Monday, March 19, 2012
Mining for clarity
We live in a world shaded gray. Despite how much we might wish otherwise, issues that are “black and white” exist almost entirely in fiction. Once in a while a issue comes along which personally tears at you, something that seems to pull you in either intellectually or personally not allowing you to escape. Such a perfect storm has risen in Mali and I can't shake it, I'm talking about gold mining. If you're scratching your head I'll try to explain.
I come from a place where the clash of ideas between between extractive industry and environmental conservation drive the historical narrative. The city of Butte grew with the mining industry in Montana and was prosperous for a time. However, the current and very visible legacy of the Anaconda mining operation is the Berkley Pit super-fund site (an environmental disaster and drain of public resources). The mines in Libby left a town with serious problem involving cancer related to exposure to asbestos exposure. A quick look at the list of states parks in Montana will show a number of once prosperous ghost towns that flourished for a short time after someone struck it big on a solid vain of ore.
I am a student of history and have taken a serious interest in environmental history (I've read a long about extractive industries often disastrous effect on an ecosystem). The dangerous effects of large mining operations on local water sources has been well documented. In general, my feeling of the mining industry is that it entires into an area exploiting it's resources until they are depleted and then leaves. The public at large is left to clean up whatever mess is left by the mining operation and the environmental impacts can be long lasting. However, I know that mining put the bread on the table for many Montana families and the industry has many supporters. As someone who consumers the products are the result of the industry (it is tough not to use metal) it is also at least a little hypocritical of me criticize the industry that I am patronizing. All this being said, I do not have a enthusiastic opinion of the mining industry and believe that ventures into expansion of extractive industry in general should be accompanied by analysis into environmental and public health impacts. This kind of analysis is not the kind of thing that I would expect from a poor country desperate for more industry and well paying jobs, Mali for instance.
Over the past few months a number of my good friends here in village have left for a few months in order to make some money while there is no work to be done in village. One particularly popular destination is the mines. It might be worth noting here that mining (in particular gold) is a benchmark of the Malian economy, providing one of Mali's major exports. It is hard to to explain the feeling I get when a sixteen year tells me that they are going to leave village to work and the place that they are going is the gold mines. The majority of the time these people are living in poverty and nothing comes easy. Village life provides a harmonious peaceful existence. However, harmony can't buy medicine for the kids and peace can't buy millet when the granary runs dry. As a result there is a “rural exodus” from every rural village in Mali.
Once work is done in the fields, and there is no income potential left in the village, the youth leaves to return a few months later. The allure of big money made quickly is understandably appealing to a migrant work force. Where things get complicated for me if that when a Westerner, just as myself, thinks of a mine in Africa the image isn't pretty. One thinks of near gulag working conditions where people do backbreaking labor to chase the fleeting chance of a fortune found though a finding an elusive nugget. Even if such a nugget is found, we imagine that the laborer only receives a small percentage of the market value for the nugget while the mine owner pockets a hefty profit. My negative opinion of the mines does not improve when news reports just as this one detailing child labor abusing and dangerous conditions seem to pour out of Mali. My already negative opinion of mining only worsens the internal wince I made whenever I hear of someone going off to the mines, but what do I do?
The major problem that I face when thinking about possible courses of actions upon hearing a friend is excited to go off into what I imagine is a terrible time is one common to development workers. Is my negative opinion of a result of my coming from a position of privilege? I have never really struggled for anything material in my entire life. I've never wondered if I could afford dinner, or had to venture off to labor to ensure the family stay afloat. My being born into a middle class American family ensures a life protects me from most of that. Additionally, everyone working in Mali works their ass off. I'm not sure how much worse the mines are than hauling two hundred pounds bag of cereals around. In the end all you can do is express my skepticism and wish them luck.
Here's some pictures