Grievances at Extractive Locations

Lynx Fellow John Milton

 

Since the late stone age, humans have understood that certain metals could greatly improve their quality of life as the earliest evidence of mining dates back to around 41,000 – 43,000 years ago.  Our own necessities surrounding mining are not the same as our prehistoric ancestors, however our quality of life continues to depend on the ancient practice.  Metal is critical for modern infrastructure and for everyday tools and instruments. Precious metals have an extremely broad range of value from cell phone components and jewelry to batteries necessary in green energy collection.  Despite the need for both non-precious and precious metals, controversies surrounding mining and the mining industry are nearly as prehistoric as the practice. Mining can have detrimental and irreversible effects on the environment and local communities.  

With the constant need for demolition and high-explosive materials, blasting overburden, or “rock and other soil overlying a mineral deposit” causes a large amount of dust and other material to become airborne.  The amount of airborne overburden and other toxic materials used in the mining process can cause severe health problems for communities surrounding the mining location.  In addition to health problems, airborne overburden can cover a significant area in dust. Overburden can travel around five miles from the extraction site, even further if the operation is higher in elevation.  This amount of dust and other materials can cover entire communities, causing large amounts of public outrage toward mines and their parent companies. 

In addition to air pollution, mining requires a large amount of water in the operation.  Water is required “to reduce the hazard of fires or explosion, by using it to cool the cutting surfaces of mining equipment and prevent” certain dusts from catching fire.  Also, due to the previously mentioned large amount of airborne overburden that can be released into the air supply, some mining companies are constantly hosing water into the mine to reduce the amount of overburden that enters the atmosphere.  This is common in mines producing radioactive materials such as Uranium.

Not only do mines require a significant quantity of water, especially those in arid environments, but water used in mining can be significantly polluted after being used in the operation.  While it is common to find the mined material in water (e.g. coal dust being found in water used in coal mines) most precious metal mines use a variety of chemicals to treat the raw ore at the extraction site.  These chemicals can be significantly hazardous to health, and they are continuously found in the water supply surrounding mines. 

The challenging nature of mining has not only contributed to several physical consequences for communities close to the extractive, but they have also created consequences in their livelihood and human security.  Low wages in the mining industry has been a constant for centuries now. The average miner in the U.S. makes around 32,000/year, which is just above the national average in the U.S. This was not always the case, as the average yearly wage for a miner over a century ago was around $530.40/year, below the average income of 645.00/year in 1900.  This process was made even worse with the advent of “Company Scrip” in the 19th century.  Company Scrip was a form of substitute currency mining companies would pay their employees instead of legal tender.  Company Scrip was only redeemable at stores and businesses owned by the mining company, effectively anchoring employees to the mining company.  

Besides low pay, the mining industry is inherently associated with dangerous working conditions.  In nations like the U.S., OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and other organizations who monitor workplace safety are in place to keep mining above a safety threshold.  However, other parts of the world do not have such safeguards in place, leading to a high injury and death rate at certain mining sites. Higher amounts of injury and death will harm local communities further, as mines usually recruit workers from the local labor supply.

The previous hazards to local communities surrounding extractive sites have led to a history of grievances that persist today.  As recently as October, 2019, Las Bambas copper mine in Peru had to temporarily suspend operations as local communities blockaded roadways to the extraction site due to an apparent breach of contract by MMG, a Chinese mining company.  Other protests have also gathered a large amount of social media attention, such as Serj Tankiann (also known as the lead singer for the band “System of a Down”) expressing his criticisms surrounding a gold mine’s effect on local populations in his native Armenia.  

The grievances expressed by local communities surrounding the extractive locations are valid and carry with them a sincere argument for the rights of local populations.  However, the importance mining has on our everyday lives is astronomical. Precious metal mines extracting elements like lithium are essential in the fight against climate change.  In terms of development, iron and bauxite ore are critical for construction and the refinement of certain products.  Repeated blockades and protests may also cause nations to decrease their FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) in regions and nations that may drastically depend on foreign investment. 

In order to maintain mines where local populations are sensitive to their effects, firms need an accurate visualization and/or documentation to provide an understanding of these local grievances.  An accurate understanding of local grievances will create two considerable benefits for firms: 1) it will enable the mining companies to remain sensitive to the concerns of local communities (helping to create a “social license to operate”), which will 2) allow for more accurate budgeting and timetables as blockades and other protests will be less likely.  

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