The hidden shame of the global industrial economy: where do the raw materials to build our paneled offices, airplanes, and cell phones come from? Maybe you really don't want to know. A lot of them come from plunder, of a kind we'd like to think came to an end long ago.

Author:Ayres, Ed


In the 16th century, Hernando Cortez sailed to Mexico seeking gold for the Spanish empire. He found a lot of it, and seized it without compunction, killing any Aztecs who stood in his way. Today, that kind of plunder may seem antiquated--abhorred by the community of nations. Of course, we still suffer the depredations of various transnational criminal cartels and mafias. But those are the exceptions, the outlaws. Today, no self-respecting nation or corporation would engage in the kind of brutal decimation of" a whole culture, simply to seize its treasure, that Cortez did. Or would it?

In fact, the plundering of precious metals and other assets is far more prevalent today than in centuries past, and on a larger scale. Now it's not just Spain and a few other military powers seeking global dominance, but scores of nations seeking cell phones and teak furniture, that are seizing materials from native cultures--some of these materials in quantities that the conquistadors could never have imagined. Now it's not just silver and gold, but coltan (for those cell phones), copper, titanium, bauxite, uranium, cobalt, oil, mahogany, and teak. And now, in place of the extinguished Aztecs and other now decimated cultures, it's hundreds of still surviving cultures that are being overrun, in perhaps a hundred countries. And most significantly, while the looting is still done by invaders from across the oceans, it is often sanctioned and facilitated by the victimized peoples' own national governments.

But while the plunder is greater now, it is in some respects less openly pursued and less visible than it would have been for Cortez, had the technology to observe it been available in his day. The conquistadors would likely have reveled in seeing their exploits shown on TV. Today such publicity is avoided, for compelling reasons:

First, plunder usually entails invasion, and in the centuries since Cortez the world's nations have moved toward nearly unanimous condemnation of unprovoked invasion--as reflected in their widely shared shock at the U.S. invasion of Iraq. There has been parallel progress in recognizing the wrongness of enslaving other people or simply killing them for their property. There's an evolving appreciation of human diversity, and of the idea of a global (as opposed to European, or nationalist) community. Yet the incentives for seizing the wealth of others areas economically irresistible today as they ever have been, and the means of doing so are now far more widely available. So the seizing continues, but not necessarily by military assault. That's not to say there aren't still places where the job is done with outright killing, as the following pages will detail. In Indonesia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria, there have been cases in which people who opposed extractive operations on their land were given Cortez-style removals from the discussion. But where the scrutiny of the global media is present, the means are more indirect, and appear to be accidental. People living near uranium mines that have left piles of radioactive waste on their land die of cancer in unusual numbers, and their children have unusual numbers of birth defects. Indians whose land has been taken over by oil-drilling operations are slowly poisoned by petrochemical contamination of their water and soil. Those living downstream from large gold mines find their drinking water laced with cyanide. Food sources are destroyed, as are sacred places--and people die of spiritual, as well as physical, deprivation. Those kinds of dying don't make the evening news.

Second, the plunder is less visible now because it rarely need be witnessed by the people who end up with the wealth--the major purchasers of gasoline or gold chains or tickets to fly on aluminum bodied planes. In gold rush days, the lucky miner who found a nice nugget could buy a fancy watch. In the modern economy, the man with the Rolex has likely never been anywhere near a gold mine. The big extractive industries are Far from the urban centers where most of the affluent live. In poorer countries from which much of the world's mineral and forest wealth is taken, the extractive operations are often in remote jungles or subsistence farming regions-homelands to people who are largely left out of the global dialogue and trade.

Finally, there is the unspoken disincentive of the world's media giants to expose the exploitative nature of the industries that provide the raw materials of the economy that pays their way. Nearly all media, whether print or electronic, are funded by advertising for consumer goods that too often originate with raw materials largely taken from indigenous land of from ostensibly protected parkland, it would perhaps be unfair to say the media are part of a conspiracy of silence, because in all likelihood most media executives rarely stop to think about what fuels the economy that allows them to profit. But it's fair to suggest that there's a reluctance to undermine the foundations of the economy on which their whole business rests.

Not all extractive industries operate in the shadows. Many are honest businesses, run by people who are attentive to the human and environmental impacts of their operations. But those businesses are far too few. By some estimates, for example, some 80 percent of the logging done in Indonesia--one of the largest producers of wood in the world--is illegal. Some of the largest mines in the world, dumping thousands of tons of deadly poisons into their surroundings each day, are operating without the consent of the people whose land they have taken over.

Big Footprints

Mining and logging operations--the "extractive industries"--aren't just small pin-pricks in the Earth's skin, though they may appear that way on maps. Apologists may think of them as small holes discreetly drilled in large territories, for which small compensations to the impoverished inhabitants of those territories may be sufficient. But in fact, extraction has far-reaching impacts and costs. Because nature is not static but involves continuous movement of wind, water, and wildlife, contaminants released by mines can cause Pandora-like destruction.

One of the most alarming forms of contamination is that of heap-leach gold mining, a modern technique that involves pouring rivers of cyanide on huge piles of low-grade ore to extract the gold. Cyanide is extremely poisonous: a teaspoonful containing a 2-percent cyanide solution can kill an adult. In February 2000, a dam holding heap-leach waste at a gold mine in Romania--the Baia Mare gold mine owned by an Australian company, Esmeralda Exploration--broke and dumped 22 million gallons of cyanide into the Tisza River. The poison flowed more than 500...

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