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Project Amazonia: Threats - Mining


Economic and social issues

There are three general types of mines in the Amazon region categorized by their ownership and methods.  The first kind is the state-owned mines which were seized and nationalized in the 1970s from foreign corporations that were exploiting the minerals of the area but not returning any profits to the area.   Unfortunately, when they were nationalized, free market capitalism and competition was displaced and a state monopoly was established.  In a monopoly with no outside threats, there is no incentive for safety standards, protection of the environment, or workers rights.  Thus, even though codes and laws have been enacted to protect the environment, the state-owned monopolies continue to neglect them.  As a consequence, these mines have generally degraded into poorly run and inefficient enterprises that are very damaging to the environment. 

The second category is the “new” mines, sold back to transnational corporations in the new wave of economic liberalization undertaken by Amazonian nations.  The nations in the area have opened up to outside investment again, which has both positive and negative consequences.  On one hand, these mines are efficiently run and are more environmentally friendly operations that comply with the environmental codes which have been passed.  In addition, by giving the developed world a vested interest in their nation, the Amazonian nations may be able to wield some influence over developed countries, just as OPEC did in the 1970s.  Data shows that spending on exploration of nonferrous minerals in Latin America increased by 100% from 1994 to 1997.  While this was occurring, little if any growth was seen in Australia, Canada and the United States1.  In addition, the US Bureau of Mines (1994) reported that “a significant proportion of the United States and Canadian interest in mining is shifting to Latin America”.

On the other hand though, other recent studies suggest that the developed world prefers to relocate the most pollution-intensive industries (chemicals, pulp and paper, fuels and metals) to the developed world2.  Since mining is an arduous industry for workers and for the environment, the developed world prefers to locate it abroad.  Furthermore, the US Department of Commerce (1999) has stated in a recent report that “the US mining sector has experienced falling earnings since the late 1980’s”. This report also asserts that “the most important factors currently affecting the health of the US mining industries are the access to public lands for the exploration of mineral deposits and environmental regulations”.  So, one can see that the corporations are desperately searching abroad for a way to turn a profit. The developing nations are a very enticing option because of the ready access to public lands and relative lack of environmental concern when environmental issues are in conflict with economic goals.

Both the extraction and processing of the materials is costly and difficult, therefore developed nations prefer to locate of these activities is in the developing world.  This idea is supported in the fact that no new aluminum smelters have been built in the U.S. since 1980.  The difference was compensated for by imports.  U.S. primary ingot production fell from 4.03 million metric tons in 1989 to 3.85 in 1998, and in the same period, ingot imports raised from 0.93 to 2.15 million metric tons3.

Aluminum is a good example of how the considerable environmental consequences of the mining industry are transplanted to developing host nations.  It is particularly pertinent because aluminum processing is typically associated with large hydropower plants, the largest of which is in Brazil.  The building of these hydropower plants requires the inundation of vast areas of terrain.  Also, large amounts of fluorine gas are released as air pollution and large amounts of “caustic wastes” known as “red mud” which are very difficult to dispose of, and even harder to utilize4.

The third type is the traditional mines and cooperatives.  Over thousands of years, the indigenous groups have developed a bond with these resources and consider them their own.  They do not take kindly to outsiders, even the state, extracting the resources, because they have seen that little if any of the profits are returned to them.  To stand up and take action, individuals or small groups mine the resources for themselves.  They usually harvest from the trailings of other mines because they lack the industrial equipment to move raw earth themselves in large quantities. This movement should not be underestimated, for it employs in the hundreds of thousands of indigenous and lower-income people, providing one of the few available economic options.

The traditional miners, though not the sole cause of this number, constitute a large percentage, especially in comparison to the overall mining output of this quantity.    

The mining dilemma involves some complicated paradoxes.  If the state-owned mines and traditional mines dominate as the currently do, many people in need of employment will have a job and the flow of mineral resources will not be interrupted, but the environment is ravaged due to hazardous, polluting, negligent and inefficient practices.  Right now, traditional mining is used as a welfare system.  If the “new” mines were to take over, then the mineral deposits would be smartly and strategically extracted with less people and minimal negative impact to the environment, but also minimum minerals left behind for the locals to harvest.  In addition, the “green” methods of mining are only better in comparison to those employed in regular mining.  They are still largely detrimental to the environment.  Furthermore, there is no known method of “green” oil or gold extraction.  Therefore, the “minimal negative impact” to the environment would still be quite large, no matter who is in charge.



Environmental impact

Due to rich mineral deposits deep within the Amazon Basin mining has become increasingly prevalent as a source of income and employment.  However, the ecological impacts of mining techniques used within the Amazon create a number of problems for the surrounding ecosystem. 

To discover these ore and mineral deposits, mining companies create extensive networks of roads throughout the Amazon Basin, deforesting land and disrupting nature.  Once a site is found numerous core samples are taken by heavy machinery to test the site's viability.  If a suitable site has been discovered the area is deforested to clear the land for extraction.  The area is then blasted with nitroglycerin explosives to breaks rocks over an area of up to one square kilometer and up to a depth of fifty meters. The mining companies leave these large cavities in the earth upon completion of their project. These enormous gaps in the landscape turn into stagnant water pools which become breeding grounds for mosquitoes5. These mosquitoes are notably feared because they cause malaria, a widespread epidemic in Brazil, in the local populations. After blasting, massive trucks (i.e. taller than jumbo jets) are then brought into the area to extract the rock from the pit and bring it to a processing facility. 

Once at the refinery, the rock is sprayed with cyanide or mercury to separate the gold particles from the rock.  However, careless containment procedures and improper disposal lead to the release of these chemicals into the natural surroundings. Even though mercury stored in the soil is in an organic form, which is rather harmless, when released in large concentrations through mining it inhibits plant growth and animal immunity, resulting in the death of flora and fauna. Furthermore, when mercury enters areas such as rivers, it is converted to methyl-mercury, which is one of the most poisonous substances known to man6. Methyl-mercury filters down the river systems to communities living down stream of the mining sites. Studies have proven that villagers suffer the effects of mercury in the waters and even the miners themselves are victims of mercury poisoning. Additionally, the rate of mercury production is at times equivalent to the rate of gold production7. This ratio indicates that for every kilogram of gold extracted by the miners, a kilogram of mercury leaks into the soil and is partially released into the aquatic system. According to estimates, amount of mercury effectively dumped into the rivers has been 2000 tons in the last century alone8.  A large percent of this results from traditional minors. Traditional gold-miners pan in the trailings of the mines or in the alluvial plains of the Amazon and its tributaries for the washed away remnants.  They collect the sediment and also use mercury to amalgamate the gold dust and separate it from its surroundings.  They have no containment procedures and simply dump the mercury into the river or on the ground.

The mining processes and their side effects also constitute a major source of threats to groundwater. Acid mine drainage (or AMD) is a solution of sulfuric acid along with toxic metals and other contaminates from the mines.  It is carried off in rain or surface water and is deposited in nearby water sources including the groundwater. “Heap leaching using cyanide or sulfuric acid poisons rivers, streams, and groundwater and gills fish and wildlife.” Finally, tailings, the aboveground waste from the mined rock, can leak from where it is stored and pollute the surrounding water and soil9.

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1: French, 1998

2: UNCTAD, 1999a

3: US Department of Commerce, 1998

4: Masini and Ayres, 1996

5: Brown et al., 2002

6: Veiga

7: Veiga

8: Brown et al., 2002

9: The Relevance of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises to the Mining Sector and the Promotion of Sustainable Development