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Science, Maths & Technology

What environmental harm is caused by mining?

Updated Tuesday, 2nd March 2021

Dr Avi Boukli, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Social Policy and Criminology, looks at the impact of mining in Cerro de Pasco, Peru - home to one of the most polluted places on Earth.

Photograph of an open pit mine in Australia where there is a deep, open pit in the centre. The surrounding landscape is yellow and golden in colour and the sky on the horizon is very pale blue. Creative commons image Icon Image by Popo le Chien from Wikipedia under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license An aerial view of an open pit mine in Western Australia, the KCGM gold mine.

Mining is the industry or activity of removing substances such as, gold, silver, coal, zinc, and lead, from the earth. Different mining methods are being used to extract diverse metals and minerals. Underground mines are often used to reach deeper deposits, while surface (open pit) mines are typically used for more shallow deposits (as shown in the image above). Other methods include placer mining, which is used to filter valuable metals from sediments in river channels and shorelines, as well as in-situ mining, which is primarily used in mining uranium. From these mining methods, the first two often entail the use of explosives and detonators to enable access to deeper and potentially better-quality deposits. The economic, environmental, legal, and cultural impact of mines is equally significant.

In a documentary from December 2019 for The Open University Criminology module, DD311 Crime, Harm and the State, about the impact of mining in Cerro de Pasco, a mining city high in the Peruvian Andes at 4,380 metres (see the map of Peru below), the significant impact of mining is illustrated. Cerro de Pasco carries the arduous reputation of being a “city built around a mine”, the “mining capital” of Peru, and “one of the most polluted places on Earth”.

A graphic of the map of the coastline of Peru. The sea is light blue and the land mass shown in tan colour. Places are named in black and regions shown by red lines. Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: Image is in the public domain. The distance between the capital Lima and Cerro de Pasco is 175km.

Its mining history expands across pre-colonial (pre–16th C.), colonial (16th – 19th C.), and post-colonial eras (19th C.–present) and, as the documentary presents, narratives from residents, activists, and politicians attest to three cautionary tales.

Mining and harms: Three interrelated elements

A photograph of a pack of llamas walking behind a small dog. The llamas are small and white and the ground is brown and rust coloured. There are mountains in the distant background. Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Image by Avi Boukli The Quiulacocha lake is polluted by the oxidising agents used by the mine. Firstly, the cultural element attached to the mining history of Cerro de Pasco reflects how mining is not a mere addition to the composition of an area but a key element that generates radical change. For instance, residents of Cerro de Pasco feel a sense of pride in their cultural heritage of the struggles to keep their lands and maintain a mining culture. Several monuments across the city’s main squares offer visual narratives of the city’s mining heritage – both the benefits of mining as well as its risks. Simultaneously, mining constitutes a source of harm and a point of ongoing contestation between the local and indigenous communities, private enterprises, and the Peruvian state. For instance, in 2015 the “March of Sacrifice” was a protest against mineral contamination in Cerro de Pasco and involved demonstrators marching from Pasco to the capital of Lima with the aim to persuade the government to provide medical treatment to children suffering from lead contamination. This clash is emblematic of the relation between locality and the extractivism generated by central government. On the one hand, residents feel pride for their mining city founded upon generations of families that have worked and lived in the mining sector either directly or indirectly through the affiliated economy it generates, such as the restaurants and shops surrounding the mine.

On the other hand, years of “unregulated” mining manifest themselves in the presence of “high concentration of toxic elements, such as lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic in soil samples around the city of Cerro de Pasco” and in children diagnosed with a series of irreversible medical conditions caused by heavy metal poisoning (Source International, 2020, 1) (see the image above right).

Secondly, questions of regulation and property ownership emerge and pose the urgent question: who profits most from the mine? Regulation here refers both to environmental standards and the enforcement of these standards, and to the process of seeking redress for the inevitable multiple dimensions of harm through harm-reduction measures, reparation, and compensation. The pertinent social security measures that should be in place prior to commencing mining operations also fall within the wider area of regulation. For instance, appropriate medical facilities and access to services is often an ongoing point of contestation between mining corporations, central government, local authorities, and mining communities. Equally questions of ownership cut even deeper divisions: does the subsoil belong to the people, the state or the mining company? And even further, when a resident owns the surface of land what type of protections are in place to limit the private expansion of operations in the subsoil of this land?

Thirdly, with direct reference to environmental harm, the problem is simple. By watching the first few minutes of the DD311 documentary you would notice a post-apocalyptic landscape dominated by a huge open pit mine consuming a city. In doing so, not only is widespread damage caused to the local population, the local fauna and flora, but the actual physical geography of the place changes with both localised and globalised results.     

From Peru to Scotland: Lessons from Cerro de Pasco

What does this mean for Scotland? The Scottish context is of course different in terms of the prevailing legal system, social and historical context, and current political priorities for the Scottish government that are in part imposed by Brexit. However, learning from Cerro de Pasco, the move to expand the mining sector may be linked to celebratory narratives about a forthcoming financial boom, mining/extractivist successes, and lucrative exports, but caution is advised. The plans to commence operations deep inside the Tyndrum Hills by Scotgold Resources Ltd., with its HQ in Australia, are aligned with the promise of the current Conservative government to attract international investment and businesses in the post-Brexit landscape. This is not coincidental but may present a potential risk to environmental standards, given the current shifts and uncertainties, at least in part through the potential of cutting back on existing EU standards around environmental safeguards and the uncertainty around the new regulatory framework (until any new regulatory plans are fully in place). In line with the precautionary principle, caution to avoid widespread contamination of human, non-human animals and the environment is recommended.     


Further reading and references

Boukli, A. (forthcoming)

Source International., n.d. Projects: Cerro de Pasco, Peru 2008-Present. Information can be found here. (Accessed 21 October 2020).

To find out more about the extraction processes see here.








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