Resource exhaustion--the human price
Richard Heinberg's new book, Peak Everything, expands on the widely discussed possibility that we are reaching the world's peak potential for oil production, suggesting that other critical metals are approaching peak as well, including copper, platinum, silver, gold, and zinc. At the same time, the U.S. has become ever more dependent on mineral imports, with the value of mineral imports increasing from $4 billion in 1993 to $29 billion in 2000.
Constant exploitation has exhausted the richest ore deposits. Just as one example, U.S. copper mines in the 1920s worked with copper ores as rich as 20 to 30%. By 2000, copper ores of 0.3% to 1% were being mined.
The combination of increasing demand with declining yields has resulted in an ever growing pressure on developing countries to open up potential mining areas to access by western companies--many of which are located in indigenous or tribal areas. Anthropologist John Bodley, quoted in Resource Rebels, bluntly states that;
The disappearance of tribal cultures over much of the world in the past 150 years can be seen as the direct result of government policies designed to facilitate the exploitation of tribal resources for the health of industrial civilization.Last week, I visited a gold mine site in Honduras that exemplifies many of the problems resulting from the pressures to produce more ore from poorer deposits. The San Martin Mine in the Siria Valley, operated by the Canadian company, Goldcorp, has been producing around one gram of gold ore per metric tonne of rock mined. Achieving this requires blasting half of a mountain into rubble, grinding the rock into finer pieces and then pouring a solution of water and cyanide over the resulting piles to leach the gold from the rock.
Cyanide leach mining has a history of disastrous accidents. A spill in Romania in 2000 resulted in dead rivers and polluted lands. In 1995, a tailings pond at the Omai mine in Guyana, gave way, spilling more than 800 million gallons of wastewater laced with cyanide and heavy metals into Guyana's biggest river, resulting in a major environmental disaster. Accidents such as these have lead the state of Montana to outlaw cyanide leach mining, with other state and national governments attempting to follow suit.
None of this has stopped mining companies from pursuing new ventures, such as the San Martin Mine mine. The mine began production in 2000. Indigenous villages in the area were moved to other land owned by the company and given fake land titles. Health problems soon appeared due to the blasting which spread dust contaminated with heavy metals into nearby villages. Over the years the mine has been in operation, nearby inhabitants have experienced a variety of skin and bronchial ailments. The incidence of miscarriage and birth defects has risen.
On top of medical problems, the mine's tremendous demand for water has dried up streams in the area, forcing the natives to rely on drilled wells, many of which have proven to be contaminated by heavy metal residues from the mine.
Honduran activists who have worked for mining reforms have had their lives threatened and their investigations blocked. In January 2005, the Honduran Office of the Special Prosecutor on the Environment called for a judicial investigation of the company for environmental crimes, forest crimes and water usurpation, but nothing has come of this.
The Honduran mine is scheduled to be closed in a few years, however Goldcorp has opened a new mine in Guatemala that is already showing some of the same problems experienced by the San Martin Mine.
I think it is important for people in developed countries to put a human face on the sacrifices made by indigenous peoples in the mad scramble to feed the ever growing appetite for raw materials. It presents yet another reason to work for a more sustainable, less wasteful economy.