Can Mining and Biodiversity Conservation Co-exist?

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Mining is an important economic activity in many developing nations in Africa. For some countries it is the backbone of the economy. In Zambia for example, copper mining accounts for 80% of foreign exchange earnings. Mining has caused adverse direct and indirect impacts on biodiversity. In Zambia water, air pollution and land degradation are some of the most significant impacts of mining, the classic example was Kafue River pollution by KCM in 2006. These impacts continue even after the closure of the mine, such as the lead contamination in Kabwe, Mine waste dumps and open pits on the Copperbelt in Zambia. In addition, emissions of greenhouse gases from mines contribute to climate change and threaten biodiversity.

Heavily silted Chingola Stream (Zambia) from mining operations

Heavily silted Chingola Stream (Zambia) from mining operations. Extracted from: ZEMA   archive

Air pollution from a Smelter – Mufulira, Zambia Extracted from: Davies, R., 2014

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One of the mine waste dumps – Chonga Tailings dam, Zambia. Extracted from: ZEMA

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Nchanga open pit, Zambia. Extracted from: http://www.inmagine.com

The importance of biodiversity in general surpasses the value that can be obtained from any mine in the world because our very existence depends on it. For example, the world’s forests provide services such as watershed protection, flood control, pollution abatement, genetic and species preservation and recreation; as most people have an affinity to nature, a hypothesis known as biophilia. In addition, about one quarter of prescription drugs are derived from substances found in tropical plants.

The breathtaking Amazon rainforest. Extracted from: http://www.enchanting-costarica.com

Therefore, should we stop mining and strictly conserve biodiversity? This is not a sustainable solution, as doing so may ground some of the world’s economies. But can we afford such biodiversity losses? Herein lies a dilemma, but with this challenge there is a sustainable solution: despite historical conflict between mining and biodiversity, mining and biodiversity conservation can be made to co-exist. This can be successfully implemented through systematic conservation planning, such as the sustainable mining by De Beers Marine offshore diamond mining in Kleinzee and Alexander Bay sea areas, Republic of South Africa and the Namdeb Diamond Corporation diamond mining in the Sperrgebiet region, Namibia. Some keys aspects to be considered during planning are:

  • A robust institutional framework that focus on protection and enhancement of biodiversity while at the same time facilitating mining operations.
  • Species data collection prior to mining operations through comprehensive studies to establish the biodiversity significance of an area.
  • Analysis of impacts and cumulative impacts such as loss of biodiversity due to vegetation clearing; and mitigation measures to minimise and/or prevent impacts and enhance conservation within areas of operations (in situ conservation) that are undisturbed.
  • Protection of areas of endemism.
  • Elaborate SEA and EIA studies and biodiversity plans

Integrating biodiversity into mining project cycle. Extracted from: ICMM, 2006.

  • Ex situ conservation such as offsets to compensate for loss of biodiversity in the area of mining operations. Offsets work well when like areas are identified as areas of offset.
  • Effective monitoring for compliance by the company and third parties.
  • Employing best available and biodiversity friendly technology.
  • Employ transparent stakeholder engagement and community participation.

Although this is not an easy task, with proper safeguards and collaboration by all stakeholders, mining and biodiversity conservation can be made to co-exist successfully.

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About Biodiversity Conservation Blog

I am an Associate Professor at The Australian National University and convene a (very awesome) course called Biodiversity Conservation. Myself and students in the course contribute to this blog.
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One Response to Can Mining and Biodiversity Conservation Co-exist?

  1. Chloe says:

    An interesting – and potentially contentious – blog! I’d be interested to know more about whether the dotpoints you highlighted have led to successful ‘co-existence’ of biodiversity and mining (and what this actually means), whether they have been implemented in any countries (and which), and whether there are case studies illustrating how (and whether) biodiversity and mining can co-exist.

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