As nations invest billions in extraction development, forests may suffer big losses
Many of the minerals that enable our technology, back the value of our economies (or did at one time), and power our cities can be found in Africa. And yet the continent still remains something of an untapped resource, as the vast majority of mineral extraction occurs elsewhere. A new report published by a team of scientists from James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, documents a surging tide of foreign interest in mining in Africa and cautions that the sector’s unchecked development and expansion could devastate the environment.
In a “call to arms” for conservation biologists, NGOs, and governments to guide this investment to both encourage economic development and safeguard natural habitat, author Bill Laurance and his colleagues catalogue known mineral deposits and examine where they converge with biodiverse areas. As much as a quarter of the continent’s mineral wealth is concentrated in three areas in Cameroon, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The map below shows one of these mineral hotspots along the Rift Mountains in eastern Congo, where they overlap with areas of forest loss between 2001 and 2013.
“In the coming 50 years, this will be one of the most important environmental issues on the planet,” Laurance told mongabay.com.
Mining concessions fill the eastern and southern portions of the DRC. Map courtesy of Global Forest Watch.Click to enlarge.
Rapidly growing countries such as Russia, India, Brazil and China, as well as established, industrialized including Canada and Australia, have plowed billions into mining developments in Africa in recent years. In 2009 China alone invested more than $100 billion each year in mineral extraction, a four-fold increase since the turn of the century. According to data from Global Forest Watch, between 2001 and 2013 alone the DRC lost more than 5.8 million hectares of forest – a swath of land larger than the Netherlands.
The study’s authors point out the enormous opportunity afforded by this influx of cash. Mines can provide much-needed employment, and accompanying infrastructure development in the form of roads and rail lines could help connect farmers to markets, incentivizing increased agricultural yields and encouraging higher incomes through participation in national and regional economies.
“One can’t ignore all of the potential positive aspects of foreign investment,” Laurance said. But while mining could be a booster shot for struggling economies in tropical Africa, it’s not the panacea that some purport it to be. “The social advantages can be very spotty, and there can be major environmental impacts,” he added.
The act of mining itself can be detrimental to the environment, as it is often necessary to remove forest and other types of habitat to get at the minerals in the ground. The authors of the report note a worrisome trend known as PADDD – short for “protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement” – in which governments trim down parks and reserves or scale back their protected status to allow mining companies easier access to minerals. PADDD is often a symptom of weak governance, a serious problem afflicting many countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) are listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN. Much of the proposed mining activity will occur within their range. Photo by Thomas Breuer/Creative Commons 2.5.
Laurance has also called for strengthening environmental impact assessments, which companies are typically required to carry out before mineral extraction begins. “The environmental impact assessment process is in many cases very inadequate,” he said, often just focused on the narrow set of impacts that occur in the immediate area of the mines and only for the time when a company in actively working to pull minerals from the ground. But, Laurance added, a huge set of knock-on effects from the development of mines can have potentially even more serious environmental side effects than the mines themselves.
Roads present one of the most significant issues. While many of the African countries where minerals are abundant are in dire need of infrastructure improvements to move goods to market and allow the freer movement of people, roads also open previously inaccessible wildlife habitats to a variety of other human uses. In one case, a proposed road aimed at moving gold from areas around Lake Victoria to the coast will cut right through Serengeti National Park, disrupting perhaps the most iconic animal migration on the planet. Mines also draw in people looking for jobs, Laurance and his coauthors wrote. Once in the vicinity, the established pattern says they’ll clear land for their homes and crops and diminish local wildlife populations with bush meat hunting.
In addition, some locals, seeking to benefit from the mineral wealth just like the companies in the vicinity, may start their own small-scale mining operations, known as artisanal mining. Unlike small-scale oil palm production, which can represent a more sustainable alternative to large plantations, one-off mines can be just as deleterious (if not more so) to the environment than their industrial counterparts. According to the study, ad-hoc miners use “unregulated, improvised and often harmful extraction methods to piggyback onto operations involving precious commodities, especially gold.” One of these methods is the use of mercury to separate the ore from its surrounding rocky matrix, which can quickly contaminate local water supplies and harm fish, wildlife and humans.
Mining can result in heavy forest loss and pollution of water sources. South America is already experiencing a spate of mining, including the Río Huepetuhe gold mine in Peru in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
In many ways, the land rush to extract valuable minerals found in so many of the products we use every day, from cell phones to jewelry to electrical wiring, parallels the rush to invest in oil palm in tropical Africa. At once representing unparalleled economic opportunities and the specter of environmental devastation, oil palm and mineral extraction both need careful regulation and the incorporation of the needs of local populations into the formation of strategies that will protect the environment and provide for the countries where this development is occurring. For mining and oil palm, scientists like Laurance are calling for greater transparency.
“We need to be talking about it much more vigorously than we are right now,” he added. Additionally, he and his colleagues insist that it’s imperative to strengthen the governance structures of these countries to ensure that mining development is carried out in a sustainable way.
But Laurance points out that the struggle to exert pressure on mining companies may be more difficult. With oil palm, consumers and NGOs have been able to get no-deforestation commitments from large companies by calling for more transparent supply chains and better labeling. With minerals, it’s not so easy, Laurance said. “All this stuff goes into a gazillion different products,” many of which we’ve come to depend on in our modern lives.
As consumer demand soars for products that depend on these minerals, so will the demand for the land that holds them.
“It’s a bit of a tsunami. What can one do against a tsunami?” he said. Still, he’s not willing to give up. “We have to try to do something.”
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