Soaring worldwide demand for the minerals used in electronic devices such as smartphones and laptops has left a legacy of social conflict and human rights violations across Asia, Latin America and Africa
John Vidal | The Guardian
A 200ft deep pit gapes where three years ago stood a mountain. Fields where small farmers planted rice and grew fruit are now an industrial site, and wooden houses in the old village of Didipio have been abandoned – the community moved to make way for a large-scale gold mine owned by a New Zealand company.
The Filipino mine, guarded by high fences and bitterly contested by the indigenous Bugkalot people who fear pollution, spills and ill-health, is just one of scores of major new gold and copper mines opened in the last few years to meet soaring world demand for minerals used in electronic devices such as smartphones and laptops.
While the spot price of gold and other minerals has recently seen its greatest annual decline in more than 30 years, the legacy of the global mineral boom is social conflict, human rights violations and environmental devastation across Asia, Latin America and Africa, says a global investigation into hundreds of the world’s mineral mines.
As angry communities in Colorado last week counted the cost of a toxic spill from an old gold mine, a new atlas of 600 international mining and oil companies has identified more than 1,500 ongoing conflicts raging over water, land, spills, pollution, ill-health, relocations, waste, land grabs, floods and falling water levels.
The EU-funded report by academics at 23 universities and environmental justice groups in Africa, India and Latin America has identified 142 disputes involving gold mines, 130 at coal mines, 96 at copper mines and 73 at silver mines, with India, Colombia, Nigeria, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and the Philippines having the most. They ranged from longstanding legal disputes to armed conflicts.
The companies whose mines have attracted the most accusations of human rights abuses and environmental conflict are some of the largest in the world, mostly listed on the London stock exchange. They include AngloGold Ashanti, Rio Tinto, Barrick Gold, BHP Billiton, Glencore Xstrata and Newmont Mining. Between them they are involved in 75 conflicts in countries ranging from Colombia, Burma and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the US, Zambia and the Philippines, says the database.
“Across Latin America, Asia and Africa, more and more community lands, rivers and ecosystems are being despoiled and devoured by mining activities,” says Philippe Sibaud, author of two reports on the extractive industries for the Gaia Foundation.
“The rights of farming and indigenous communities are increasingly ignored in the race to grab land and water. The hunger for these materials is a growing threat to the necessities for life.”
In many cases, governments have had to call on the army to defend the mining companies against aggrieved local communities who have taken up arms.
“Much of the Philippines has now been militarised to defend the companies,”, says Benedictine nun Sister Stella Matutina, a community worker in Mindanao province who has been targeted by the government for opposing mining companies. In the last year she has been charged with kidnapping, human trafficking and illegal detention for opposing Canadian, Australian and British mining companies and for looking after tribal people displaced by mining.
Mining in the Philippines has exploded from only 17 operations in 1997 to nearly 50 mega-mines today.
“We have found that mining divides our people, it kills them, it does not help us. It destroys our values. Mining and militarisation are twins. Where there is big mining there is always militarisation, because the government has to ensure that foreigners can invest in our country. People are resisting, are taking up arms against the entry of these mining companies. We are killing each other over mining,” she said.
Following his outspoken encyclical on climate change and human ecology in June, Pope Francis has also stepped into the mining debate, calling for radical change by the industry.
In a message sent last month to leaders of communities affected by mining in Latin America, India, Africa and Asia, he spoke of “the cry for justice … for their lost lands, the violence, threats, corruption, the trampled human rights, the dire working conditions, and sometimes the slavery and human trafficking as well as the pollution of water, air and soil”.
The groups, meeting at the Vatican, said that mining companies:
“regularly invaded and denuded the traditional lands of indigenous peoples and poor farmers, expropriate water used for irrigation and drinking and leave polluted land and water behind
“There have been grave human rights violations experienced: environmental destruction and contamination, health impacts, community divisions, uprooting from territories, sicknesses, loss of culture, prostitution, alcoholism and drug addiction, loss of their own economy, and the ties to organised crime that are generated by the mining industry.”
In his encyclical, the pontiff said:
“It is morally unacceptable, politically dangerous, environmentally unsustainable and economically unjustifiable for developing countries to continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future.”
Conflicts have flared in Latin America, where many countries have opened up new regions to mining. Guatemala has awarded more than 350 new licences since 2007, mostly to Canadian companies. A further 600 are under consideration by the ministry of energy and mines.
New mines in Honduras, Peru and Chile have all provoked opposition. Thousands of troops had to be deployed and anti-mining activists were shot as anger flared around the Canadian-owned Escobal silver mine in Guatemala last year.
Canadian mining companies have some of the worst records for human rights violations, according to a report submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2013. It found Canadian companies were involved in more than 100 human rights and environmental disputes in Latin America.
Pierre Gratton, director of the Mining Association of Canada, said:
“We don’t deny that there is conflict everywhere but feel we are leaders in setting standards and are doing a better job than anyone else. There’s a much higher level of awareness and sensitivity now, and an ability to raise issues which in the past might have been overlooked. The industry is more active [than it used to be] in Asia, Africa and the Americas and is working in countries with weak governance. These [mines] are multibillion-dollar investments. The money flows to the capitals, and [impacted] communities say ‘what about us?’”
In the Colombian Amazon, the floodgates have opened for mining concessions, with licences being given on around 20 million hectares of land, much of it pristine rainforest , says former Colombian environment minister Martin von Hildebrand, who has been working with groups living along the lower Apaporis river.
“Yaigojé Apaporis became Colombia’s 55th, and third largest, national protected area in October 2009. And yet, just two days after the official announcement, a company was granted a mining title and began attempting to revoke the ‘protected area’ status. The same mining company is believed to be linked to a further 20 applications for mining exploration around Yaigojé Apaporis,” said Hildebrand.
The high price of gold in recent years has also attracted thousands of small-scale miners into fragile ecosystems. Yanomami Indians in northern Brazil and Venezuela whose populations were devastated in the 1980s by illegal goldmining face new invasions of gold miners, says tribal leader Davi Yanomami. “History is repeating itself,” he said on a visit to London last year. “Twenty years ago many thousands of gold miners flooded into Yanomami land and one in five of us died from the diseases and violence they brought. We were in danger of being exterminated then, but people in Europe persuaded the Brazilian government to act and they were removed.
“But now 3,000 more miners and ranchers have come back. More are coming. They are bringing in guns, rafts, machines, and destroying and polluting rivers. People are being killed. They are opening up and expanding old airstrips. They are flooding into Yanomami land.”
More than 100,000 small-scale gold miners using rudimentary methods to extract gold from hillsides and rivers are thought to be active in Peru. In many cases they are competing with mega-mines which employ far fewer people.
According to PwC, one of the world’s top four industry auditors, government intervention and conflicts have mushroomed as commodity prices slump. “The gloves are off for the industry with widespread government intervention, internal industry conflicts and rising shareholder activism,” it said in its annual report.
Earlier this month anti-mining activists from 28 countries announced they would work together to seek a binding UN treaty and international tribunal to address the destructive impact of international mining. “It will give rights to people to sue mining corporations and hold them accountable for violations and crimes,” said Clemente Bautista of the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment.
“With an international mechanism we can join forces and file cases in an international tribunal,” said Selcuk Kozagacli, chairman of the Progressive Lawyers Association in Turkey. “Now more than ever do we need a united struggle worldwide to defend people.”