It is easy to be critical of the destructive elements of mining. What’s more difficult is confronting the necessary and complex role minerals play in all of our lives.
Five years ago, I was sitting in a sidewalk pub in Entebbe, Uganda, when a Zimbabwean refugee told me that Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, was preparing to nationalize his country’s mines. At the time, few people working in foreign aid and international development were concentrating on mining and minerals – one had to rely on gossip collected in the street.
Now, hardly a week passes without a front-page exposé covering the mining beat. Whether stories linking small-scale gold mining to the financing of guerrilla activities in Colombia, or revelations that Mugabe pilfers the nationalized mines for personal profit, scandal, corruption, and the devastating human and environmental impacts of extraction are the favoured themes of this new literature.
For many people, realizing the prevalence of mining provokes alarm and a certain voyeuristic fascination. Network journalists relish demonstrating their exploratory prowess by visiting remote peasant miners in Africa, while concerned humanitarians gasp at the harm spread by mining companies. It’s as if the world is just discovering that mining is happening, and shocked that its outcomes are not always peaceful.
Curiously enough, the more reliant that people became on mines and metals during the 20th century, the less attractive it became to examine the influence of these resources on economics, the environment, and peace and conflict. Yet, minerals are critical for the rich and poor alike: Any person who uses electric lights, telephones, automobiles, modern plumbing, waffle irons, refrigerators, and so forth lives in the comfort and luxury of mining production, while according to Nobel Peace Prize-winning economist Muhammad Yunus, topping the list of things a person needs in order to be free from poverty is a house with a tin roof.
The renewed interest in supply side mineral economics is vital to re-educating ourselves about the raw materials enabling the digital age. It used to be easy to count off the essential minerals and fuels such as iron, copper, zinc, lead, tin, mercury, and coal. Early 20th-century steelmaking innovations, from which we got submarines, tanks, and planes, led to the production of ferroalloys (chromium, nickel, tungsten) whose previous uses were restricted to laboratories. The breakthrough of consumer electronics over the last 20 years is equally revolutionary, and one whose impact on economics, the environment, and war we are only beginning to understand.
A central contention of the latest reports on mining is that our consumer choices in the developed world fuel conflict in the developing world. “Each time we use a mobile phone, use a video game console, or open a tin can, we hold the lives and deaths of the eastern Congolese in our hands,” writes Peter Eichstaedt, author of the recent book, Consuming the Congo: War and Conflict Minerals in the World’s Deadliest Place.
This focus on resources returns to an old theme about the role of minerals in war and peace. The wars of the last 20 years, whether in the Balkans, Rwanda, or the Middle East, were most commonly described at the time in terms of identity – physical battles over metaphysical properties – with limited emphasis on the geopolitics of minerals.
But in the late 1970s, American historian Alfred Eckes, Jr., a former commissioner of the U.S. International Trade Commission, wrote a book entitled The United States and the Global Struggle for Minerals, in which he argued that the geopolitics of minerals was important among the causes of the First and Second World Wars.
For the United States, these wars were also turning points in mineral economics. Before the First World War, the U.S. produced 96 per cent of the natural resources it consumed. Supplying the allied forces with fuel and minerals, however, created increasing dependence on foreign mines, so that by the end of the Second World War, the U.S. was a net importer for most essential minerals.
After the First World War, a premium on international mining expertise contributed to Herbert Hoover’s ascent to the post of commerce secretary, and, later, president. Hoover was a mining engineer of great repute. Together with his wife Lou, he published the first Latin-English translation of Georgius Agricola’s pioneering book on mineralogy and mining, De Re Metallica.
Published posthumously in 1556, De Re Metallica was a vigorous defence of mining, challenging its reputation as a source of social breakdown rather than a foundation of civilization. “If there were no metals,” Agricola writes, “men would pass a horrible and wretched existence in the midst of wild beasts.”
In part, Agricola was refuting a 1,500-year-old view of mining as an essentially destructive force, rooted in the writings of the 1st century CE Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder. Where Agricola upholds mining as humanity’s prized advantage in nature, for Pliny, mining brings “ruin” to human life through the inventions of currency and usury, the aspirations of luxury and the idle life, and the use of metal and money to dominate and enslave one another.
This debate over mining’s merits and demerits has never abated: It perseveres today in places like Piura in northern Peru, where the people – who live among mines active since Incan times – say, “Agriculture is life, mining is death.” In other words, the connection new mining literature exposes between conflict and mining is only alarming because of our unfamiliarity with mining, not because we are observing something new. Likewise, our public scrutiny of mining obsesses over important, but nevertheless narrow, concerns without examining or understanding the range of influences – positive and negative – that minerals have on civilization.
A chief example of this limitation is the emphasis placed on certifying global supply chains and applying concepts like “fair trade” labelling – invented for agricultural goods like coffee and cocoa – to the mineral trade.
The problem with comparing mineral chains to food chains is that many mines are part of extra-legal, or “informal,” economies, whose existence is not recognized by their host governments. These mines number in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, and it is difficult even to speak of ethics certification so long as the mines do not officially exist.
A second problem – sometimes called “traceability” – is the difficulty of accounting for every step of mineral production, from the hole in the earth to the digital consumer in New York or ornamented bride in Mumbai. In agriculture, a coffee bean is a coffee bean: The commodity retains its individuality. But once minerals are smelted, there is no discernable origin.
More troubling than this is the article of faith held by advocates of ethical commodities – namely, that if people know the impact of their market choices, they will seek, and even pay more for, alternatives. This idea is neither true nor to the point.
Even if it were possible to make every minerals supply chain virtuous and transparent, by the time we completed this global audit and certification, the resources might not even be around. The world is already in resource overdraft – consumption of natural resources exceeds Earth’s capacity to support the population. The connection between mining and conflict cannot be corrected merely by making consumption more fair, organic, or palatable. Unless the velocity of demand for mineral products is curbed, it’s hard to imagine that resource conflict won’t become more common than it already is.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.