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Amy Woodrow Arai reports on the new wave of land grabbing by the extractive industries and the devastating impact this is having on the Earth
The Ogoni people and oil in the Niger Delta; First Nation communities and the Alberta Tar Sands; Appalachian communities and Mountain Top Removal; the Venda people of South Africa and coal mining; local people and fracking in Dimock, USA; and indigenous communities across Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil confronting a new gold rush in the Amazon: these case studies from the recent Gaia Foundation report, Opening Pandora’s Box, are just a small window on the struggles being fought globally against a new and growing wave of land grabbing by the mining and extractive industries. Their stories show that the trend is aggressive and often violent. And it is getting worse.

The Gaia Foundation works with a global network of indigenous and farming communities and organisations to protect biodiversity, ecosystems and to strengthen community self-governance around the world. In recent years, we noticed increasing numbers of our partners reporting that their lands were threatened by the mining and extractive industries. In response, we commissioned a report to take stock and map the current global trends and impacts on land, as well as issues of consumption, demand, exploration and remaining reserves.

What we found was that the scale, expansion and acceleration of the mining industry today are far greater than most of us realise. We are no longer talking about isolated pockets of destruction and pollution. New lands and communities, new precious ecosystems and virgin territories, new depths of the Earth and sea: all are now fair game for the expanding extractive industries.

We now have a shocking new picture of the pressure we are putting on our Earth’s fast-diminishing resources. This voracious expansion of mining for coal, oil, gas, metals and minerals is polluting and toxifying soil, water and air. More than ever, it poses a significant threat to the world’s indigenous communities and farmers, their local food production systems, forests, biodiversity and ecosystems, while exacerbating climate change.

The extent and the scale of the increase in extraction over the last 10 years is staggering. For example, iron ore production is up by 180%; cobalt by 165%; lithium by 125% and coal by 44%. Exploration budgets have increased nine-fold, from 2 billion to 18 billion dollars. The increase in prospecting has also grown exponentially, which means this massive acceleration in extraction will continue if concessions are granted as freely as they are now.

According to the Mineral Information Institute, the average North American born today will use over 1000 tons of minerals, metals and fuels during his or her lifetime, almost 17 tons per year. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that a business-as-usual scenario will lead to a tripling in global annual resource extraction by 2050: a scenario that the Earth simply cannot sustain. Demand for metals and minerals is growing, expedited by consumption habits that are underpinned by a throwaway culture. Few of us are exempt: you may be reading this article on a computer which is less than a few years old, or perhaps you have a phone in your pocket that has the next few generations of the model already designed and ready for your next upgrade. All of this consumption is extracting its price from the Earth, her lands and the communities who live on them.

But it is in the last four years since the financial crash that we have seen the most dramatic expansion of land grabbing for the extractive industries. There are three principal trends which have enabled this acceleration: the financial crisis, the fact that we have used up the planet’s richest deposits and the development of new extraction methods to access harder to extract deposits.

The financial crisis that began in 2008 has led hedge and pension funds to increasingly target ‘tangible’ commodities to recoup losses and spread risk. Metals, minerals, oil and gas, and their associated financial derivatives have been targeted, driving up prices in the process. Quantitative Easing and the vast injection of money into the global economy has meant that trillions of dollars have needed to find a home. Encouraged by the increase in demand for raw materials, investors have spent massively on commodities markets, artificially contributing to a boom in prices and further incentivising extraction.

Meanwhile deposits with the greatest purity and concentration have already been used up. The global trend in the degradation of ore (i.e. the amount of minerals that can be recovered from rock) has necessitated the removal of more earth to extract the same volume of metals, minerals or fossil fuels. In simple terms: the era of cheap, easy to extract resources is over. Demand continues to increase, while finite reserves are fast depleting. This is pushing corporations to explore harder to extract, ever-more expensive, energy-intensive, and destructive mining projects.

The scramble for these last remaining deposits is propelling industry to develop new technologies that enable them to exploit ‘extreme energies’ such as the Tar Sands for oil and fracking for shale gas. These technological developments are expanding the mining of a finite planet further and further: to the ocean floor and the Arctic, to the biodiverse depths of the Amazon and to the fringes of populated urban areas. As the residents of Balcombe in Sussex discovered, even the Home Counties are not safe from the search for shale gas. The pursuit for the last remaining caches of the Earth has driven prospecting to the extremities of the planet and beyond. The absurdity, and the desperate adherence to the dogma of unlimited growth and expansion, is exemplified by vast investments in developing extra terrestrial mining of asteroids and the moon.

There are no easy answers. We are encouraged by the possibilities of ‘green energy’ solutions, such as electric cars, solar panels and wind turbines, but these also require significant amounts of metals and minerals and Rare Earth minerals in particular. As the use of green technologies scales up, this may translate into a massive increase in yet more devastating mining activity, unless the renewables industry takes action soon.

A drastic rethink of how we consume must be addressed, to provide incentives to re-use, recycle, design for recyclability, and to develop systems that use materials efficiently. But this will not be enough to pull us back from the brink: it is imperative that we make concerted progress in conserving and radically reducing consumption globally.

Thus Opening Pandora’s Box calls the alert: the game has changed.

It gives voice to the growing global movement which is calling for us to wake up and to prioritise life over profit. This mining craze is poised to push our global ecosystems over the edge. Communities resisting this onslaught now are effectively acting as the immune system of the Earth, preventing this frontier behaviour from flipping the planet into collapse. The global response of communities and concerned citizens falls broadly into 3 categories:

1. A call for a global moratorium on new large scale mining, extraction and prospecting:
To enable us to use our ingenuity to find alternatives and to be more responsible in the use of our Earth’s precious minerals, metals and fossil fuels.

2. Respect for No Go Zones and areas:
To ensure that: fragile ecosystems; places of special ecological, cultural and spiritual significance; democratically designated areas such as UNESCO heritage sites; national parks, and indigenous territories, are out of bounds to short term commercial interests, especially mining.

3. Recognition of the right to say no:
To assert the right for communities to make informed choices regarding developments in their lands and territories - free from coercion and bullying.

Thousands of communities across the planet are resisting this new wave of land grabbing by the extractive industries and need to be supported. Together they are protecting the integrity of our planet, our life support system, so that our children will have a chance.
Gaia is working with others to develop a global campaign to build upon the actions of civil society around the world. If you would like a hardcopy of the report or any more information about Gaia’s work in this area please contact: amy@gaianet.org

You can download a copy of the report here:
gaiafoundation.org/sites/default/files/documents/Pandorasboxlowres.pdf
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