Sustainable mining in Africa can help reduce deforestation and decrease poverty across the continent.
Africa has a major deforestation problem that is driven by several factors, including poverty, which forces people to rely on subsistence farming. Subsistence farming sometimes involves cutting down local trees, burning the remaining brush, and then planting crops. Local farmers use subsistence farming methods for small scale food production and to generate wood for charcoal, which can be used for cooking or selling on local markets. For survival and local consumption, populations use subsistence farming of essential crops such as maize, cassava, and rice.
After a season of farming, though, once forested soils usually become nutritionally depleted due to heavy rainfall, climate change effects, and a lack of resources for soil management. As a result, each year the farmers must clear new areas for crops, leaving behind the previous year’s degraded land. This cycle is often known as “slash and burn” farming, and is widespread in African forested areas.
Additionally, a century of colonization and large scale mining has left entire portions of Africa barren. Once established, thousands of people often migrate to the mines in hopes of employment. Upon arrival, however, most people discover that there are not enough jobs. These new villages need food to survive, and slash and burn farming is one of the only solutions available. As a result, the slash and burn cycle continues.
Deforestation surrounding mines has wiped out much of Africa’s forests. It is estimated that in 2018, the global production of charcoal was 53.2 million tons, with about 34.2 million tons, or 64% of all global charcoal, coming from Africa. It is also estimated that nearly 20% of Africa’s population takes part in cutting down trees for charcoal, whether for financial or agricultural reasons. While some regions of Africa require a permit to remove trees for the purpose of charcoal production, not all do. Permits are rarely required in recently populated areas such as near new mines, leading to unregulated deforestation throughout the continent.
A mine’s life is typically between 10 and 50 years. Some of the biggest mining industries in southern Africa mine copper, iron, gold, and aluminum. The mining process often leaves behind large areas of used tailings (leftover minerals made of crushed rock that cannot be used or sold), as well as large areas of excavated land that needs to be refilled. In many mines, tailings were left in place for years after they were no longer in operation. Valuable land needed by thousands of local people therefore remains unusable.
Most mines are now legally obligated to rehabilitate land. The first step in this process is to re-grade it. Miners next cover freshly leveled land with fertile soil, and replant native trees of the region. The soil is often mixed with grass seed to foster a more natural environment following three to five years of serious maintenance. Native trees, though, take much more time to re-establish themselves.
Some argue that land used for mining should only be replaced with native trees. However, it is important to acknowledge the issues that may stem from simply replacing the trees in these areas that were once mines. These old mining towns leave behind populations of people without work who have taken up farming to make a living or to provide food for themselves and their families. In these areas that often require no permit to cut down trees for charcoal, there stands a strong chance that newly planted trees will be cut. The land will then be left unusable once again, and therefore, this may not be the most sustainable option for these areas.
One alternative is to construct more ethical commercial farms, which can create new jobs and bring money into these villages. Sustainable mining companies have recognized the issue of leaving land barren or simply planting trees, and are finally starting to push for agriculture. Then, not only can Africans make a push to get into the global market for higher value products, but they can produce their own food without clearing land for charcoal. Common crops on rehabilitated mines often include sugar cane, maize, and cassava, but these new farms can also target higher value crops, such as tree nuts, citrus, spices, or valued vegetable crops for local, regional, and export markets.
Healthy, dynamic agribusinesses in Africa have the potential to support thousands of livelihoods, preserve soils, and steward the environment, all while working inclusively with local people. They can make a massive difference in reducing deforestation, alleviating poverty, and cutting down starvation. Mining companies, by bringing in investments through road and infrastructure projects, educating local populations on managing their finances, and even seeding financing initiatives, can be a major catalyst for this desperately needed transformation. While mining jobs only last for a short while, agribusiness jobs can, in most cases, last an entire lifetime.
While certain African mining companies have made an effort to create a future of agriculture in formerly unusable regions, even these companies have work to do in becoming more environmentally-conscious. They must continue to mine with the intention of producing less waste and lower emissions, and must incorporate newer, more sustainable technologies. These combined efforts can lead to mining that is both better for the environment and better for the people of Africa.
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