Do you think mining harms the environment?
Mining: The Consequences of Global Raw Material Extraction
They can be found in cars, houses and cell phones - metallic raw materials are used in countless everyday products and we can no longer imagine our lives without them. The growing world population and the rapid spread of electronic devices mean that the demand for metals continues to rise.
But in order to extract aluminum, steel, gold and the like, forests are cleared, rivers are poisoned, people are exploited and entire ecosystems are destroyed. Irresponsible mining practices have become one of the greatest environmental threats of our time.
The world market for natural resources
The largest deposits of metallic raw materials are usually in the poorest countries on earth. Indonesia, for example, is the largest exporter of tin and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is at the forefront of cobalt mining worldwide. The small African Guinea has the world's largest bauxite reserves with 7,400 million tons - Jamaica, Australia, Brazil and India are among the most important countries of origin of the aluminum ore.
What exactly are metallic raw materials?
Metallic raw materials include all metals or ores from which metals are refined - for example iron ore (steel), bauxite (aluminum), copper, nickel and gold. They are extracted from the earth's surface and, unlike renewable raw materials, are not renewable.
A distinction is made between two forms of mining activities: ImOpen pit the raw materials are extracted in open pits - for example bauxite, which is released piece by piece through the removal of layers of earth.
Metallic ores and precious metals usually have to be dug underground in mines and tunnels. To theUnderground mining also includes deep-sea mining, in which heavy drilling equipment penetrates the sensitive seabed and lifts metals such as manganese, cobalt and nickel to the surface.
One industry - two players
While at"Large Scale Mining" (LSM) When speaking of large, industrial mining operations with heavy equipment, one understands by"Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining" (ASM)small-scale mining, which uses very simple mechanical methods.
Profit at the expense of the environment - the effects of mining
The consequences of mining are most clearly visible through the conversion of huge areas of land - in particular through the clearing of large forest areas for open-cast mining. In Brazil alone, almost 10 percent of the Amazon rainforest disappeared between 2005 and 2015.
This deforestation not only causes a high loss of biodiversity - it also means that people penetrate into areas where nature was previously largely untouched. Roads, rails, dams and power lines are being built to create an infrastructure for the mining operations. New workers are settling down, claiming settlement areas and doing agriculture - developments that have further negative effects.
Use and pollution of water, soil and air
The extraction of raw materials swallows vast amounts of water every year. Up to 4.5 percent of the average water use in the affected countries can be traced back to the mining sector. The effect: the groundwater levels sink, rivers dry up and, especially in times of drought, the whole region suffers from massive water shortages.
Another problem is the pollution of the groundwater by pollutants and heavy metals that are exposed during mining. Large amounts of the contaminated water or sludge are stored in sedimentation tanks and heaps. In ore deposits, this creates highly toxic, acidic mine water, also known as “Acid Mine Drainage” (AMD). If this substance seeps into the earth in an uncontrolled manner, it can poison the soil and groundwater for thousands of years.
The emissions that are released into the air during clearing, excavation, transport and blasting work are just as toxic. Even for people who live several kilometers from the mines, respiratory problems and severe lung diseases are part of everyday life.
Time and again there are terrible environmental disasters in spoil heaps due to leaks or even dam bursts. The most recent example occurred in January 2019 when the dam of a sedimentation basin broke in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. A toxic mudslide, twelve million cubic meters in size, buried entire villages and killed at least 186 people.
Human rights violations and social consequences
It is estimated that more than 40 million people worldwide work in ASM - at least 150 million are directly dependent on this income. The job of a mining worker is one of the most dangerous in the world: Around eight percent of all fatal accidents at work occur in opencast and underground mining.
The conditions are particularly catastrophic in small-scale mining: the workers crawl through ankle-high mud, climb into narrow shafts without helmets or safety devices and are exposed to highly toxic chemicals without protection. There are hardly any alternatives: non-industrial mining is usually the only source of income for people in remote areas.
Countless local residents are also suffering from mining activities: entire village communities and indigenous peoples are being driven out for new mining sites and their traditional areas are being destroyed. Many indigenous people fall victim to violent, often fatal, clashes.
Almost everywhere in the world, the extraction of raw materials is responsible for resource conflicts between local communities and mining corporations. Because it is mainly the latter who earn money - the population pays with their health.
Mercury: The invisible danger in gold mining
Every year around 3,000 tons of gold are mined in over 100 countries around the world - often using highly toxic substances and chemical processes.
This is also the case in the Amazon region: for the most part, it is illegal small-scale miners who mix mercury into the rock sludge in order to extract and bind gold. The neurotoxin then ends up unfiltered in the air, soil and water - it poisons plants, fish and ultimately all people who feed on the fish.
The consequences: Severe and irreversible damage to the nervous system and internal organs - even in unborn children. An estimated 1.5 million people along the Amazon are affected by high levels of mercury. The state of aquatic ecosystems has never been so worrying. However, high profit margins and the lack of alternatives are currently preventing the crisis from coming to an end.
A treaty under international law gives some hope: through the so-calledMinamata Convention Mercury emissions can be curbed and gold mining can be promoted through legal measures. To do this, the Amazon states must first sign the convention, then ratify and implement it.
It's time to rethink! Our fight for more responsibility
The WWF calls on companies, investors and governments to take responsibility: through improved methods, sustainable mining processes and limited use of resources. Only if we stop overexploitation now can we preserve biological diversity - and ensure a future for humans and animals.
Here's what you can do: 4 tips for making sustainable purchasing decisions
- Try to reduce your consumption of products that are based on mineral-intensive production processes. Before each purchase, ask yourself whether you really need this product and put a stronger focus on high quality and durability.
- Whenever possible, you should maintain, repair, and reuse products. In this way you can avoid waste - and thus the depletion of additional natural resources.
- Take old electrical devices to a recycling center. Metals are reusable resources and can be used in new products.
- Before buying a product, ask whether the materials have been recycled or reclaimed. Many companies offer consumers a certain level of transparency by adding sustainability certifications to their products.
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