I work as a researcher in mineral exploration.
I am an avid recreational scuba diver, underwater photographer, and marine conservationist.
I’m sure I don’t need to push anybody too far to see why occasionally I have a moral conflict.
I would never intentionally work on a project with a company that didn’t have stringent environmental policies in place. But on the other hand, I know that mining and exploration does have an impact on the environment. Mining is not a sustainable, pollution free industry.
So when I hear about incidents such as that at Bangka Island in Sulawesi, Indonesia, I get frustrated.
The local government in the region approved exploration on the island. However, this ruling was overturned by the Indonesian supreme court who ruled out mining over environmental concerns. Rightly so in my belief. I won’t lie and pretend I don’t have a vested interest in the outcome – I scuba dive regularly around Manado and Lembeh, and with Bangka Island sitting pretty much smack bang between the two, mining on the island would destroy those dive locations.
The problem is that the local government is ignoring the supreme court ruling on the mining and is allowing the Chinese mining company involved to start offloading excavation equipment etc. to start their mineral exploration on Bangka Island.
I have to wonder how much the local government is being paid by the exploration company to do this and go against the federal court ruling.
This is where I have to go into more detail. The reality is that all mining and exploration projects will have an environmental impact. However that impact can always be minimized. There are always risk mitigation strategies that can be put in place to limit environmental impact. The problem is that the best methods for limiting the environmental impact of exploration and mining might not be the most economical. While the environmental impact can always be minimized, it may well cost the company a lot more money to do so. And forcing a company to minimize the potential risks of major damage may well turn an exploration or mining project from being economically viable, to one that isn’t. Which means that the company could well pull out of the project entirely. A company pulling out would mean all of the local jobs that were forthcoming would no longer eventuate, the taxes that the government would collect from the project wouldn’t eventuate, the boost to the local economy from local companies servicing various aspects of the day to day mining or exploration operations wouldn’t happen…These mining and exploration projects can potentially be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economies, and provide jobs for locals.
This is the issue. Helping the local economy or saving the environment? There is a line where the cost of environmental compliance simply makes a project unviable. The economic impact of a project not coming to fruition can not be underestimated.
That doesn’t mean I think the project should go ahead, even if the economic impact is significant. I do not believe in development for development’s sake. I do not believe in improving the local economy at any cost. I’m just explaining why I think the local government might actually be taking this stance in the proceedings and trying everything possible to get the project to go ahead.
I would be entirely unsurprised if there wasn’t some personal financial incentive involved in this particular case, but is unlikely to be the only reason the local government were blatantly ignoring the supreme court ruling.
It’s something that I’ve personally had to come to terms with myself, and I still struggle with it sometimes. It’s incredibly easy to sit behind my desk and be judgemental of others for what I consider to be some kind of environmental or conservation abuse. But at the end of the day, I’m sitting here typing this blog entry on a top of the line computer system connected to a reliable electricity supply, on super fast and reliable internet, not especially worried about how I’m going to put food on the table tonight. I live in relative luxury compared to most people in the world. While I admittedly do find it hard not to sit in judgement of those who allow this environmental abuse to occur, I have also learned over time that the story is very rarely that simple. I’ve had more than a few those “WTF are you doing? Stop that immediately!” moments while travelling in third world and developing countries, only to realise that many of these people are simply trying to feed their families.
I’m off to Sulawesi in 2 weeks for a dive trip. It’ll be interesting to speak to the locals while I’m there to actually hear what the reality of the situation is.