For several decades now, iron, gold, uranium, and copper ores and other raw materials like diamonds, salt and coal have been extracted from increasing numbers of sites around the world. The extraction of these resources, which requires increasingly sophisticated technology, impacts the surrounding region. Mining projects are often a source of economic, social and environmental problems which create risks for local populations. These problems appear during the extraction process but also after mine operators have left, leaving certain sites uninhabitable.
Countless examples of this exist. The World Watch Institute reports that in the eastern US states of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, new surface mining techniques have radically altered the mountain landscapes in those regions. A technique known as “mountaintop removal” involves blasting into mountains with dynamite. The resulting debris often buries nearby streams. According to World Watch, people are also opposed to this type of mining, because it causes land subsidence and erosion and contaminates drinking water supplies.
Other problems aside from environmental degradation include illegal mining, theft, corruption, and some say the funneling off of profits from mining activities. This represents a huge shortfall in earnings from producing countries, particularly those in emerging economies. Jeune Afrique magazine reports that the African continent – one of the biggest mining regions in the world - benefits little from activities that are controlled by western mining companies that have been on the continent for decades. Mining activities only have a minor impact on local economies because resources are immediately exported and local mining companies are rare. Additionally, existing raw materials are not transformed in the region, yet transformation could be a significant source of income.
Another major mining issue in developing countries is the work conditions of local miners. Local populations have often constituted an inexpensive labour source, with serious consequences on their health. Miners frequently suffer from excessive heat inside mines, toxic fumes and the risk of roof collapses, explosions, and fires. Exposure to these risks can lead to accidents and pulmonary diseases such as silicosis.
When mining sites are about to close, companies must take appropriate measures to limit the impact of their activities on the environment, both during the extraction phase and after. No clearly defined international legal framework or tax incentives exist, but the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) encourages mining companies to accept social and environmental responsibility for their activities and recommends the use of existing environmental management tools to limit damage, eliminate mine contamination, and rebuild local economies that have been weakened by the departure of mining companies. UNEP has reported increasing levels of awareness about the problem of abandoned mines, and more frequent participation of mining companies in government efforts to clean up these sites.
The World Bank, which warns against the “serious impacts” that a mine closure can have on local communities, also recommends appropriate management measures after a site has been closed. For several years now the bank has supported multinational companies in their efforts to implement concrete solutions which aim to reduce the negative effects of site closures. These efforts remain insufficient however.
Région de Swakopmund - Mine d'uranium à Rössing - Namibie © Yann Arthus-Bertrand