29 November 2012

An Intellectual Gold Rush

As a group of students studying major development issues in a Thai context, the issue of mining was largely a mystery to many of us. In the past, when I heard people speak of mining I often flashed back to childhood memories of the Seven Dwarfs singing “Hi Ho” in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When I learned we would be covering mining as a major topic in our final unit I was interested to learn more about mining beyond the idea of cartoon characters dancing around with pick axes. Throughout the course of the unit many in the student group, found the material to be especially engaging.
            In light of what little most of us knew about mining processes and impacts, the information we learned was rather shocking.  Prior to our unit we learned about mining as a general practice and specifically explored some of the techniques and dangers of the gold mining industry. Modern gold mining is a far cry from the river panning done by prospectors during the California gold rush of the 1850’s. It was surprising to learn how chemically intensive and environmentally reckless mining tends to be.  One of the issues that stood out the most was the amount of cyanide used in the mining process. As noted by Earthworks and Oxfam America in their publication, Dirty Metals, cyanide is a chemical that can be fatal in doses as small as a grain of rice. Yet, in the gold mining process, gold ore is saturated with cyanide in amounts of up to several tons a day in order to precipitate gold from the ore compound. The thought of such a dangerous chemical being retained and utilized excessively was unbelievable. After visiting Tungkum Limited, a gold mining company in Loei Province, the process became even more real to us. I, personally, had a better understanding of why villagers in nearby Na Nong Bong village were concerned about the mine’s presence.
            One of the factors that also stood out to us was the fact that mining is a process that plays such an active role in all of our lives. Though we don’t actively participate in harvesting the materials ourselves, there was a sense that we as consumers inadvertently contribute to many of the ills caused by mining. Minerals obtained through mining can be found hidden in the vast majority of the items we possess. Not to mention gold jewelry and other obvious byproducts of mining which only serve cosmetic purposes. Throughout the student group there were many questions of our own level responsibility and implication in issues associated with mining. In light of the damage that mining can do to people and the environment we were left to wonder if the benefits of mining actually outweighed the cost. If the demand for byproducts of mining were decreased, could we put an end to many of the ills associated with the practice?
            These questions and more helped present the issue of mining on a more personal level. In addition, the fact that mining is such a prominent industry throughout America also made it a notable topic. As a group of students from towns all over the United States, we realized we probably wouldn’t have to journey very far to see examples of mining and its effects in a more familiar context. In reality, the development issues of Thailand didn’t seem so foreign after all. 

Alex Marable
Miami University 

1 comment:

Emily Stibbs (CIEE-Santiago SL) said...

As a student of Santiago Service-Learning, I was stunned while reading your article because it sounded exactly like an article that could have been written by one of our students. Just recently, we were studying the harmful effects of gold mining here in the Dominican Republic. I, too, was affected by how hard it hits home, realizing that many people don't even think twice about the origin of their products, including me in the past. Therefore, I really appreciated your article.