decades. Not only is illegal mining riskier from a safety perspective for those who choose to participate, but it encourages reckless behavior and leads to outcomes that have negative long-term consequences. Illicit mining activities don’t follow the same provisions that legal mining does. While some may argue that all mining has dangerous consequences, the implications of illegal mining are much worse.
According to America’s Quarterly, illegal mining activity means that there is usually an absence of land rights, mining licenses, exploration or mineral transportation permits. Without these permits, there are no independent bodies to regulate mining procedures and all the high-risk activities that come with it.
Most mining activities are extremely high-risk for not only the environment, but also those who do the actual physical labor. The environmental risks of mining include the formation of sinkholes, the contamination of soil and groundwater, loss of biodiversity, and chemical leakages. Some of these impacts have long-term consequences, such as the contamination of soil and groundwater, that can take years to rectify. According to experts, it takes decades for groundwater contamination from chemical leakages to fully remediate and often impacts local populations for generations.
In addition to environmental risks, mining activities in general are also very dangerous to operate. Not only do miners have to sometimes travel to or live in remote regions, they often also work in extenuating conditions. They face health risks due to breathing toxic chemicals or absorbing them into the skin. Miners also have to operate heavy machinery or may be exposed to flooding, gas explosions, or cave ins.
Those who suffer the most
While all of these risks exist for legal mining operations, they only increase in likelihood for illegal projects. Not only is the environmental degradation much worse, but the human risks are also far greater. In South America, the $2.4 billion illegal gold mining industry has been destroying the Amazon and costing dozens of lives.
In Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia, illegal gold mining operations by private companies have devastated local communities. The operations have left behind pools of cyanide and mercury, twice the size of Olympic swimming pools. In just three months, the illegal mining activities damaged the ecosystem by killing the entire fish population of the Aguita River after water-pumping machines leaked toxins into the water.
According to Colombia’s National Planning Department, Colombia now ranks second in the world for mercury pollution. Local populations have reported health issues related to mercury poisoning such as tremors and memory loss. According to some sources, illegal mining companies often extorted the local populations by forcing them to search for gold by sending in armed groups to intimidate them. Other times, they tried to barter deals by promising to repair crippling infrastructure in the region, but instead, pillaged the region and left without keeping their word.
South America isn’t the only region that has suffered from illegal mining. In Africa, the conflict diamond industry cost thousands of lives in the 1990’s and 2000’s. During that time, the illegal industry produced billions of dollars which were used to fund civil wars that decimated countries including Sierra Leone, Angola, Liberia, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
In Sierra Leone, people were killed, threatened and mutilated in diamond villages and many people fled their homes in fear. According to PBS Newshour, a total of 2 million people fled the country during the height of the conflict and cost the lives of roughly 120,000 people, with an additional 75,000 suffering some kind of body mutilation. In total, Amnesty International estimates that the conflict resulted in the death of more than 4 million people.
What can be done to eliminate these dangerous effects?
While the effects of illegal mining have high stakes for humanity and the environment, conscious consumerism can help curb their impact. Because of the heavy campaigning around the conflict diamond trade, the Kimberley Process was introduced in 2003. While the process hasn’t completely decimated the illegal diamond industry, it has reduced it substantially over the last decade. Conscious consumers can continue to buy conflict-free jewels and other precious metals, and steer clear of those with unclear origins. But unless the demand for these goods drop, the temptation for illegal mining will continue to exist, and along with it, human and environmental destruction.