Monday, March 03, 2008

Ninja miners and blood diamonds

Last night I went to a presentation on the ninja miners of Mongolia. Ninja miners are East Asia’s garimpeiros- illegal, non mechanized miners who dig up everything from gold to gravel as a livelihood. I knew a bit about how garimpeiros worked in Brazil from my time there as a PhD student, but I had no idea of the scale of the enterprise in Asia.

There is occasional western focus on the crime and environmental damage caused by illegal gold and diamond mining, the most infamous of which is the whole “blood diamond” kerfuffle of the late 90’s and early 21st century.

Blood diamonds, which according to De Beers are any diamonds mined by someone other than them, were of course all the rage in the waning years of the Clinton presidency. And they are what made me decide to get out of the diamond field. While I am not necessarily adverse to morally dubious geology, the thing that really struck me about the conflict diamond activists was that they were generally not interested in solving the conflicts; instead their goal was to make sure the diamonds they bought were clean, so that they could sleep at night without being reminded of the horrors of West and central African civil wars. Wear Canadian diamonds, and you can wash your hands of the atrocities. And what sickened me about the research community was the way that academics were happy to use this opportunity to fund their pet projects, but with a conflict diamond spin.

Of course, there is no scientific method on Earth that will distinguish between an Angolan diamond found in 2001 and one found in 2003. But the former is a conflict diamond, while the latter is a reconstruction diamond. And the reason for the difference has nothing at all to do with kimberlites, or defect structures, or resorption features. The conflict was solved with 15 bullets and some help from Mossad, after the CIA decided that Savimbi was a liability, not an asset. All the inclusion composition statistics in the world wouldn’t have had any effect on that decision. And yet, during the conflict diamonds debates, there were precious few vocal advocates of solving the conflicts instead of the diamonds.

Illegal gold mining has never gained the notoriety necessary to spark a Leonardo DiCaprio flick, but it is still notorious due to pollution issues. The basic methodology is this:
1. Concentrate heavy sands in a wooden pan.
2. Add a blob of mercury to the pan, and swirl, allowing the Hg to dissolve any gold that is present.
3. Pour the mercury onto the blade of a shovel.
4. Use a blowtorch to evaporate the mercury, and collect the gold residue.

If only mercury were an environmentally benign health supplement, this would be a fantastic method.

So, I’ve known about these sorts of issues for a while, but what I learned last night was that toiling in the shadows of the glamour diggers for gold and diamonds were huge numbers of Asians, like the ninja miners, who work in low value commodities such as sand, gravel, and coal. This sort of mining is especially prevalent in Bangladesh, India, and Indonesia. By some counts, there are more than 10 million people worldwide earning a living from the blades of their shovels.

Not surprisingly, there are some academics who study this phenomenon, and refer to ninja miners, garimpeiros, and other low tech resource workers by the evocative name of “Artisinal and small-scale miners”. They even have a web site. And while digging up rocks for a living is a hard and dangerous way to live, for many people it provides a cash stream that subsistence farming does not, which explains why the numbers are increasing.

Here in the developed world, the trend is in the opposite direction. As mining companies merge, operations are getting bigger, and staffs are getting smaller. Just last month, BHP announced that it will be designing its new mines to be worked entirely by remote control, with nobody on site and the mining operations and vehicles running either by computer control, or remotely from the air-conditioned suburbs of Perth. While the Pilbara doesn’t have a large native population, I wonder how this trend would affect workers in more populous areas. Is a person better or worse off risking their life in a mine, or sitting at home with a welfare check funded by robotic royalties? And more to the point, where will that decision be made, and by whom?

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