Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Investments and Profits in Mining: Implications on Health

The recent boom in commodity prices has aroused growing investor interest in opportunities for mineral extraction in low-income countries. In last developed and developing countries, most foreign direct investments (FDI) are in extractive industries. Kazakhstan, Mali, Mongolia and Papua New Guinea are among the countries that have emerged as major recipients of FDI in metal mining.

Foreign companies account for varying shares of metallic mineral and diamond production in individual host countries. Based on the value of production at the mining stage, of 33 major mining countries of the world, foreign affiliates were responsible for virtually all production in 2005 in some least developed countries, such as Guinea, Mali, the United Republic of Tanzania and Zambia, as well as in Argentina, Botswana, Gabon, Ghana, Mongolia, Namibia and Papua New Guinea. In another 10 major mining countries – a mix of developed, developing, and transition economies – foreign affiliates accounted for between 50 percent and 86 percent of all production.

Social Implications of Mining
Minerals account for a small share of world production and trade. Nonetheless, their supply is essential for the sustainable development of a modern economy. They are basic, essential and strategic raw materials for the production of a wide range of industrial and consumer goods, military equipment, infrastructure, inputs for improving soil productivity, and also for transportation, energy, communications and countless other services.

As such, mineral exploitation continues to be undertaken mostly by transnational corporations in developed countries and in the developing and underdeveloped countries where policies and regulations tend to be weak. As regulations in these countries tend to be lax, mining corporations tend to be negligent of their social responsibilities to the local communities and even to the mineworkers; as well as adhering to environmental standards.

However, with new investments in mineral exploitation these countries are confronted with challenges the economic concerns, extending to environmental, social (including health) and political dimensions.

Activities in the extractive industries can have health and safety impacts not only on people working in those industries (occupational health and safety of mineworkers), but also on nearby communities, for example, through air and water pollution resulting from those activities.

Health concerns in Mining
Mining in general has been identified as among the most hazardous industries. However, the occupational safety and health implications vary significantly between different mining activities and countries. In the working environment of a surface mine, for example, airborne contaminants (such as rock dust and fumes), excessive noise, vibration and heat stress can create health problems for mineworkers who are subject to a frequent and prolonged exposure to them. They are exposed to various potentially toxic or harmful materials or agents, including, but not limited to, fuels, reagents, solvents, detergents, chemicals, coal dust, silica dust, diesel particulate matter (DPM), asbestos, noise, welding fumes, poisonous plants, trona dust, and metal dust.

The impact of environmental accidents is larger in scope, destroying marine ecosystems, agricultural lands and displacing whole communities from their sources of livelihoods. People living near a mining area also experience long-term health complications which are often debilitating.

Environmental disasters and health issues
One of the major and more controversial issues surrounding mining especially large-scale industrial mining operations is the spate of environmental disasters major mining corporations (and lately, medium and junior mining corporations) are involved in.

Environmental disasters mostly involve the collapse of mine tailings dams containing toxic chemicals from treating mineral ores, that spills into rivers and oceans, agricultural areas and contaminating main water systems and food sources. More often, corporations walk away leaving the local communities and governments to pick up the pieces from the immense devastation wrought by the mining corporation’s gross disregard for environmental standards and safety of the local communities.

The Marcopper Mine Tailings disaster in Marinduque in 1996 is one of the biggest industrial mining disaster in recorded history. On 24 March 1996, toxic mine tailings at the rate of 5-10 cubic meters per second were disgorged into the Makulapnit and Boac rivers. It was estimated that the total amount of mine sludge spilled into the rivers was 1.5 million cubic meters. On top of the economic and environmental devastations it caused, it also affected the people’s health. Years after the disaster, heavy metal poisoning, respiratory problems, and skin lesions were the top health concerns in the affected communities.

United front
As conditions and experiences of mineworkers and communities in developing and underdeveloped countries across the globe are identical, peoples in these countries have the option to organize, unite, mobilize and assert for their sovereign rights as a people over their mineral resources. United, they have the power to lobby for development policies and projects that responds to their development needs.

[1] UNCTAD. “World Investment Report 2007”
[2] Scott, Douglas F. and Grayson, Larry R. “Selected Health Issues in Mining”. (Spokane Research Laboratory, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Spokane, WA and University of Missouri, Rolla – undated)
[3] Corpuz, Victoria T. “The Marcopper Toxic Mine Disaster -Philippines’ Biggest Industrial Accident” (Third World Network - http://www.twnside.org.sg/title/toxic-ch.htm)
[4] Patterson, Kelly. “Oxfam International report highlights continuing problems at Marinduque.” (April 14, 2005, http://www.minesandcommunities.org/article.php?a=1272)

Author: Jennifer Haygood-Guste, Issue 12, Health Alert Asia Pacific
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