Mining     the facts


The love affair between national governments and mining companies is getting serious - more countries are experiencing large-scale mining than ever before.

Industrialized countries approve of the union: having depleted their own resources, they are now the biggest importers of minerals. Huge quantities are shipped around the world - or travel within countries like China to power industrial centres. The US receives the largest shipments - nearly all of its aluminium and more than 70 per cent of its nickel, chromium and tin come from abroad.

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Biggest metal producers and consumers1

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Where companies are spending money on exploration2
(Percentage of total spent)

Mining fever
In the global search for minerals, companies consider South America the hottest destination. Liberalization of mining in the 1990s, sale of government mines, cuts to local regulations and large areas of virgin land have made this region particularly attractive.

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Nations where the most mining takes place are also some of the poorest. There is a correlation between the standard of living (measured by the United Nations Development Program Human Development Index - the highest score being one) and the reliance of government on mining. The little money that poor countries get from mining companies is pocketed by international banks, not local people. Fourteen Majority World countries get at least a third of their export revenues from minerals. Their external debts are 1.4 times greater than their Gross National Product (GNP).

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Up for grabs - gold mining in Kenya. Small-scale miners produce 20 per cent of Africa's gold.

Mining kills and injures more workers than any other industry. The situation is likely to be worse than statistics suggest as corporations and governments keep poor records.

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The effects of mining live on long after the mine is dead. Mining poisons the air, land and water and then leaves the environment to suffer a slow death.

Watery graves
Many rivers have been pronounced 'biologically dead' due to release of mine tailings (waste from the mine containing rocks, metals and poisons) into lakes and waterways. Aquatic plant and animal life are choked with toxic sediment.7
Government investment in corporations can hasten the death of the environment. Or governments are left to attend the funeral while corporations are conspicuously absent, having done the deed and stolen the profits.

Yana Machi and Pilcomayo Rivers
Survived by:
Compania Minera del Sur.

Dumped: 235,000 tons of pollutants including arsenic and cyanide from tailings dam.
Endangered: fish and food supplies for the Mataco and Chiriguano indigenous peoples.


Iron Mountain Mine
Survived by:
Rhone Poulenc Inc.

Dumped: up to a ton of heavy metals daily in nearby rivers and streams.
Polluted: Water is now 10,000 times more acidic than battery acid
Expected to leach acid for another 3,000 years.


Ok Tedi River
Survived by:
Broken Hill Pty Ltd.

Dumped: 80,000 tons of rock and toxic tailings.
Killed: Turtles, crocodiles and fish.


Porgera River
Survived by:
Porgera Joint Venture.

The 'next Ok Tedi'

Polluted: Zinc, lead and mercury found at levels 3,000 times higher than PNG standards.
Killed: 133 unusual deaths, locals suspect pollution.


Rio Tinto River
Survived by:
Rio Tinto plc.

Polluted: Copper found at 200 times normal concentration.
Polluted: Mercury 500 times greater than normal.

Dead waste

Most products made from minerals are dumped after one use. In a lifetime each US citizen uses 1,520 tonnes of new minerals. People in industrial countries consume 19 times as much aluminium, 18 times as many chemicals and 13 times as much iron and steel as people in less-developed countries.

The devastating effect of mining on the environment could be reduced by more recycling. US residents throw away 2.3 million tons of aluminium each year. The energy saved by recycling this waste instead of producing new aluminium could meet the annual electricity needs of Chicago.

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1 World Resources 1996-7.
2 Minerals Economics Group Survey, 1997.
3 United Nations Development Program Human Development Report 1996.
4 US Mines Safety and Health Administration.
5 Project Underground, Berkeley, US.
6 Australian Conservation Foundation.
7 World Rivers Review Vol 12 No 5.
8 Worldwatch Institute Washington DC, US. Figures for steel from International Iron and Steel Institute Brussels, Belgium.

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New Internationalist issue 299 magazine cover This article is from the March 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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