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Pandora's Box: Digging the Earth, Killing the Future

Landgrabbing and mineral extraction spell disaster for Earth

Common Dreams staff

Kennecotts Bingham Canyon Mine. (Photograph from Thinkstock.)

The extent and the scale of the increase in world mineral extraction over the last 10 years is staggering, according to a new report. Across Latin America, Asia and Africa, more and more community lands, rivers and ecosystems are being despoiled, displaced and devoured by mining activities. The rights of farming and indigenous communities are increasingly ignored in the race to grab land and water. Each wave of new extractive technologies requires ever more water to wrench the material from its source. The hunger for these materials is a growing threat to the necessities for life: water, fertile soil and food. The implications are obvious, if not widely ignored by the industrial and economic powers that profit from such activities.

The report, Opening Pandora's Box - A New Wave of Land Grabbing for the Extractive Industries and The Devastating Impact on Earth, was spearheaded by the Gaia foundation and supported by various groups including Friends of the Earth International, Grain, Oilwatch and Navdanya in India.

For example, the report cites that over the last ten years, iron ore production is up by 180%; cobalt by 165%; lithium by 125%, and coal by 44%. The increase in prospecting has also grown exponentially, which means this massive acceleration in extraction will continue if concessions are granted as freely as they are now.

"We live on a beautiful and wondrous planet," write the authors in the executive summary to the report, "the only one we know of in our cosmos. She suddenly feels very small and vulnerable in the face of the momentum of destruction we have unleashed on her, through our conscious and unconscious actions. We must recognise this reality: if we continue in our current direction, our children will be left to clean up an increasingly barren and unstable planet, littered with toxic wastelands and a huge scarcity of water, which we would have left in our wake."

"We live on a beautiful and wondrous planet - the only one we know of in our cosmos. She suddenly feels very small and vulnerable in the face of the momentum of destruction we have unleashed on her, through our conscious and unconscious actions."

Environment editor at The Guardian, Jon Vidal, digested the report, and added:

Africa is the epicentre of the mining industry's search for minerals. Of the 10 biggest mining deals to be completed last year, seven were in Africa, according to Ernst & Young. Mining group Anglo American has earmarked $8bn (£5bn) for new platinum, diamond, iron ore and coal projects on the continent, and Brazil's Vale has said it plans to spend more than $12bn over the next five years in Africa. [...]

China, which has invested heavily in African mines, now sucks up much of the world's mineral resources. According to the report, it uses 53% of the world's cement, 47% of its iron ore, 46% of its coal and more than 40% of the world's steel, lead, zinc and aluminium. However, it re-exports much of this in the form of finished products for world markets.

The loss of enormous quantities of soil, and the eviction of people to make way for large-scale extraction now threaten to make millions of people landless and hungry, a recipe for social problems, says the report.

Water could well be a factor in limiting the extraction of minerals in future. Most mining companies have said they are already experiencing shortages. If demand continues to grow at the same rate that it has in the last decade, industry demands for fresh water are expected to grow from 4,500bn cubic metres today to 6,900bn cubic metres in 2030.

"Humans have almost cleared the surface of the earth. Now all efforts are geared towards going beneath the surface. Large-scale mining is now targeting all parts of the planet," said Gathuri Mburu, co-ordinator of the African Biodiversity Network.


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