One quarter of all World Heritage Sites in Africa are now threatened by mining, and the environmental impact of the mining industry globally is “horrendous”, the World Wilderness Congress Wild10 has been told.
The congress, which started in Salamanca, Spain, last week, heard that areas not immune to mining pressures include many that are culturally important to indigenous communities – the so-called “first stewards” of the Earth – from those living in the Australian outback to the high Arctic wilderness.
Wayne Bergman, a lawyer and member of the indigenous communities that live in the Kimberley area of northern Australia, said on Saturday that drilling using the controversial fracking method to confirm the presence there of what had been estimated at trillions of metres of shale gas, was likely to start within the next 12 months and was of concern to the communities.
There was “an avalanche of challenges” to finding a balance between mining and the communities’ cultural needs, he said.
Lars-Anders Baer of the Swedish Sami parliament – the Sami people are the indigenous inhabitants of Greater Laponia, an Arctic area in northern Sweden and Norway – said this essentially wilderness landscape was vital to the physical survival of many Sami people like the reindeer herders and to the survival of the Sami culture.
“The reality is that we are surrounded by mines, and sad to say, there will be more in the future.”
In an earlier session on Friday, Dr Exequiel Ezcurra, director of the University of California’s Institute for Mexico and the US and the chairman of the previous congress in 2009, Wild9, said there had been “great successes” in the intervening four years but that “not everything has been good news”.
He cited the “explosion” of open-pit gold mining in Mexico as an example of how substantial wilderness areas were at risk.
“For every wedding ring you buy, almost 20 metric tons of dirt is dumped into the environment, and the amount of cyanide that is dumped into the water is enough to kill 6 000 people.”
Open-pit mining was one of the biggest challenges wilderness conservationists faced throughout the developed world, he said.
Liz Hosken of the Gaia Foundation in the UK and South Africa said there’d been huge growth of the mining industry in the past decade and that even indigenous territories that had been protected as recently as a decade ago were now “absolutely littered” with mining concessions and operations.
Pointing out that one in four World Heritage Sites in Africa was now either threatened by mining or had already been affected, she added: “The scale of destruction is horrendous.”
Wild10 will be debating the issue at workshops this week and will help to produce a “new social compact” – likely to be formalised at the IUCN’s World Parks Congress in Sydney next year.
One of the leaders of this process is Nigel Crawhall of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature who heads the union’s Cape Town “Theme on Indigenous Peoples, Local Communities, Equity and Protected Areas” directorate.
Gas executives challenged to sign surety
Experts in hydrology, geology and chemical pollution must investigate every proposed fracking site on land owned by indigenous communities in the Kimberley area of northern Australia before any drilling starts.
So says lawyer and community member Wayne Bergman, who has also challenged executives of shale-gas companies to sign over all their personal wealth as surety.
“From our research, there is no one single person who’s an expert, so it’s very concerning that they’re going to start experimenting,” he told sister paper, the Cape Argus at Wild10.
“All these big gas companies are having an experiment with the world’s water table – it’s a bit like having a nuclear explosion on the surface and wondering where the fallout is going to happen.”
The cultural belief system of these indigenous communities included an explanation for the origins of water during the creation, Bergman said.
“We’ve had water stories about how different snakes travelled through the ground and connected water holes and everything together. So we’re saying that, according to our knowledge, if you frack and put poison in the ground, it’s going to affect everyone.”
If gas executives were so confident fracking was safe, they should “sign a deed that they will give over all their worldly possessions for the rest of their lives to us if they’re wrong”.
Bergman said a major campaign in Australia called “Lock the Gates” was being led by farmers, with “non-indigenous people, saying ‘my God, you’re destroying our way of life and our livelihood’. It’s been a political response and everyone has joined up.”