For centuries towns were been built around mines all over Africa. These towns housed families and had facilities like electricity and water, housing, shops, hospitals and schools. People moved from afar to live in mining towns where there were employment opportunities, and towns soon expanded to accommodate a growing industry. Over the course of several years mining was considered as an industry that brought much needed economic wealth and prosperity to African countries.
Despite the obvious benefits of the mining industry through the years, it is also an industry fraught with problems. After most of the African countries gained independence some of the mines closed and poverty and a high rate of unemployment ensued. Other mines went the opposite way, where there was a shift towards machine oriented mining and operations were expanded. Although the shift had a positive impact on local economic growth, it also had a major negative impact on the countries and there have been social, economic and environmental consequences.
Mining firms are not only attracted to developing countries in Africa because of mineral riches – they are also attracted to the countries because of lower safety and environmental standards. To establish a mine vegetation is cleared. This causes deforestation, and a loss of biodiversity which has an impact on locals. Another largely ungoverned environmental concern is the pollution caused by mining through leakage and tailings dumping. Tailings are left-over materials from mining and are often dumped in rivers causing metals contamination. Several African mines have also experienced cyanide leaks – the deadly poison is used to extract gold. Rivers and dams are re-routed to create exposed riverbeds for mining which has a detrimental effect on fish and wildlife that use rivers for sustenance. Open-pit mines are eventually abandoned and fill up with stagnant water which becomes infested with mosquitos. These sites are ideal breeding areas for malaria and other deadly diseases.
Although companies ought to provide resources and financial aid to ensure that the environment is returned to its natural state after mining ends, this is not always the case. The effects of mining in Africa have left large-scale devastation when companies do not honour their responsibility. Because mining areas are left in an unsustainable condition, plant species and wildlife are threatened and these areas are at risk of becoming lifeless wastelands.
Several African countries are showing concern with the effects of mining in Africa and are taking steps to resolve issues. South Africa has responded to the situation by making a law that states that mines have to leave areas in an equivalent, or better state than what it was prior to mining starting. Although not all mining companies are heeding these laws, the South African diamond industry has responded by establishing several nature reserves with breeding programs for endangered species. The Angolan government has started a tree planting initiative in which the plan is to increase the amount of trees by 50% to make up for deforestation during mining. Despite the devastating effects, hope remains.