Mining's new frontiers

HERE’S another take on the rush for minerals in Africa - and it won’t please the mining industry. The Outcrop by Robin Bromby.
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Miners might like the thought of the riches that await in countries like Gabon, such as the huge Belinga iron ore field.

Michael T Klare does not. He worries about the "large populations of elephants, chimpanzees, forest buffalo, and lowland gorillas", not to mention the pristine rivers. As Klare notes, much of the rainforest in adjoining countries has already been ransacked.

His latest book will be a rallying call for all those who oppose the depredations of the mining sector.

I wrote about Klare's latest book, The Race for What is Left: The global scramble for the world's last resources on August 9. But that was based on some detailed reports about the book's contents. Now I have received a copy, and miners should be aware of it, because this is an issue that will not go away.

Now Klare won't be the average miner's cup of tea. He's professor of peace and world securities studies at Hampshire College in the US, a title that tells you well and truly where he's coming from. While the book's main thrust is that looming shortages of all commodities will lead to a World War III fought over resources, I want to narrow the focus to one chapter, "Mining's new frontiers".

In this, his argument is that the desires of the developed and developing world - cars, kitchen appliances, airconditioners, computers - will see more and more pressure put on countries that have the minerals needed for those desires.

He writes about what he calls Guinea's "irresistible mineral wealth". Klare sees Guinea as the epitome of the condition labelled the "resource curse". Its mineral riches have produced little broader development, leading instead to government corruption, widespread poverty and internal strife.

He cites the sorry saga of Rio Tinto and the Simandou iron ore project, and the way in which the Chinese got a foothold in that project.

The Chinese have shown no qualms in working with dictatorships and corrupt regimes. As Klare writes, just two weeks after Guinean soldiers shot 156 protestors in Conakry the China International Fund announced it would spend $7 billion on modernising Guinea's infrastructure in return for a significant share of all future mining ventures.

Klare writes that the same resources curse has also afflicted Niger. Few of Niger's 16 million people have, he claims, seen any benefits from the fact that their country has been a major world supplier of uranium. Two-thirds of the people still live on less than $1 a day.

Enter - again - China. To meet their country's ambitious nuclear power plans, Chinese companies have arrived in Niger ready to do whatever it takes.

The China Nuclear International Corporation has begun uranium production in the Agadez region of Niger. The elite politicians in the capital, Niamey, have welcomed the Chinese, seeing them as a way to break France's near monopoly on uranium. But the Tuaregs and other minority groups oppose the Chinese presence.

Klare is also anxious about Afghanistan. He points out that much geological work was done by the Russians during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, and many of the survey maps drawn up at that time were hidden away and preserved by Afghan geologists.

In more recent times, the US Geological Survey has been carrying out the most comprehensive geological work done in that benighted country.

As we all now know, the Americans discovered what might be the world's largest untapped deposit of copper and, not far away, a huge iron ore deposit. There's also bauxite, gold, lead, tungsten and zinc - possibly together worth about $1 trillion.

Klare worries that, should anyone ever get around to exploiting these resources, such development would most likely enrich well-connected elites and warlords while providing little or no benefit to most Afghanis.

Look at Mongolia, he says. It's a story of an under-resourced government trying to grapple with some very big mining companies. He expects the principle beneficiaries of the mining boom will not be the Mongolian people, but the foreign mining companies.

The book will not make comfortable reading for those whose fortunes are tied to mining.

It also deals with energy and food resources.

But what Klare is writing about cannot be ignored. Read it and be prepared.

First published on Thursday in

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