By Lisa Algee


Mining is the extraction (removal) of minerals and metals from earth.  Manganese, tantalum, cassiterite, copper, tin, nickel, bauxite (aluminum ore), iron ore, gold, silver, and diamonds are just some examples of what is mined. 

Why mine?

Mining is a money making business.  Not only do mining companies prosper, but governments also make money from revenues.  Workers also receive income and benefits. 

What are the minerals and metals used for?

Minerals and metals are very valuable commodities.  For example, manganese is a key component of low-cost stainless steel.  It is also used to de-color glass (removing greenish hues), but in higher concentrations, it actually makes lavender-colored glass.  Tantalum is used in cell phones, pagers, and lap-tops.  Cooper and tin are used to make pipes, cookware, etc.  And gold, silver, and diamonds are used to make jewelry. 

Coal mining in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Large scale mining versus small scale mining:

  • Large scale mining usually involves a company with many employees.  The company mines at one or two large sites and usually stays until the mineral or metal is completely excavated.  An example of a large scale mine is the Serra Pelada mine in Brazil which yielded 29,000 tons of gold from 1980 to 1986 and employed 50,000 workers (Kricher, 1997).
  • Small scale mining usually involves a small group of nomadic men.  They travel together and look for sites which they think will yield gold or another valuable metal or mineral.  Small scale mining occurs in places such as Suriname, Guyana, Central Africa, and many other places around the world.  Some researchers believe that small scale mining is more harmful to the environment and causes more social problems than large scale mining.  This will become apparent later in the lesson. 
Gold mining in Peru. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

How does mining affect the environment?

Mining is generally very destructive to the environment.  It is one of the main causes of deforestation.  In order to mine, trees and vegetation are cleared and burned.  With the ground completely bare, large scale mining operations use huge bulldozers and excavators to extract the metals and minerals from the soil.  In order to amalgamate (cluster) the extractions, they use chemicals such as cyanide, mercury, or methylmercury.  These chemicals go through tailings (pipes) and are often discharged into rivers, streams, bays, and oceans.  This pollution contaminates all living organisms within the body of water and ultimately the people who depend on the fish for their main source of protein and their economic livelihood. 

Small scale mining is equally devastating to the environment, if not more.  Groups of 5-6 men migrate from one mining site to another in search of precious metals, usually gold.  There are two types of small scale mining: land dredging and river dredging:

  • Land dredging involves miners using a generator to dig a large hole in the ground.  They use a high pressure hose to expose the gold-bearing layer of sand and clay.  The gold bearing slurry is pumped into a sluice box, which collects gold particles, while mine tailings flow into either an abandoned mining pit or adjacent forest.  When the mining pits fill with water from the tailings, they become stagnant water pools.  These pools create a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other water-born insects.  Malaria and other water-born diseases increase significantly whenever open pools of water are nearby. 
  • River dredging involves moving along a river on a platform or boat.  The miners use a hydraulic suction hose and suction the gravel and mud as they move along the river.  The gravel, mud, and rocks go through the tailings (pipes) and any gold fragments are collected on felt mats.  The remaining gravel, mud, and rocks go back into the river, but in a different location than where it was originally suctioned.  This creates problems for the river.  The displaced gravel and mud disrupt the natural flow of the river.  Fish and other living organisms often die and fishermen can no longer navigate in the obstructed rivers. 
Gold mining in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

How does mining affect the people?

  • The people who are exposed to the toxic waste from the tailings become sick.  They develop skin rashes, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, etc.  In fact, the symptoms of mercury poisoning are very similar to the symptoms of malaria.  Many people who can not afford to go to a doctor, or who live in a village where a doctor is not accessible, are often not treated for their illnesses.   
  • If the water is contaminated, the people can not use it for bathing, cooking, or washing their clothes.
  • If the man of the household is a small scale miner, he often leaves his wife and children in search of work.  This means that the wife and children must work and provide for themselves.  They must also protect themselves from thieves. 
  • Theft, drugs/alcohol, prostitution, rape, and sexual abuse are unfortunately some of the effects of mining. 
  • Cultural degradation also occurs in mining villages.  For example, mining often destroys sacred sites and cemeteries.  In Guyana, a special fishing event called Haiari Fishing unfortunately can not take place if the river has been dredged for gold.  Remember, the displacement of the gravel and mud obstruct the natural flow of the river.  As a result, fish and other organisms die. 
Gold mining in Peru. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Where does mining occur?

Mining occurs in many places around the world, including the U.S.  In South America, mining is particularly active in the Amazonia region, Guyana, Suriname, and other South American countries.  In Central Africa, mining devastated a National Park called Kahuzi-Biega in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  South Africa is also very well known for mining diamonds.  Mining also occurs in Indonesia and other S.E. Asian countries. 

Three case studies:  Guyana, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Indonesia:

  • In Guyana, both large and small scale mining occur.  In the early 1980's, the price of gold spiked from $100-$150 per ounce to $700 per ounce!  This created huge incentives for governments to allow mining companies to come into their countries.  Omai mining company established an 11,000 acre site in the middle of Guyana.  From 1986 to 2001, this company excavated 3/4 of all the gold in Guyana.  Not only was the mining company making huge sums of money, but the Guyana government was also benefiting from the revenues; owning 5% of the companies shares.  However, in 1995 the tailings dam, which was filled with three million cubic meters of cyanide waste, collapsed and spilled into the Essequibo River, the biggest river in Guyana.  The toxic waste drained north- exposing 10,000 people (both residents and eco-tourists).  All of the fish in the river died, and although no one died from the toxic exposure, many people developed skin rashes and respiratory problems.  In addition to large scale mining, small scale mining is very popular in Guyana.  Miners apply for permits from the government and mine at sites where the residents do not have official land titles.  This makes residents who never received official land titles from the government very vulnerable to both the detrimental environmental and social effects of mining.  As mentioned previously, small and middle scale mining is often worse than large scale mining because of the area covered.  For example, Omai (a large scale mining company) mined 11,000 acres, whereas small scale miners mined 234,000 acres, and middle scale miners mined 2 million acres!  That's a lot of degradation that both small and middle scale miners can cause!
  • In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) the Kahuzi-Biega National Park was designated a World Heritage Site in 1980 because of its rich bio-diversity in both plants and animals.  In fact, 86% of the Grauer's gorilla, a subspecies which is endemic to this region, was found in this park.  However, all that has changed.  In the late 1990's, armed factions involved in the civil war set up mining operations within the boundaries of the park to extract valuable minerals such as tantalum and cassiterite.  Thousands of Congolese whose lives had been devastated by the war subsequently flooded to the mines in search of a quick buck (Furniss, 2005).  An estimated 15,000 people were thought to be working at about a hundred sites throughout the park.  Tragically, not only were tantalum and cassiterite extracted, but also trees, vegetation, and large mammals.  The miners hired hunters to feed the people working at the mining sites.  Gorillas, elephants, chimpanzees, buffaloes and antelope at first were easily found within proximity to the park.  But, as the months passed, it became increasingly more difficult to find large mammals.  Hunters searched longer and farther.  By March of 2001, most of the large animals had all been killed.  The Grauer's gorilla suffered the most, since this unique gorilla sub-species is only found in this area.  Before the mining, the total population was estimated to be 17,000- with 86% living in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park.  Now, it is estimated that only 2-3,000 Grauer's gorillas remain.  According to Ian Redmond, the chairman of the Ape Alliance, "If these numbers are confirmed, it would be catastrophic for the subspecies."  He also states that the remaining Grauer's gorilla population is fragmented which makes them more vulnerable to poaching and inbreeding.  The fate of this sub-species is unknown at this time. 
  • In Indonesia, a U.S. mining company based in Denver (Newmont) has been extracting gold since 1996.  This company no longer mines in this region for two reasons: (1) in 2004, they extracted all the gold, and (2) the company is currently being sued by the Indonesian government for intentionally dumping poisonous waste, such as arsenic and mercury, into the Buyat Bay.  This waste has poisoned the fish in the bay.  This was, sadly, their main source of protein and economic livelihood.  In addition, many people in this region have complained of headaches, breathing difficulty, and skin rashes and tumors.  One newborn was born with birth defects and died at the age of 3 months.  The company has denied any wrong doing and blames these symptoms and incidents on poor sanitation and nutrition!
Platinum mine in South Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

What can we do as global citizens to curb the effects of mining?

  • Make companies who exploit developing countries accountable for their actions.
  • Boycott products produced by companies who do not mine is environmentally responsible ways.
  • Start talking.  Tell your family members, friends, teachers, and members in your community about the effects of mining and how jewelry made for gold, silver, and diamonds can be substituted for other metals which are mined in responsible ways. 
  • Write letters to governments who do not properly compensate people who have been affected by pollution from mining companies. 
  • Spread awareness of this issue by sharing your knowledge.  This is how change occurs.  Here's a great quote to keep in mind,

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."                                            

-Margaret Mead

Gold mining in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Now, show yourself what you've learned in this lesson my answering these questions:

  1. Name two minerals or metals that are mined.
  2. Choose the correct answer:  Extraction means the (addition/removal) of minerals or metals from earth's soil. 
  3. What's the difference between large scale mining and small scale mining?
  4. Why is mining destructive to the environment?
  5. Fill in the blanks:  One of the environmental effects of land dredging is stagnant ________ pools.  These pools attract __________.  People who live near these pools have a greater chance of getting ____________.
  6. T or F River dredging is a type of small scale mining.  This type of mining affects the natural flow of the river.  Fish and other living organisms often die in these obstructed rivers.  This also affects the fishermen's livelihood. 
  7. Name two effects of mining on the people.
  8. T or F The Omai mining company's tailings dam collapsed in 1995.
  9. Before mining occured in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, what percentage of Grauer's gorillas lived there?
  10. Now that mining has devastated this National Park, how many Grauer's gorillas are estimated to exist currently?  What does this mean to this sub-species of gorilla? 

Answers are located after the references.

Pen Pal Conversation: After reading about the case studies, what do you think about both large and small scale mining?  Do you think that governments have a responsibility to protect their environment and indigenous people from being exploited by mining companies?  What role do you think the government has in regulating both small and medium scale miners? 

Coal on a barge in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.


Kricher, J. (1997).  A Neotropical Companion: An introduction to the animals, plants, & ecosystems of the New World Tropics.  New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Peterson, G. D., & Heemskerk, M.  (2001) Deforestation and forest regeneration following small-scale gold mining in the Amazon: The case of Suriname.  Environmental Conservation 28(2): 117-126. 

Furniss, C. (2005) Seizing the moment: The Great Apes Survival Project.  Africa Geographic, July issue: 41-51.

Lecture notes from ENVS 80 A: Logan Hennessy

Open pit mine in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Answers to questions:

  1. Manganese and gold
  2. removal
  3. Large scale mining involves a large company with many workers.  These are also localized at one or two sites.  Small scale mining involves a group of traveling men, usually about 5-8, who migrate from one mining site to another.  This type of mining tends to be more destructive to the environment because of the area of land covered.  It also causes more social problems because small scale miners mine where residents do not have official land titles.  Tension and resentment builds and causes many social quarrels and unfortunate effects to the indigenous people. 
  4. Trees and vegetation are cleared and burned.  Natural minerals and metals are stripped from the soil.  Chemicals used to amalgamate (cluster) the gold are often expelled into rivers, streams, and oceans causing pollution to the environment, animals, and people. 
  5. water, mosquitoes, malaria
  6. T
  7. Illnesses from contaminated water and cultural degradation
  8. T
  9. 86%
  10. 2-3,000.  This could be catastrophic to this species.  They are more vulnerable to poaching and inbreeding. 

How did you do? I bet you did TERRIFIC!

Gold mining in the Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

The following standards were covered in this lesson:

Reading:  1.5 Demonstrate knowledge of levels of specificity among grade-appropriate words and explain the importance of these relations.

Reading comprehension:  Demonstrating comprehension by identifying answers in the text (lesson).

Social Studies:  3.12 Trace the ways in which people have used the resources of the local region and modified the physical environment.

Life Science:  3 (c) Students know living things cause changes in the environment in which they live: some of these changes are detrimental to the organism or other organisms, and some are beneficial. 


More resources on mining

  • Deforestation
  • Threats from Humankind
  • Mining
  • Dams
  • Environmental news: mining
  • Oil Extraction
  • Environmental news: gold mining
  • Environmental news: oil
  • Environmental news: fossil fuels
  • Environmental news: Amazon soy
  • Less damaging oil extraction

    Content on agriculture for younger readers
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