New Internationalist

Keynote

Issue 299

The
dark side
of the moon

Anouk Ride explores the two faces of mining
and challenges our notions of progress.

I have landed on the moon. Its pale surface is littered with tiny pieces of shiny rock illuminated by the heat of the distant sun. It is a colourless face, scarred with mounds topped with dark pockmarks and craters indenting the folds of its skin.

Looking for signs of life, I approach a crater and peer into a black hole. Inside is a cave; a room with a sofa, a television and an old carpet lining the floor. The walls are painted white, although inklings of red and brown dirt can be seen through the paint. No-one is home.

They are all working. Each day they climb unstable and worn ladders down the pockmarks, often little wider than their own bodies, in search of the galaxy of colour glistening from the walls of their tunnels. This is their daylight; their hope of a brighter, richer universe.

Opals - that is all that seems to sustain people in the mining town of Andamooka, South Australia. Water is trucked in from elsewhere. The only green I see is the sign in the window of the store: American Express Accepted Here. Sure enough, inside a few elderly Americans and some Japanese tourists make exclamations over jewellery glistening with the luminous gems - tiny flecks of which line the street outside.

Finally, at dusk, the miners scramble up to the outside world. Their eyes, perhaps still adjusting to the lights, seem wide and manic. My mother whispers in my ear: 'They're as mad as snakes.'

The following day we visit the Olympic Dam mine and nearby town of Roxby Downs. We are told that Olympic Dam is mainly a copper mine with small amounts of gold, silver and uranium produced as well. There is a lengthy explanation of 'water management systems' - how the company minimizes water-use in the desert, encourages the residents of Roxby to plant native trees and recycles waste water. It all seems so sane in comparison to Andamooka. I am bored to death.

I would have paid more attention if I had seen the mine's waste - the world's largest radioactive dump spreading 330 million tons of muck across 720 hectares. Or if I had known that radiation released from the mine as radon gas reaches my home in Adelaide 600 kilometres away before losing its radioactivity. Or if I had been told that expansion plans would mean a tripling of copper and uranium production and the use of four times the current amount of water, drawn from Australia's Great Artesian Basin. This underwater lake covers an area of over 1.7 million square kilometres, sustaining vegetation, animals and Aboriginal culture in one of the most arid regions of the world.

Andamooka and Olympic Dam are clear-cut examples of mining madness. We do not need opals or uranium. But what about construction materials for our homes, metals for telephones and energy to light up dark streets? Life on earth without mining is as inconceivable as life on the moon.

Since the beginning of time mining has changed the face of humankind. The ancient Roman and Greek writers depicted mining as an abuse of mother earth. But the use of minerals has also been linked to notions of 'progress'. From the Stone and Iron Ages to the current age of technology, consumption of the products of mining has been seen as sign of development. From 1750 to 1900 the world's overall use of minerals increased tenfold while its population doubled. Economic progress has seen this leap at least thirteen-fold again this century.

Colonialism was fuelled by the same quest for 'progress' as industrialized nations invaded the South and squabbled over its natural resources. Companies spread economic dependence while their governments asserted political dominance - France's long stay in Kanaky (New Caledonia) has been more to do with its love of nickel than palm trees.

It is ironic that the countries which experienced colonialism at first hand, are now the same ones spreading a new contagion. Australian companies first explored and exploited Papua New Guinea (PNG). From here their sphere of influence widened to cover much of the Asia-Pacific. Canadians travelled down to South America to establish mines and are still one of the biggest miners there. Together, Canada and Australia are now responsible for most mining worldwide.

Mining is being experienced on the largest scale in history. Since 1990 half the world's states have opened their doors to international companies and are actively encouraging them to invest - more than 70 have changed their mining laws. For example, Brazil's sale of the most massive iron-ore operations in the world is the latest in a string of privatizations.

[image, unknown] In their panic to unearth more lucre, companies are always on the move. In their wake they leave environmental degradation, dependency on primary exports and foreign capital, human rights abuses and displaced indigenous people.

The attitudes of British mining-giant Rio Tinto (RTZ-CRA) to indigenous cultures has been no more enlightened than Victorian view of them as 'savages'. On the island of Bougainville, formally a part of the state of Papua New Guinea (PNG) but an area which has long asserted its cultural individuality and desire for political independence, the biggest copper mine in the world was established in 1972. It literally capped a mountain and then bored a deep hole into its summit.

Rio Tinto's Australian offshoot, Conzinc Rio Tinto of Australia (CRA), made a fortune but the people of Bougainville were left with less than one per cent of the profits. They considered themselves far poorer than before mining began. As a Bougainvillean mother explained: 'If there was no land, there was no water, there was no bush, what have you? There is no life.'

Companies and governments push aside indigenous people in their mad dash for minerals. In the case of the US-owned Freeport company's (officially known as Freeport-McMoRan) operations in West Papua, even the dead have been unceremoniously dug up and carried away to make room for the mine. In one of the worst cases of corporate complicity, Freeport has provided housing, food and transportation to the Indonesian military which has killed 2,000 people and displaced hundreds of traditional landowners since mining started in 1972. There are now more troops stationed here than in any other Indonesian territory - including East Timor. In other troublespots where national armies have proved reluctant or incapable of such suppression, mining companies have no compunction about using their own (see Roger Moody's 'Diamond Dogs of War' on page 15 of this issue).

The environmental stress caused by mining contorts the face of the earth The industry gobbles a tenth of the energy in the world every year and churns out enough waste to dwarf the planet's total accumulation of municipal garbage.

Mining projects now threaten four out of every ten national parks in equatorial countries. Each year 50,000 hectares of tropical forest are cut to keep the Carajas iron ore project in Brazil running. And the mining and smelting of metals accounts for the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Government leaders, desperate for investment and royalties, have a glint in their eye when talking about mining. Especially when it comes to their own companies - in the US the mining industry is allowed to buy public land for $12 per hectare or less. It pays no royalties. And the Australian government's reluctance to agree to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions is unsurprising - the Mount Isa Mines smelter currently produces more than half the sulphur dioxide emitted by the whole of Japan. In Indonesia, President Suharto receives around $400 million a year from the US-owned Freeport mine (US diplomat Henry Kissinger is on the company's board). In 1996, Freeport paid an estimated $730, 000 in campaign donations to members of Congress and to President Clinton.

Little has been learned by these companies. In the rich world, the environmental standards and attention to the social effects of mining operations have improved marginally. However in the words of one environmentalist: 'The industry still feels it has to have "better PR" rather than "How can we do it better?"'.

Not all companies are accomplished in the art of public relations. Broken Hill Propriety Ltd (BHP) in Papua New Guinea is a case in point. Their Ok Tedi mine was started before the country's independence. But following this the company dumped toxic metals and chemicals, known as tailings, into the Fly river. This killed off life for 150 kilometres downstream. The company's Environmental Manager remained unperturbed: 'I don't have a problem with saying we are causing in some areas significant devastation to the environment'. Traditional landowners did. They successfully sued for $400 million and a commitment to rehabilitation where possible.

Even at the height of the controversy over BHP's operations at Ok Tedi, the company was voted 'most admired' by corporate Australia in a magazine poll. And shortly after it wrote legislation for the PNG Government, it helped Dominican bureaucrats to write a code that repealed constitutionally-guaranteed indigenous land and assigned mineral rights to the state.

Despite this appalling record, even BHP may not be the slowest learner amongst its peers - a study of mining and petroleum agreements conducted by the United Nations Centre on Transnational Corporations (UNCTC) found that the only document which contained more than one clause on the environment was -- the Ok Tedi agreement.

The limited scrutiny of transnational corporations undertaken by the UNCTC before it was closed down in the early 1990s has not been assumed by any other international organisation . Instead, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) now helps poor countries encourage large-scale foreign investment. International banks have always rallied to support the corporate cause. The World Bank's proposed draft of mining guidelines sets standards significantly lower than those already in developed countries. A third of people in one area of Bangladesh suffered visible skin lesions after exposure to arsenic at levels below the draft's limits.

Mining is not seen as an 'international crisis' because there is still a plentiful supply of minerals. But this is beside the point. Only a small proportion of the remaining minerals are in an easily-obtainable form - the great bulk of them are in low concentrations spread over a large area. This means as mining continues it will take more energy, water, poisonous chemicals and pollution to dig up the same amount of ore. The environmental effects of mining are bound to get worse rather than better in scale and severity. Something needs to be done before we are mined out of matter.

The top eight industrial nations account for two-thirds of the world's consumption of aluminium, copper and lead - at this rate they may find themselves living it up on the face of the moon. The only way humans can have any quality of life in the future is to discard the idea that mining is 'progress' and to quit the habit of overconsumption. This means an end to exploitation of the Majority World.

It's time to start thinking creatively about how we can use minerals without abusing the earth and its people in the process (see box). We need to take action now if we are to give the pores of the earth some time and space to heal. The doctrine of progress enables us to forget what we all have in common. These are the features we have known since the beginning of time: the scarred, but still smiling, face of the earth.

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