The Problem >> Human Rights

 Human Rights & Developing Countries

Mines and refineries in underdeveloped countries can be very lucrative, and very dangerous. Outsourcing production is a common solution, but profits for multinational corporations often come at the expense of the local population's well-being.


Minable ores of critical resources are located around the planet, sometimes concentrated in just a handful of economically viable deposits. Platinum-group elements, uranium, tantalum, niobium, and phosphorus are distributed unevenly in a few, scattered pockets around the globe. As minerals do not adhere to political borders, the most desirable mining zones are often located in countries lacking the economic or technological means to take full advantage of them. Too frequently, poor governmental management of the resources allows control of their mining and sale to fall into the hands of warlords, militias, and anyone else willing to resort to violence and terror.

When local governments do choose to lease out the land to established mining companies, they make a choice to exchange long-term domestic profit potential for more stable, short-term income. In addition, the huge, multi-national corporations that develop in these areas are primarily profit-driven, and may take advantage of more relaxed regulations to the detriment of local communities. Operations involving toxic chemicals or radioactive waste tend to follow less stringent safety procedures. Companies are less inclined to treat their workers fairly, as local laborers often have no other choice of employer, governments have fewer labor laws, and trade unions are nonexistent. Though an underdeveloped country finds itself blessed with strategic minerals, the general population may fail to reap the benefits.

Case Study: Coltan Mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The problems that developing countries face are nuanced and difficult to generalize. Coltan is a mineral ore containing both tantalum and niobium, two rare heavy metals that are essential materials in a variety of electronics. Although there are many alternative sources of niobium ore, including many rare earth metal ores, coltan is the primary source of tantalum in the world. Brazil is currently the world's largest producer of tantalum, supplying 180 tons of the world's total 790 in 2011 (“USGS Minerals Information” 2012). However, at least half of the earth's known coltan reserves are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), one of the most politically unstable countries on earth (Gootnick 2008).

In lieu of an established mining industry, most coltan in the DRC is ‘mined' from stream beds by hand, in a process similar to the one used by prospectors during the American gold rush. A small team can collect around a kilo of coltan per day, worth anywhere from $150-$300; laborers can make up to $50 per week, an alluring prospect in a country where the average worker makes $10 a month (Redmond 2001). Unfortunately, the value of the mineral and the ease with which it can be extracted make it subject to systematic exploitation by the militia groups of Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. To maintain control of mining operations, these organizations have conducted years of systematic brutality, raping, murdering, and committing other atrocities in order to keep local populations terrified (2010). Additionally, the uncontrolled, unregulated mining erodes the land and pollutes waterways, and miners have been killing critically-endangered gorilla species and destroying their habitats (Redmond 2001).

In the past, the international community has been pressured not to buy from the DRC in order to cut off funding for these groups, but the militias have been able to circumvent these efforts by fraudulently exporting through their own countries. In 2001, Rwanda exported 1,300 tons of coltan, although there are no natural sources of coltan in Rwanda (2010). Coltan trading with the DRC and other central African countries had actually decreased from its peak in 2000, but recently it has come back up as the price of tantalum is once again above $100/lb (“USGS Minerals Information” 2012). With tantalum demand expected to grow by about 5% per year for the next few years, the problem will only become worse if left unattended (“Tantalum: Market Outlook”).

Case Study: Mitsubishi RE Refinery in Malaysia

The process of refining pure Rare Earth Elements (REEs) from raw ore is complex and expensive, and it usually leaves behind a toxic slurry of chemical waste and excess rock. When handled properly, the waste from a refinery is stored far from human contact and safely away from the biosphere. This type of safety requires diligent upkeep and care, and in the absence of close government monitoring, it is cheaper for companies to neglect safe disposal techniques. In 1982, Mitsubishi Chemicals, a Japanese corporation, opened a Rare Earth refinery in the Malaysian village of Bukit Merah, population 15,000. At the time, it was hailed as a way to bring foreign capital and jobs to a poor region (Jegathesan 2012). Over the next 12 years, the company grossly mishandled the toxic by-products of its business, disposing of waste containing radioactive thorium in the fields and streams surrounding the village (Jegathesan 2012). The plant was later closed amid public outcry, but its legacy remains: the village still suffers from higher-than-usual leukemia rates, brain cancer, birth defects, and other health problems.

Now, Australian mining company Lynas plans to open a new, $800 million (Sithraputhran 2012) refinery in Pahang, a state on the Malaysian east coast. The plant recently passed an environmental inspection by the Malaysian government despite mass protests against it, and once again, the plant is advertised as a vessel of job creation and progress (Sithraputhran 2012). However, even now, before operations have begun, there are indications that Lynas may have cut corners in its construction. Last year, the New York Times reported that a few engineers working on the plant had come forward to warn about Lynas's use of cheap materials and the presence of cracks and air pockets in the radioactive waste containment tanks. Lynas strongly denies any substandard construction practices (Bradsher 2011). Although these allegations could be overblown, and there is no physical evidence to implicate Lynas as of yet, the promises of the last major corporation to "develop" a poorer region are fresh in Malaysians' memories.

Cost of Inaction

As illustrated by the given examples, the problems faced by developing countries are too complex to be addressed in a web page, and "solving" a single aspect, even one as focused as production of a single mineral, may ultimately prove impossible without across-the-board changes. However, the international community cannot afford to ignore these issues: the cost in lost productivity and human life is just too great.

Poorly-developed mining operations cost the world money. Minerals in areas without sufficient infrastructure to extract them are a drain on the world's economy as a whole. They represent missed opportunities for efficient, valuable production, which is harmful to a marketplace with exponentially growing demand for limited supply. Furthermore, when minerals are extracted with old, inefficient, or poorly-maintained equipment, much of their value can be destroyed permanently in a bid for quick cash; both of these factors keep supply low and prices high. A recent report by the US Government Accountability Office estimated that the DRC controlled at least 64% of world coltan reserves, and $24 trillion in rare metals Gootnick 2008) (Noury 2010). In 2001, the DRC exported 130 tons of tantalum, but annual production has been sporadic since then; meanwhile the price of tantalum has varied by as much as 600% within a single year (“USGS Minerals Information” 2012). Were the Congo to produce ore at a stable rate equal to what it is capable of, even now, it would be the second largest producer in the world and supply over 16% of the world's needs (“USGS Minerals Information” 2012). The DRC's full production capacity is unknown, but is likely much higher than current levels. Although the Congo is years or decades away from meeting its full potential, a move towards effective, safe management of the DRC's tantalum now could drive global supply up and prices down, or at least help stabilize the chaotic market.

Poorly managed facilities also leave costly economic footprints. Since shutting down their Malaysian plant in 1994, Mitsubishi has spent $100 million on environmental cleanup (Long 2012), and the economy of Bukit Merah may take decades more to fully recover.

The human costs of mineral management are harder to quantify, but often much steeper than the monetary ones. In the case of the Mitsubishi mine, a local public health official reports that there have been at least 11 deaths of blood poisoning, leukemia or brain cancer due to the radioactive waste since 1994 (Jegathesan 2012). Hundreds of others have become sick or suffered birth defects, all due to reckless waste management on the part of the company. In the Congo, conflict mining puts money directly in the pockets of brutal militias, in the midst of the most bloody, continuous conflict since World War II. By 2007, the last time a serious assessment was made, the Congo civil war had claimed 5.4 million lives, and 45,000 more were dying monthly as a direct result of the conflict (2010). Coltan could fund only a part of this, but its role should not be underestimated. The USGS reports that last year, Rwanda exported 110 tons of tantalum, worth $3.15 million (“USGS Minerals Information” 2012) - more likely than not, most of it mined illegally in the Congo and sold by militia groups. This money directly funds violence, and its flow must be stopped as soon as possible.

These are just two examples of the myriad ways in which human rights and developing countries are at risk due to mining. Combatting these issues is a daunting task, but Mission 2016's solutions involving miners' rights, and supply-chain transparency aim to do just that.

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