Over half of global mines and their impacts are undocumented: Paper

Authors advocate for comprehensive inventory of mine sites and exploration zones to assess social & green impacts

By Susan Chacko
Published: Wednesday 17 January 2024
Photo for representation: iStock

There is a lack of publicly available data on mine production, waste, pollution and water and energy consumption, a recent commentary published in the journal Nature has highlighted. More than half of the global mining areas (56 per cent) visible from satellite images have no production information listed, raising concerns about their mostly unmeasured environmental and social consequences, the paper found.

The authors of the commentary, Victor Maus and Tim T Werner, looked at a global compilation database of integrated market intelligence platform S&P Capital IQ Pro for the paper, Impacts for half of the world’s mining areas are undocumented

There are numerous gaps in the data, with no patterns, the authors wrote. Data is missing for all types of commodities and locations and for a host of reasons, ranging from incomplete reporting to illegal activities, as evidenced by satellite images and other sources of information. Historic and abandoned sites are typically unrecorded, they further said.

Total worldwide mining land use is close to 120,000 square kilometres (sq km), the paper said. About 56 per cent of it (67,000 sq km) is undocumented and only 44 per cent (53,000 sq km) is documented. 

The majority of the undocumented production is in Russia, followed by China, Indonesia and Brazil, with United States occupying the fifth position. The authors found no production information for mines located in Myanmar.

More needs to be done to map and study mines globally as the race to extract minerals and metals for clean-energy technologies speeds up, the paper pointed out.

The authors also proposed four key steps to address the ‘known unknowns’ of the mining sector:

  • Global mining studies must include statements about data bias and completeness. This can include the extent of unofficial mining and commodity trading in a study area, as reported by the media and national accounts.
  • Researchers should coordinate their efforts and share data. The majority of mining impact studies are localised and only cover small areas. However, as the scale of mining increases, it is critical that global impacts be addressed. 
  • Researchers must identify the root causes of information gaps that result from a lack of historical accountability, as well as issues with confidentiality, commercial interests and regulation. The mining industry should also improve the quality and quantity of data it publishes.
  • To fill data gaps, remote sensing and artificial intelligence techniques should be used. Satellite data, sensors in smartphones and unmanned aerial vehicles could supplement reported data sources for mining sites.

The researchers advocated for simple yet centralised public data repositories where companies can upload information and the public can access it. “Such online platforms could, for example, integrate information such as the geographical location of mines, production quantities, water and land use, waste generation and ownership,” the authors wrote. 

To develop these repositories, both private and public funding would be required, as would the nomination of an organisation to run them, such as the nonprofit International Council on Mining and Metals. Researchers can help by defining a set of critical variables that the mining industry must disclose.

A large portion of global mineral production may be illegal, the authors highlighted — United Nations Environment Programme and Interpol published a joint report in 2016 estimating the value of illegal mining at $12 billion-$48 billion every year. Illegal operations account for more than 80 per cent of all gold mined in Colombia and Venezuela.

Illegal mining has serious environmental consequences, including mercury pollution from artisanal gold mining, destruction of natural flora and fauna, pollution, landscape degradation and radiation hazards, all of which have a negative impact on arable land, economic crops and forests.

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