From Rio to Johannesburg:
Less in a Sustainable World
6, 2002 -
South Africa, developed as a gold rush city after
home builders quarrying for stones accidentally struck the
yellow metal in 1886. Gold lies a mile or more beneath the
surface of the city, and is present as an extremely tiny share
of orefar less than one-thousandth of one percentso
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
will be starkly apparent to delegates to the World Summit
on Sustainable Development as they fly into Johannesburg.
Holding the Summit in this scarred mining region highlights
the need to reevaluate an industrial activity that today provides
less than one percent of the worlds economic product,
yet consumes close to 10 percent 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 planets 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 worlds 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 Congos
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 workersalmost
half the workforce.
Despite major strides
in improving mine safety, mining remains one of the worlds
most hazardous occupations. According to the International
Labour Organization, the sector employs less than 1 percent
of the global work force but is responsible for 5 percent
of all worker deaths on the job.
The short sections
devoted to mining in the Draft Plan of Implementationthe
document being negotiated at the World Summit by official
delegates from around the worldfall far short of advancing
a coherent program to address these difficult issues. A
more aggressive approach is needed, both at the World Summit
as well as in other efforts such as the World Banks
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.
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.
sustainable materials strategies.
It takes far less energy to recycle discarded materials
than to extract, process, and refine metals from ore. It
takes 95 percent 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 percent 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.
the polluter pays principle during mine operation
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 billionand 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.
communities, and workers.
mines out of protected areas and other fragile ecosystems.
Mining moves enormous quantities of earth; altogether, it
strips more of the Earths surface each year than natural
erosion by rivers does. Very little of this material is
actually usedfor 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 Doñana 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.
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.
decisions made by local residents about whether or not to
Local communities must be able to determine whether or not
to allow mining or exploration in their backyardonce
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 percent opposing the project.
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.