High mineral prices drive rainforest destruction

13 Aug 2008


The surging price of minerals is contributing to degradation and destruction of rainforests worldwide, warns a researcher writing in the current issue of New Scientist.

William F. Laurance, a biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, says the high price of gold, coal, and other minerals is driving an influx of miners - legal and illegal - into tropical countries, where there are extensive mineral deposits but environmental protections are often a low priority. Pollution, deforestation, overhunting, and invasion of indigenous territories and protected areas can result.

"I recently witnessed gangs of illegal gold miners in the rainforests of Suriname, in north-eastern Amazonia," Laurance writes. "The miners were blasting at river banks with pressure hoses, devastating the ecosystem there. Once-pristine streams had become malaria-infested pools choked with sediment, the water stained bright red or yellow, and contaminated with mercury used by miners to amalgamate gold particles."

"Because of such pollution, indigenous and other rural communities in many gold-bearing regions of Amazonia often cannot find clean water to drink. Fisheries are being decimated too; mercury accumulates as it moves up the food chain, reaching dangerous concentrations in the larger fish that local residents rely on for protein."

Laurance notes that developing countries are also having problems controlling legal operations. He cites a surge in coal mining in Indonesia as an example. Multinational mining firms are lining up to exploit rich coal deposits in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) but environmental considerations are often an afterthought. Meanwhile Malaysia is preparing to embark on a dramatic dam-building spree in the Bornean state of Sarawak to increase electricity-generating capacity to attract mineral smelters and refiners. The plan is sanctioned by the state and federal governments despite opposition from environmentalists and a court-ruling against the scheme.

**Reducing mining damage**

Laurance says that detrimental mining impacts can be reduced by enforcing existing laws as well as improving mining management. Restricting road-building would further mitigate some of the collateral damage from mining activities.

Laurance also argues that multinational mining companies should pay a larger share of the cost of controlling illegal mining in developing countries.

"These firms are attracted to developing countries by low taxes and labor costs, modest mineral royalties and relatively lax environmental laws. They should shoulder a larger share of the burden," he writes.

Finally, Laurance says that consumers in rich countries need to own up to their role in promoting environmentally-destructive activities in tropical forests.

"The world's major mining corporations are headquartered in wealthy nations, and we should demand that they meet higher standards. We should support nongovernmental groups that are trying to expose bad environmental and social practices. And we should lobby those who invest in international mining to use great caution, for they could be inadvertently profiting from environmental destruction," he concludes.

William Laurance (2008). The real cost of minerals. NewScientist | 16 August 2008.