
landing on the soil and in the beds of watercourses and slowly integrating
the tissues of living organisms, such as fish.

Hazardous chemicals used in the various stages of metal processing, such
as cyanide, concentrated acids and alkaline compounds, although supposedly
controlled, usually end up, one way or another, in the drainage system.
The alteration and contamination of the water cycle has very serious side
effects that affect surrounding ecosystems --especially more so in
forests-- and people.

Air pollution can be caused by the dust generated by mining activities, a
serious cause of illnesses, generally in the form of respiratory troubles
in people and asphyxia of plants and trees. Furthermore, usually, a
release of gases and toxic vapour takes place: sulphur dioxide
--responsible for acid rain-- is produced because of metal treatment, and
carbon dioxide and methane --two of the main greenhouse effect gases
causing climate change-- are also released, due to the burning of fossil
fuels and the creation of artificial lakes for the hydroelectric dams,
built to provide energy for the casting ovens and refineries.

Additionally, mining activities consume enormous quantities of wood for
their construction --in the case of underground mines-- and as a source of
energy for mines with charcoal-fuelled casting ovens. Also, when carried
out in remote zones, mining activities imply major works such as road
building (opening access to the forests), ports, mining villages, the
deviation of rivers, construction of dams and energy generating plants.

The deafening sound of the machinery used in mining and the blasting
cannot be considered as minor impacts either because they create
conditions that may become unbearable for the local populations and the
forest wildlife.

It is argued that mining is vital for industrialization, because it
provides raw material and sources of energy. However, the present
disproportionate concentration of investment on gold and diamond-seeking,
marginal for industrial production, refute the sector's social
justification for its activities. In 2001, 82% of the gold refined found
its way to the jewellery market and it is worth remembering that to make a
gold ring, the average amount of rock waste generated in a mine is over 3
tons. In the United States, the Pegasus Gold company caused the Spirit
Mountain in Montana to disappear, replacing what had been a sacred tribal
place by an opencast gold mine. Over the next 1,000 years, the site will
continue to distil acid into the region's watershed.

Throughout history, the various gold rushes have brought death and
devastation to the local populations. From the Sioux of the Black Hills,
to the Aborigines around Bendigo in Australia, the history of gold is
tainted with blood; and today Amazonian tribes, like the Yanomami and
Macuxi, the Galamsey of West Africa, and the Igorot of the Philippines,
are similarly endangered.

Mining comes along with its promise of wealth and jobs, but millions are
those throughout the whole world who can testify to the high social costs
that it brings with it: appropriation of the land belonging to the local
communities, impacts on health, alteration of social relationships,
destruction of forms of community subsistence and life, social
disintegration, radical and abrupt changes in regional cultures,
displacement of other present and/or future local economic activities. All
this is added to the hazardous and unhealthy working conditions of this
type of activity.

It may be held that many of the affected communities have given their
consent. However, it is hard to speak of previous, genuine informed
consent, as they do not have the opportunity to fully understand what is
waiting for them when they are asked to place their signature on the
dotted line at the foot of a contract. For this reason, mechanisms to
enable indigenous and local communities to effectively participate in
decision-making processes are called for, together with legislation
enabling them to reject this type of undertaking in their territories.

If there are people who want to wear gold anyway, or use it to fill
cavities, or for micro-circuitry in computers and cell phones, that is all
well and good but as someone proposed, take it from recycled sources. Of
the 125,000 tons of gold extracted from the ground, more than 35,000 tons
lie in the vaults of central reserve banks. The US Federal Reserve holds
8,145 tons of gold, approximately 6% of all the gold ever mined. What
would be better than recycling it from the bank vaults!

Article based on information from: Undermining the forests. January 2000,
by FPP, Philippine Indigenous Peoples Links and WRM,
http://www.wrm.org.uy/deforestation/mining.html ; The decade of
destruction, Mines & Communities Website,
http://www.minesandcommunities.org/Company/decade.htm ; Global Mining
Snapshot, April 2003; Making a Molehill out of a Mountain, 4 April 2003,
Mineral Policy Center, e-mail: mpc@mineralpolicy.org ;
http://www.mineralpolicy.org ; Los Impactos Ambientales de la Minería: Una
Guía Comunitaria,
http://andes.miningwatch.org/andes/espanol/guia/capitulo_1.htm ; New
research on the impact of mining, Oxfam Community Aid Abroad, e-mail:
http://www.caa.org.au/horizons/august_2001/researchmining.html ; Fool's
Gold: Ten Problems with Gold Mining, Project Underground, e-mail:
project_underground@moles.org ,
http://www.moles.org/ProjectUnderground/reports/goldpack/fools_gold.html ;
Indigenous Peoples and the Extractive Industries: A Call on the World Bank
to Overhaul its Institution, Emily Caruso, Forest Peoples Programme,
e-mail: info@fppwrm.gn.apc.org , http://forestpeoples.gn.apc.org/index.htm

For more news and stories on the affects of mining, visit the World Rainforest Movement website at: http://www.wrm.org.uy/deforestation/mining.html