Industrial-scale mining for materials such as coal, gold and iron ore spurs tropical deforestation, with once-impenetrable forests cleared of 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 researchers found that just four countries are largely to blame: Brazil, Indonesia, Ghana and Suriname.
Combined, the four forest-rich nations accounted for about 80% of tropical deforestation caused by large-scale mining from 2000 to 2019, according to the study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
While at least 70% of deforestation is done to clear land for agriculture, the researchers cited industrial mining as a growing concern due to the growing global appetite for minerals used in clean energy technologies to combat climate change.
“The energy transition is going to require very large amounts of minerals — copper, lithium, cobalt — for decarbonized technologies,” said co-author Anthony Bebbington, a geographer at Clark University in Massachusetts.
“We need more planning tools from governments and companies to mitigate the impacts of mining on forest loss.”
Already, mines around the world are extracting more than twice as much raw material as they did in 2000, the study said.
For the study, the researchers studied global satellite images and data tracking forest loss along with location information for industrial-scale mining from 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 is not regulated.
Overall, 26 countries were responsible for most of the world’s tropical deforestation since 2000.
But around industrial mining sites, the four countries dominated. The biggest losses were in Indonesia, where coal mines on the island of Borneo have expanded to meet fuel demand from China and India.
Ghana and Suriname also showed high rates of deforestation around gold and bauxite mines that supplied material used in aluminum and other products. In Brazil, extraction of gold and iron ore led to deforestation for mining.
Mining often clears forests to make room for the expansion of extraction sites and tailings storage, as well as to build access roads and settlements for miners.
Road construction and development activities are often not included in environmental impact assessments, conducted before a mine is approved, said environmental engineer Juliana Siqueira-Gay at the sustainability nonprofit Instituto Escolhas in Brazil, who was not involved in the study.