The African continent has been endowed with about 30 per cent of the world’s total mineral reserves with over 60 different types of minerals. If more geological surveys are conducted systematically there is potential to discover even more extensive tracts of mineral deposits.
Minerals are vital inputs in the production of a broad range of consumer goods, infrastructure and agricultural materials and they are also used in making transport, communication and energy applications. Minerals are a necessity in the industrialisation of many nations across the globe.
Mining and Sustainability in Africa
Africa’s mining industry is significant in improving the continent’s economic growth trajectory. Since 2000 there has been a boom in exports of minerals such as copper and iron as well as other extractives like oil and gas. China’s industrialisation necessitated the growth in exports of minerals as they were required in the manufacturing of goods. Between 2000 and 2007 China was the biggest producer of manufactured goods in the world. Amongst the most sought–after minerals from Africa are gold, diamonds, copper, iron ore, manganese, aluminum, bauxite, nickel, coal, lead, platinum, zinc, and precious gemstones.
Mining does not only benefit African economies through exports, tax revenue and royalties, but it also has the potential to lift vulnerable communities out of poverty through providing employment and infrastructural development. A good example is how South African mining companies have partnered with the government and communities to provide water reticulation services. The government provides bulk water while the mining companies provide water reticulation services through local companies.
Global sustainability is more commonly being viewed as a desired goal of development and environmental management. Mining has led to the development of many African countries; in some cases, towns were built due to the existence of a mine in the area. There are many mining towns all over Africa. Zimbabwe has a number of mining towns such as Zvishavane for asbestos and gold, Hwange for coal and Kamativi for tin.
China has been very active in funding infrastructural development projects in the continent including transport infrastructure and hydropower projects. In the north-western region of Zambia where the copper belt lies Chinese mining firms are engaging in beneficiation by operating a copper smelter which can produce 150 kilotons per year. They have done this in compliance with government requirements for mining companies to engage in resource beneficiation so as to boost employment and generate more income revenues. In 2006 China invested a massive $7 million towards developing infrastructure in Africa.
Mining companies have even gone beyond investing in projects that will only benefit their businesses. They have partaken in social responsibility projects such as building schools and clinics for the communities in which they operate. Such projects have been termed benefit sharing schemes. They are an avenue through which mining companies can better contribute to development of African communities especially those that have been affected by conflicts.
Not only is large scale mining important for sustainability, small scale and artisanal mining has proved to be equally essential. Artisanal gold mining in Burkina Faso has been the country’s third largest export. Globally artisanal miners earn 70-80 per cent of the global gold spot, thereby contributing to increased GDP and provision of sustained productive employment with a third of participants being women.
The Adverse Environmental and Social Impacts
Sustainable development should ensure that the needs of current generations are met without compromising the needs of future generations; however, some environmental and social impacts of mining are inevitable. The environmental effects include deforestation, land degradation, air pollution, and disruption of the ecosystem, while the social impacts include human rights violations and social conflicts.
In Mambia, Guinea, an extensive piece of land that was used for cultivation is believed to have been contaminated with toxic water pollution also rendering the people’s water source undrinkable. Mining involves the use of hazardous substances like cyanide which may contaminate soil and groundwater if they are not managed properly.
The Resource Curse
There is a tendency for some mineral rich countries to experience extreme poverty such that they are not developed enough to show for their wealth in resources. This frustrates the affected communities who engage in protests, demanding accountability from the mining companies and government as to why they have been marginalised.
The notorious ‘Blood Diamonds’ are a good example of the resource curse. More than 15 years after the introduction of the Kimberly Process, which provided certificates as assurance that the diamonds purchased were conflict-free, the sale of conflict diamonds has not yet been stopped. However, it has been reduced. The diamond industry is still riddled with forced labour and the funding of rebel armies especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Prior to 2003 25 per cent of diamonds were traded illegally but after the Kimberly Process this has been reduced to 5–10 per cent.
Mitigating the Adverse Effects
There is a need for transparency in the mining sector through the creation of policies that promote transparency and discourage tax avoidance, develop local benefit agreements and encourage disclosure of payments to governments. Robust, transparent and participatory governance practices from the grassroots level can assist mineral-rich African countries to achieve sustainable economic growth and decent environmental practices.
To reduce the adverse environmental impact of mining activities, prevention and mitigation measures must be implemented prior to the beginning of the mining process until after the end of the process. The less severe the negative impacts the lower the business operation costs. This reduces the risk of conflict through uprisings and ensures business continuity and profitability.
Mining companies are increasingly adopting sustainable mining procedures in order to ensure that they keep their exploration licenses because it is generally cheaper to operate in Africa. BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Anglo American are some of the multinational companies that have contributed towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), by partaking in certain projects. There is greater awareness now more than ever, of the importance of practicing sustainable mining; this is true amongst mining companies, government and other stakeholders. However, it is more complicated to measure the impact of sustainability efforts for the whole mining industry.