Pulling Back the Curtain on the Plunder of the Planet

June 26, 2024
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BookShelf: Pulling Back the Curtain on the Plunder of the Planet

"Pitfall: The Race to Mine the World’s Most Vulnerable Places"
By Christopher Pollon
Greystone Books, $29.95

Image of Pitfall book cover

Reviewed by Melody Kemp

Canadian investigative journalist Christopher Pollon begins his fascinating book, “Pitfall: The Race to Mine the World’s Most Vulnerable Places,” by stating that it is “written for people who have rarely, if ever, stopped to consider where all the metals we use come from, and at what cost we enjoy the benefits. It pulls back the curtain on an industry that is invisible and everywhere, all at once.”

Pollon does not disappoint.

His book is full of truisms, with keen and searing observations based on political economy, as well as results of his own investigations.

I will own up to being personally affected. I have lived and worked in nations where mining is the backstory to elite success, including equipping and using national military forces.

Still, it was a shock when Pollon wrote about the Grasberg mine, one that I had personal experience with.


Tribal rights, knowledge ignored

The Grasberg mine is a vast open pit mine in Papua, Indonesia, which forms a mile-wide crater. Situated high in the rugged Sudirman Mountains near two rare equatorial mountain glaciers, it is also one of the world’s highest quarries, some 14,000 feet above sea level.

This section of the book sent me roaring back in time and location, to the early 1990s in Indonesia when I was a chief technical adviser.

My background included mental health work, so it did not take much for me to discover a man in a bar who was distressed and wanted someone to talk with.

He took a job as a mechanical engineer to improve Grasberg mine safety. In addition to deaths from unsafe conditions, he said he had witnessed the Indonesian military taking protesters up in helicopters and dropping them over forests.


Internationally, mining often occurs

on sacred land that belongs both

spiritually and via hundreds of years

of occupation to tribal peoples.


Internationally, mining often occurs on sacred land that belongs both spiritually and via hundreds of years of occupation to tribal peoples. Their ownership and rights are usually overlooked or given patronizing recognition.

In Indonesia’s province of Papua, Indigenous people were poor. Men wore penis gourds, also known as kotekas. They were armed with axes and other weapons.

Those items and a wild array of feathers and body paint were taken as proof of primitivism. Their knowledge and care for the land did not matter a whit to the mining company, Freeport, and its excavation of the site, one of the world’s largest gold and copper mines.


A global view of mining’s costs

Throughout his book, Pollon takes a sweeping view of how transnational companies control copper, precious metals and lithium mining in Latin America; make inroads into war-torn countries in Africa; and extract nickel, industrial and rare earth metals across Australia, Asia and the Pacific.

Lithium, once a medicament for depression, is now a source of depression as the salt flats of Chile and Argentina under which it rested have lost their lure to attract tourists relishing the otherworldly feeling of being between the Earth and sky.


Now, the landscape is

being upturned for the

manufacture of batteries,

electronics and computers.


Now, the landscape is being upturned for the manufacture of batteries, electronics and computers, among other things.

Reading Pollon’s book reminded me that our reverence for technology comes at a huge environmental cost. S&P Global Trucost calculated the unpriced value of natural capital — the Earth’s stocks of water, land, air, plants and animals against the cost of mining.

The conclusion? Not a single one of the high-impact industries could afford to cover the real costs of the environmental wealth they destroyed, estimated at $73 trillion.

Just one example: In China, Pollon reports the number of fish in the Yangtze River has declined 90 percent over the past 30 years.

Industry attention is now moving to deeper and darker places, including the depths of the ocean, sacrifice zones and near-Earth asteroids. As technology expands, so does the need for the more exotic minerals.


Exemplifying profits, (environmental) losses

Although Pollon reports on other mines globally, for me, Grasberg best exemplifies the profits and environmental losses, scale and persistent problems of mining.

The Grasberg mine sits at the collision point of two tectonic plates, where millions of years ago hot magma intruded into sedimentary rock layers during the uplift of the local mountains, resulting in the formation of copper- and gold-bearing ore.

Since the early 1990s, the Grasberg operation has extracted this ore at a staggering volume. All that ore delivers more destruction, as it is processed and used.

In 2018, it became public that the Indonesian government now owns 51 percent of the shares in the mine. It is debatable if that means it has responsibility for cleanups, health care or reparations.

‘While the list of retailers aligned in their opposition to dirty gold continues to grow longer, most gold remains quite filthy,” Smithsonian Magazine reported.

The issue of tailings in both operating and abandoned mines is terrifying. This chapter in Pollon’s book alone should awaken readers. He tells readers about a 2021 book, “Credibility Crisis: Brumadinho and the Politics of Mining Industry Reform” (CCH Australia, Ltd.), in which two writers claim that attempts at reform have been hijacked by industry.

Pollon’s book contains a lot of new information, much of it disturbing. He recounts the favorite tactics of mining companies in dealing with protests, such as accusing protesters of being hypocrites for owning items such as phones, televisions and automobiles.

It’s tempting to go on. But instead, I’ll finish with some cautious optimism. Indigenous peoples of the world, including those who still live in ecologically diverse regions, have preserved about 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity, despite mining.

Think of that when opening a can of beans with a metal can opener. … Or a can of beer.

Here’s to you, Christopher Pollon.

Melody Kemp is a freelancer and contributing SEJournal editor who has lived in and written from Asia for more than 30 years. Her last review was of a book about "carbon colonialism".

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 9, No. 26. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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