Coltan mining & its environmental impacts

Other than military conflicts the current growth of mining industry in western Africa has also caused a lot of environmental problems in the region. In the case of DR Congo many mining sites are actually located in the eastern side of the country where a lot of natural reserves with rich ecological values are located. Such as the Kahuzi-Biega reserve and Okapi reserve that will be mentioned in the next part, are home to a lot of critically endangered species. In recent years due to the gradual increase in demand of valuable minerals like coltan, thousands of Colgoleses have moved into the area in order to work in the mining sites. According to a report the tech boom since 1990s have pushed the price of coltan from US $65 to nearly US$100 per kg and at the highest point the number even reached $600 per kg. And so due to the high value of these minerals the wages for coltan mine workers are relatively higher. Compared with ordinary worker who earn only about US$10 per month coltan mine workers can nearly earn as high as US$200 per month. This has attracted thousands of workers to move into the natural reserves in order to improve their living standards.

Soil erosion caused by excessive mining (source: ABC Australia)

The massive inflow of population into the natural reserves has also led to a great increase in the demand of daily necessities such as food and wood. Due to underdevelopment of local infrastructure such as transportation system and road it’s very costly and very difficult to deliver necessities and resources into the region. According to some estimation nearly 10,000 & 4,000 people have moved into the Kahuzi-Biega National Park and Okapi Wildlife Reserve in recent decade. These large numbers of population in so have to depend on consuming natural resources in the reserve in order to support their daily lives. First of all people need to chop down the forest in order to obtain land to build up mines and also camps for them to live in. On the other hand, they also need wood for the camps and also to build up fire. These demands on wood generated by pressure of population growth have led to serious deforestation in the eastern region of Congo and nearby regions like Rwanda. The deforestation process has seriously affected the environment of the region (and possibly also other part of the world, in the way of emission of greenhouse gases) in several ways. Many wild animals have lost their natural habitat due to the rapid development of mines. Besides animals, the deforestation process also removed a lot of rare plants species in the region. On the other hand the deforestation has also led to serious problem of soil erosion which led to serious silting in the river. Finally, in the process of clearing forest, the burning the charcoals also release a lot of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. At the same time, the clearance of forest also reduces the capacity of rainforest to absorb greenhouse gases released by nearby regions.

A murdered guriella (Source: national geographic magazine, issue 2008 July)

Other than simply destruction of forest, the increases in population also lead to increase demand in food, especially meat which can provide a lot of protein (especially for miners who have to carry out a lot of manual works). As mentioned above, it’s very costly to deliver food from other regions due to lack of development of the area. And so the increase demand on food has turned to the consumption of natural wildlife animals such as gorilla & elephant. Even worse is that some of these animals are already critically endangered even before the arrival of the mining industry, such as Eastern lowland gorilla. In recent decade, the gorillas are increasingly threatened by the mining and hunting activities by nearby communities. According to one source it’s estimated the mortalities of elephants & lowland gorilla in the area are 3,700 & 8,000 respectively in recent years. According to another source in recently only 140 eastern lowland gorillas remain in the Kahuzi0Biega Park, down from 280 in 1996 due to the growth of mining industry. On the other hand 4,000 out of 12,000 elephants were killed between 1995 & 1999 in the national park. Out of 350 elephant families, only 2 still recently remain in the coltan rich natural reserve.

Finally other than deforestation and hunting on wild animals the mining industry themselves also creates a lot of pollution to the region. Other then mines that are located in forest, some other mining sites are located in river bed, such as coltan. Many miners in the region are actually artisanal miners which are actually individual miners rather than other systematic mining corporations. Artisanal miners usually only use very primary methods and tools to extract the minerals from the river bed. And so the way they dig out the minerals are also relatively more destructive to the environment when compared with traditional large mining corporations. For example, during mining process many artisanal miners would simply dump the mining tailings (leftover of the minerals after extraction) into the river or nearby places. Some of these materials maybe toxic and can pose harm to organisms which live in the region. On the other hand, the pollution of river in the upper stream area in the national park area can also flow to lower stream areas with cities and villages, which may threaten the health of people who live nearby.

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