From Ore to Omen: Mining’s Environmental and Social Wake-Up Call

Over the last 20 years, mining activities with severe ecological and social harms have surged worldwide. Since 2000, the global extraction rate has doubled for materials such as bauxite, copper, gold, iron, manganese and nickel. Nickel has already reached a scale 120% times greater than the cumulative extraction before 2000, while cobalt extraction has already surpassed historical levels by 150%. A study found that, in 2019, five of the six areas on land with the highest diversity of species collectively were responsible for extracting 79% of all the metal ores worldwide.

Diego Francesco Marin and Jan Morrill report.

A Polluting Giant

This relentless mining spree has catapulted the industry into one of the planet’s most polluting sectors, spewing billions of tons of toxic waste, contaminating freshwater, soil, and air, and jeopardizing ocean health through hazardous practices like mine waste dumping and deep-sea mining.

The extraction practices generate tremendous amounts of waste, which is stored in mining waste storage facilities called “tailings dams.” Tailings dams can reach 150 meters in height and store millions of cubic meters of waste. Some of these dams are the biggest engineering structures humans have ever built and can even be seen from space.

Many tailings dams are several decades old and will exist in perpetuity, even after the mine closes. In efforts to reduce costs, mining companies often 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 since the 1960s. In 2019, a tailings dam collapsed in Brumadinho, Brazil, killing 272 people and sending 9.7 million cubic metres of waste into the Paraopeba River ecosystem. 

The Escalating Demand for Minerals and Metals 

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), mining for various materials will increase by 200% and 400% between 2020 and 2040. 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, nations will have to simultaneously reduce the impact of mining activities in the upcoming years, while directly addressing the management of mining waste more effectively. Such efforts will require international cooperation.

To address these ecological and social challenges, in February 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 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 assess existing activities, take action to enhance the environmental sustainability of minerals and metals, as well as identify possible ways forward for the UNEA. These talks will conclude in a Global Consultation on 7-8 September 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. Meanwhile, sectors such as the military, digital technologies and construction also significantly increase the demand for these materials. 

While around 55% of gold is used for jewelry, very little gold is used for technologies for energy transition. Yet, gold mining is one of the main drivers for the mining industry, representing 55% of investment in new materials 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 the 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 nearly 800 Indigenous families. This is happening despite the opposition from Indigenous tribes who have not given their consent for the project. 

The above 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 is likely to cause significant collateral damage to people and the environment, while uncontained growth, particularly in the gold mining industry, will continue to harm communities and ecosystems.

A Call for Change: Addressing the Future of Mining

Around the world, affected communities have proactively identified strategies to prevent the perpetuation of these detrimental effects of mining. Representatives from the Dominican Republic, South Africa and the Brazilian Amazon will travel to Geneva to share their experiences in the UNEA Global Consultation. These community representatives are calling on the UNEA and its member states to ensure the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent for Indigenous peoples living near extraction projects. They also demand increased transparency and management for mine waste safety standards so tragedies such as  Brumadinho and Jagersfontein do not happen again. The representatives are advocating for governments to hold mining companies accountable for the damages to ecosystems and communities and sounding the alarm that the energy transition must look to circular economy policies that involve recycling, repair, reuse and better design 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 about the potential societal and environmental benefits of the anticipated surge in mining activities in the coming decades.

The UNEA Global Consultation is an opportunity for governments and regulators worldwide to ensure that the risks and dangers of the mining industry do not continue harming communities, ecosystems and the rights of Indigenous peoples. Our ecosystems and future generations depend on it.