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The Missing Ethics of Mining

By Shefa Siegel | Ethics & International Affairs | February 15, 2013

CREDIT: franco (CC).

In the middle of the 1980s the pastoralists of Essakane, Burkina Faso, were dying. Drought gripped the drylands of West Africa, crippling peoples' seminomadic livelihoods of millet farming and goat herding. When rain finally returned after three years, the earth had hardened like concrete and water skimmed across the floodplain, barely penetrating the surface. Without arable land the people faced famine—until they discovered gold. Instead of a disaster area, Essakane transformed into a commercial oasis: a mining town of 10,000 miners and traders where gold is processed and exchanged for food, cloth, spices, and animals.

The market becomes frantic before festivals as everyone from fifty square miles converges to tailor new clothes and butcher meat. The town has dirt roads and mud homes, yet despite this lack of infrastructure many elements of modern urbanism are present, including gas stations, auto mechanics, chemicals suppliers, pharmacies, and water distributors. Essakane is the wholesale center for the region, and without its economic influence the area risks reverting to a state of famine.

Not long after becoming a mining town, Essakane became a target for international investors. This dynamic is common. With some exceptions, metals today come from areas that were first discovered and exploited many years ago. The minerals that are easiest to extract have already been exhausted, but mineral production in these areas has been extended through advances in geological and engineering sciences that enable extraction of low-grade ores. And yet, as much as modern mining depends on precise technical expertise, exploration geologists still spend much time trekking in remote areas, learning about the geological formations from local residents, especially miners.

A few miles outside the town there is a mine so expansive and deep it seems that only machines could have made it. Not so. The crater was dug from lateritic rock entirely by hand. I visited the mine the afternoon before a feast, and it was quiet except for a man in a four-cornered turquoise tunic who was repeatedly pouring the contents of one bucket into another. He was wind-mining. When miners have neither equipment nor chemicals, and do not even have water, they can let the wind work as a separator. Back and forth they pour, again and again, from one bucket to the other, until, if they are lucky, a particle of gold is revealed. Wind-mining is the absolute economic bottom. "My crop failed," the man said grimly, explaining that he had come from far away. "I'm here because I have nothing to feed my family."

Essakane is in northeastern Burkina Faso, which is north of Ghana, east of Mali, and west of Niger. To get there I flew from sleety Paris over the Sahara to the Sahel. For a time there is only an endless horizon of terracotta sand, but as the aircraft descends villages appear—squat huts clustered in circles along dry riverbeds, goats grazing in the dying light. Not two minutes later there are factories, roads, automobiles, and city lights. This is the capital, Ouagadougou. It used to be a joke among American diplomats to say to a fellow Foreign Service Officer who was at risk of being punished for some bureaucratic offense, "Be careful or the undersecretary will send you to Ouagadougou."

People often presume that the lonely prospector with hammer or pan—engaging in what used to be called "practical" and is now called "artisanal" mining—no longer exists. In fact, there has never been a time when more people depended on artisanal mining. We do not know exactly how many of these miners there are: the numbers are always shifting with the seasons and fluctuations in commodities prices, as well as economic failures, wars, and the effects of climate change. Tens of millions is what we suspect, and the number is growing all the time.

The effort to transform Essakane from a town dominated by artisanal mining to one focused on industrial mining failed several times. In 2000 the International Monetary Fund told the Burkinese government it needed to sell off its stake in the mine, undo its monopoly on the gold trade, and open the resources to foreign investment. Soon thereafter, a British company purchased the property. It sold the mine to a Canadian company. The Canadians sold it to South Africans. The South Africans sold it back to the Canadians. These Canadians sold it, again, to other Canadians.

CREDIT: Isuru Senevi (CC).

In 2008, I visited this area as a contractor for an agency of the World Bank. I had recently written a doctoral dissertation about artisanal mining, while working as part of a United Nations environmental research and technical assistance group whose aim was to address mercury pollution. Artisanal miners are the world's largest remaining users of elemental mercury, a potent neurotoxin whose industrial use is declining in every other sector.

In the course of our project, however, we also observed two new disturbing trends in mining. First, the number of artisanal miners was spiraling uncontrollably, tripling and quadrupling in lockstep with the steep rise in the price of gold after September 11, 2001. Second, many of the places we were studying were subject to increasingly tense—and frequently violent—land-use conflicts between local artisanal miners and foreign industrial mining companies. Because our remit (and funding) was limited to studying the environmental effects of mercury from artisanal mining, we had no mandate to examine these conflicts. While I had read about coexistence interventions being applied by the World Bank and other international development agencies to these conflict areas, this was my first occasion to experience them directly.

By the time I arrived in Essakane, the Canadian company that owned the mining rights was completing a complicated negotiation with local miners to move the town. When a mining company builds a mine, it puts its camp away from the pit and processing plant. But artisanal miners build directly on top of where they mine. The whole town is permeated by the industry. Residences are next to the operations. Miners bring their bags of ore home with them, crush the rocks by hand (or by machine, if they can afford it), then wash, pan, and amalgamate (with mercury) the crushed ore in a water pit. More often than not, this means they live on top of the gold deposit. Therefore, if you want to build a big industrial mine, the village or town has to be removed.

An industrial mine requires many things to make the business work. It needs top geologists, geochemists, mining engineers, trained labor, expensive machinery, roads, security, and complex chemicals; since most mines are off the grid, it needs a power plant; and above all, it needs enormous volumes of water. The only significant source of water in Essakane is a river that runs for two to three months per year during the rainy season, so the mining company's plan was to dam and divert the river to feed the mine. "What about the people who rely on the river downstream?" I asked the company's in-house sociologist. "That is a question we do not discuss out loud," he answered, chillingly.

I could see that the sociologist was concerned. Access to water is the region's critical issue: there is less than one well for every 500 people. But this was a decision taken above his pay grade. To ask about the mine's water usage was to pose a paradigmatic question, so obvious yet so subversive that if you wished to keep your job you would bite your tongue. I faced the same predicament. Calling into question the fundamental viability of the mine, its sustainability, was not possible for either of us.

There is no international law governing mining projects. Instead, there are more than a dozen codes, covenants, and standards, all voluntary and self-enforced. These include the International Cyanide Management Code, the Equator Principles, the International Finance Corporation's Performance Standards, the Global Reporting Initiative, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the Natural Resource Charter, and the United Nations' "Ruggie Principles," to name just a few. Every new framework attempts to trump the preceding ones by defining the essential principles of corporate engagement in mining projects.

But these different frameworks also reflect an underlying competition among development agencies, scholars, and practitioners. Many of these organizations and individuals are competing for funding from the same small group of donors, and often aim to fund their specific initiatives through membership fees from the companies they are attempting to influence. Across these initiatives, the guiding principle is to promote economic development that benefits everyone involved—foreign companies, host governments, as well as local communities—not to question the underlying economic and ecological value of specific mines. The expansion of mining is accepted as inevitable.

In my case, the assessment I was supposed to write permitted me to comment only on the adequacy of the process for moving the town—"resettlement" as international functionaries call it. As I understood it (I was not an expert in this area), my task was to assess whether the Canadian mining company in Essakane had properly implemented the part of the International Finance Corporation's standards that dealt with resettlement. These standards are heavy with terms like "minimize," "mitigate," and "adequate," as in "minimize involuntary resettlement" or "mitigate adverse impacts." It is a rhetoric of imprecision.

There were two other consultants working for a different consulting firm whose job was to move the villagers; they were drowning in paperwork documenting the fairness of the compensation to the residents of Essakane, which nevertheless overlooked a fundamental problem with the development plan. The government owns the subsurface mineral rights, so the miners of Essakane had no formal title. The mineral rights were negotiated directly between the government and the company, and the company was only required to compensate people for what belonged to them above the surface. As a result, the miners would gain new homes, but lose their jobs. "What will they do without the gold?" I asked the resettlement planners. I was told they would farm instead.

CREDIT: franco (CC).

I went to the villagers to ask them how they would feel about farming. "If we cannot mine, we cannot live," one man said without hesitation. "If there were no more mining, it would be the end of the world." Area residents had been mining for more than twenty years: none of them knew how to farm. Their children were also raised as miners, sleeping as infants strapped to their mothers' backs while the women washed gold. By age eight they were crushing stones with metal pestles, and when their bodies matured they worked as diggers, following gold veins down thirty meter shafts.

We sat in a circle in an open-air meeting hall—surrounded by walls but with no roof—a quorum of ten miners and me. Luckily it was the beginning of harmattan, a cooling wind blowing from the desert that lasts for three months and makes nights brisk. A few of the men wore winter coats. It was 30 degrees Celsius, mild compared to after the harmattan, when temperatures soar over 50 degrees and every shadow becomes a precious refuge. Essakane is still in the Sahel, but the Sahara is only twenty kilometers east. At night when the wind blows, you can smell the desert.

After an hour of discussing the company's plan to relocate the town outside the mining concession and transform the miners into farmers, the men became impatient, fidgeting and peering toward the door. It is no problem for a bureaucrat or consultant to linger in deliberation, but for a miner these missed working hours are pure loss: They are the difference between being able to buy food and going hungry. The miners needed to get back to work. Before leaving, however, a greybeard in the group wanted me to understand something.

"Every day of my life is a war," he said. "If one day I am mining and I find gold, it's okay. If I die, or if my child dies, this is also okay." Then, looking directly at me and extending a pointed finger, he asked: "Can you set me free?" I thought about my visit to the mines the day before, and how the miners rappel into dark, airless spaces to beat the face of a hard rock with a hammer for nine or ten hours before emerging, covered white with ore and coughing clouds of dust. "I don't know how," I responded, rather pathetically.

I don't imagine the miners in Essakane will remember me. Many consultants and experts pass through such mining regions, visiting the areas without ever really experiencing them. Lodging in a company's mining camp is like gated-tourism. There is electricity, potable water, Internet and television, medical care, a gym, and food and drink in abundance. These circumstances are not lost on those outside the fences of the camp, who see how roads, water pipelines, and power plants are built, but are not extended to their villages and towns. They see that mining corporations are able to establish the conditions for modern development in under a year, while they remain trapped in a lifeti...

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