With mining set to increase in the near future, its negative impact on vulnerable communities and ecosystems is bound to worsen. Governments need to ensure their protection, write Diego Marin and Jan Morrill.
Diego Marin is the Policy Officer for Raw Materials and Resource Justice at the European Environmental Bureau. Jan Morrill is the Tailings Campaign Manager at the Earthworks.
In the last 20 years, mining activities have surged across the world with severe ecological and social harms.
Since 2000, the global rate of extraction has doubled for materials such as bauxite, copper, gold, iron, manganese, nickel, among others. Nickel has already reached a scale 120% times greater than the cumulative extraction prior to 2000, while cobalt extraction has already surpassed historical levels by 150%. A study found that in 2019, among the six areas on land with the highest diversity of species, five of them collectively were responsible for extracting 79% of all the metal ores worldwide.
The mining industry is one of the most polluting in the world and has a track record of generating billions of tons of dangerous toxic waste, violating human rights, polluting freshwater, air and soil, and threatening ocean health through the risky practice of mine waste dumping and deep-sea mining.
All of this extraction has generated tremendous amounts of waste, which are stored in mining waste storage facilities called “tailings dams.” Tailings dams can reach over 150 meters tall and store millions of cubic meters of waste, some of which are the biggest engineering structures humans have ever built and can even be seen from space.
Many tailings dams are many decades old and will exist in perpetuity, even after the mine closes. Often in prioritising costs, mining companies choose riskier and less stable tailings dam construction methods, which put downstream communities and ecosystems at risk.
Research has shown that tailings dams are falling with increased severity and frequency. In 2019, a tailings dam collapsed in Brumadinho, Brazil, killing 272 people and sending 9.7 million cubic meters of waste into the Paraopeba River ecosystem.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), mining for various materials will increase by 200% and 400% between 2020 and 2040, and sand mining will also increase particularly for the demand from the construction sector, resulting in a massive problem for the planet.
To reduce rampant biodiversity loss and protect communities, in the upcoming years, nations will have to simultaneously reduce the impact of mining activities, while directly addressing the management of mining waste more effectively. This will require international cooperation.
To address this ecological and social challenge, in February of 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) passed a resolution (UNEP/EA.5/Res.12) underscoring the need for “enhanced action to support the environmental sustainability management of minerals and metals,” and recognising the regulatory and administrative capacity challenges the countries face when trying to oversee the mining industry.
This year, the UNEA Resolution put in motion a process of regional consultations with governments and other stakeholders to take stock of existing activities and actions to enhance the environmental sustainability of minerals and metals and to identify possible ways forward for the UNEA. These consultations will culminate in a Global Consultation on September 7-8 in Geneva, Switzerland.
This resolution comes at a critical time. As the global push away from fossil fuels ramps up, low-carbon alternatives, like electric vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines, are deemed “critical” for the energy transition.
But, the lifecycle of low-carbon technologies begin with industrial mining for minerals and metals, including lithium, cobalt, nickel and graphite. Other sectors such as the military, digital technologies and the construction sector also significantly increase the demand for these materials. And while around 55% of gold is used for jewelry, very little gold is used for technologies for the energy transition, yet gold mining is one of the main drivers for the mining industry, representing 55% of investment in new mining explorations.
For example, communities in the Dominican Republic downstream from the sixth largest gold mine in the world, owned by Canadian Barrick Gold, are demanding the company and government relocate them after enduring years of water, soil and crop contamination and suffering health problems they contend are tied to the mining operations.
In South Africa, unstable and polluting mine waste dumps threaten nearby residents’ lives and livelihoods. In 2022, one facility collapsed in Jagersfontein, killing two people and burying an entire town in toxic mud. The Brazilian Amazon mining company, Belo Sun, is seeking to build the country’s largest open-pit gold mine on the Big Bend of the Xingu River, threatening to displace close to 800 Indigenous families. This despite opposition from Indigenous Tribes who have not given their consent for the project.
These cases show how insufficient mineral governance policies lead to severe damages to communities, ecosystems and economies. Without proactive steps, the pace and scale of the transition to renewables will cause significant collateral damage to people and the environment and unchecked growth, particularly in the gold mining industry, will continue to harm communities and ecosystems.
Around the world, affected communities have proactively identified strategies to prevent the perpetuation of these detrimental impacts. Representatives from the Dominican Republic, South Africa, and the Brazilian Amazon will be traveling to Geneva to share their experiences in the UNEA Global Consultation.
These community representatives are calling on UNEA and its member states to ensure the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent for Indigenous Peoples near extraction projects. They are also demanding increased transparency and management formine waste safety standards so tragedies such as Brumadinho and Jagersfontein are never repeated. They are advocating for governments to hold mining companies accountable for their damages, and they are sounding the alarm that the energy transition must look to circular economy policies that involve recycling, repair, reuse and better design so as to reduce the need for new mines around the globe.
Above all, these community representatives are challenging the prevailing growth paradigm by raising fundamental questions regarding the potential societal and environmental benefits linked to the anticipated surge in mining activities in the forthcoming decades.
The UNEA Global Consultation is an opportunity for governments and regulators around the world to ensure that the risks and dangers of the mining industry don’t continue to harm communities, ecosystems and the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Our ecosystems and future generations depend on it.