Industrial-scale mining for materials such as coal, gold and iron is driving tropical deforestation as once-impassable forests are cleared for mines and access roads, new research shows.
In the first study to quantify the impact of industrial mining on tropical forest loss, an international team of scientists has found that just four countries are most to blame: Brazil, Indonesia, Ghana and Suriname.
Together, the four forest-rich nations accounted for about 80 percent of the tropical deforestation caused by large-scale mining operations from 2000 to 2019, according to the study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
While at least 70% of deforestation is done to clear land for agriculture, scientists have identified industrial mining as an emerging concern due to increased interest in minerals used in clean energy technologies to combat climate change.
“The energy transition will require very large amounts of minerals (copper, lithium, cobalt) for decarbonized technologies,” said Anthony Bebbington, a geographer at Clark University in Massachusetts.
“We need more planning tools from governments and companies to mitigate the impact of mining on forest loss.”
Already, mines around the world are extracting twice as much raw material as they did in 2000, the study says.
For the study, the researchers analyzed global satellite imagery and forest loss monitoring data, along with location information for industrial-scale mining operations over the past two decades. The study did not measure the impacts of small-scale and artisanal mining, which can also be a challenge as pollution remains unregulated.
Overall, 26 countries were responsible for most of the world’s tropical deforestation since 2000.
But in terms of industrial mining areas, the four countries prevailed. The biggest losses were in Indonesia, where coal mines have been expanded on the island of Borneo to meet fuel demand from China and India.
Ghana and Suriname also showed high rates of deforestation around gold and bauxite mines to deliver aluminum and other materials used in other products. In Brazil, the extraction of gold and iron ore led to mining deforestation.
Mining operations often clear forests to make room for the expansion of extraction sites and tailings storage facilities, as well as to build access roads and settlements for miners.
Road building and development activities are often not included in environmental impact assessments, which are done before a mine is approved, said Juliana Siqueira-Gay, an environmental engineer at the Brazilian Sustainability Nonprofit Instituto Escolhas, who was not involved in the study.