Open-pit mining - a necessary evil?
South America has a great wealth of natural resources, with gold and copper forming prime exports. The difficulty lies in their extraction. Open-pit mining is a widely-used method, but its environmental impact is great, leaving vast tracts of land permanently damaged in order to access the precious metals below.
Amid increasing awareness concerning the scale of destruction involved, Peru has recently appointed its first Environment Minister, Antonio Brack, to try and find a way of minimising the damage. During a recent visit to the Netherlands, he stressed that it is easy for others to point an accusatory finger at such practices without taking responsibility for their own role in the process:
"Those who say it is unethical should not use any products made from the raw materials mined here. That means saying no pens, golden earrings, necklaces and glasses".
He believes that the question also is not whether or not mining is ethical, but whether it is conducted in a sustainable way.
As an example of this, he explained how a number of companies are now flooding the open pits with water once the mines have been emptied of ore.
"The resulting reservoirs help improve water distribution in certain valleys in the Andes," says Mr Brack. His new department aims to support clean mining and to increase a sense of social responsibility for its effects.
Change in attitudes
Attitudes are also starting to change in Argentina. "Laws banning the use of poisonous substances in mining have been adopted in seven provinces," Javier Rodríguez Pardo of Argentine environmental group RENACE explains. The laws were necessary because, according to Mr. Pardo:
"Entire mountains are being blown up to access the veins of valuable ore, with no consideration for any glaciers, rivers or other important freshwater sources permanently damaged in the process."
The local population relies on these water sources for their own survival and for their crops.
In Costa Rica however, the situation has worsened. A presidential decree recently gave Industrias Infinito S.A., (a subsidiary of Canadian mining company Vanessa Ventures) permission to clear 190 hectares of forest near the Nicaraguan border to start mining gold.
"The Las Crucitas mining project is located in an key habitat for the Green Macaw, or Buffon's Macaw, and a host of other species in this ecosystem. The area is home to many Yellow Almond trees, which are the local macaws' primary food source. Chopping down the forest here will be a disaster for the macaw, which is already threatened with extinction, as well as for the area's 400 other bird species," says Olivier Chassot.
He heads the research department of non-governmental scientific and environmental organisation Centro Científico Tropical.
Although the specific situation in each of these countries may differ, the common denominator is that where mining is concerned, there are no easy answers. It remains important to keep asking the right questions.
And the million dollar question surely must be: How can you make use of natural assets without exploiting the surrounding people or planet? The search for the answer continues.
Cor Doeswijk and Annemarie Hoeve