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Photo: Nick Roll via CSM.
Washing in polluted water. Under new laws, “firms wishing to mine or establish industrial agriculture operations must henceforth strike deals with the ordinary Sierra Leoneans who depend on the land for their survival,” says the Monitor.

I don’t know about you, but I always feel hopeful when ordinary people stick up for themselves. The powerful and selfish don’t always have to win. Capitalism has gotten out of hand and now resembles nothing so much as the monarchies of old.

Meanwhile, in Sierra Leone, folks suffering from the excesses of mining giants and agribusiness are not going to take it anymore.

Nick Roll has the story at the Christian Science Monitor.

“Solomon K. Russell walks down a narrow dirt path, surrounded by teak trees that block out the sunlight and cool the afternoon air. He leaps over a column of fat black ants running across the trail, and the forest suddenly, unnaturally, ends. A denuded strip of beige earth stretches over an area the size of several football fields, pockmarked by pits full of wastewater. 

“Machinery belonging to the Afro-Asia Mining Corp., a Chinese firm, rumbles in the distance. The remnant of a stream, polluted and diverted by the industrial operations, idles underneath a small wooden bridge. 

“ ‘This river really sustained the life of the people,’ says Mr. Russell, who remembers, as a boy, jumping off the bridge into the water just a few feet below. Now, it’s barely ankle-deep. …

“Mr. Russell and his fellow villagers had no say in Afro-Asia’s arrival, nor in its operations. The company signed its lease with the local ‘paramount chief’ who was empowered by a century-old colonial law.

“But a sweeping package of land-rights bills, which went into effect in September, is set to change all that, giving local people who own and live off the land the authority to decide how it is used.

“ ‘Those laws will help,’ says Mary Tommy, a farmer living in this 500-strong farming community made up of brightly painted concrete houses and mud brick homes with traditional high-pitched thatch roofs. ‘For us, the destruction has already been caused, but for other areas that have not witnessed this kind of destruction, I think it will be good.’

“Many parts of Sierra Leone have been ravaged by foreign mining firms seeking gold, diamonds, and bauxite, among other minerals, and by palm oil plantations. Such natural resources accounted for over 75% of Sierra Leone’s exports in 2020, reaping around $400 million in income, according to official figures.

“Yet the wealth has been slow to trickle down. The latest figures on poverty in the country, from 2018, showed that 60% of the rural population was living on less than $1.90 a day.

“People say ‘our land is our bank, our land is our future,’ ” says Eleanor Thompson, deputy director of programs at the Freetown office of Namati, a legal advocacy and land-rights organization. …

“Until last month, only local chiefs and the national government could strike land use and leasing deals with foreign investors. The people whose land was taken could do little about it, and often had to accept rents amounting to only $5 an acre.

“Mr. Russell, for example, says his rent is ‘too meager’ to be able to buy from the market the fish he can no longer catch in the village stream.

“But under the new laws, firms wishing to mine or establish industrial agriculture operations must henceforth strike deals with the ordinary Sierra Leoneans who depend on the land for their survival – and who, for the first time, will have the right to negotiate, or reject, their proposals.

“September’s Customary Land Rights Act and the National Land Commission Act transfer the power to make decisions about land to those actually owning or using it. Companies seeking a lease must win the consent of 60% of a family’s male and female adults.

“Where land is communally held, firms must persuade 60% of the adults in the community to agree to a lease. In the newly created land committees that are supposed to help negotiate those leases, made of local community members, 30% of members are to be women.

“The new laws are not popular with foreign investors, many of whom are especially wary of a provision setting aside shares in international projects for Sierra Leoneans.

‘Nobody will invest in Sierra Leone anymore,’ says Gerben Haringsma, country director for the Luxembourg-based palm oil company Socfin. …

“Ms. Thompson, the land rights activist, says the laws might, however, help investors more than they realize. ‘It’s in the investors’ interest to have the consent of people,’ she says. …

“Acts of sabotage and deadly protests against agribusiness and mining companies have erupted in the past.

“ ‘If people had a say in negotiations they would sell their land for a … value that will enrich them and change their lives, maybe,’ says Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, executive director of the Freetown-based Society for Democratic Initiatives.

“In Largo, villagers say that Afro-Asia promised to build them a health clinic, a school, and paved roads. Four years after mining operations started, none of that has come to pass, and the locals who have found jobs at the mine earn little more than $50 a month.

“Afro-Asia did not respond to a request for comment. But the company’s lease in Largo is in its final year. To keep operating, it will have to renegotiate – this time with the local community under the new laws.”

More at the Monitor, here. No firewall.

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Photo: The American Chestnut Foundation via Living on Earth.
Towering American Chestnuts were once a staple of life for people across Appalachia and elsewhere in the Eastern United States. An initiative in mining country aims to bring them back.

Growing up, I heard from my father about how sad he was as a kid when American Chestnuts began to die off. Children really do not like loss. Thomas Brannon in today’s article was a kid who loved chestnuts, too. He is one of the people working to restore the trees that covered his grandparents’ land before they sold the mining rights.

Elena Shao starts the New York Times story with the director of operations at a tree-planting nonprofit.

“Michael French trudged through a thicket of prickly bramble, unfazed by the branches he had to swat away on occasion in order to arrive at a quiet spot of hilly land that was once mined for coal. Now, however, it is patched with flowering goldenrods and long yellow-green grasses and dotted with tree saplings.

“The sight, he acknowledged, would seem unimpressive to most. Yet it might be Mr. French’s most prized accomplishment. To him, the young trees symbolize what could be a critical comeback for some of the country’s vanishing forests, and for one tree in particular, the American chestnut.

‘I don’t see it how most people see it,’ he said. ‘I look at this and I see how it’s going to be in 80 to 100 years.’

“By then, Mr. French envisions that the chestnut, a beloved tree nearly wiped out a century ago by a blight-causing fungus, will be among those that make up an expansive forest of native trees and plants.

“Billions of chestnuts once dominated Appalachia, with Americans over many generations relying on their hardy trunks for log cabins, floor panels and telephone poles. Families would store the trees’ small, brown nuts in attics to eat during the holiday season.

“Now, Mr. French and his colleagues at Green Forests Work, a nonprofit group, hope to aid the decades-long effort to revive the American chestnut by bringing the trees back onto Appalachia’s former coal mines. Decades of mining, which have contributed to global warming, also left behind dry, acidic and hardened earth that made it difficult to grow much beyond nonnative herbaceous plants and grasses.

“As coal continues to decline and many of the remaining mines shut down for good, foresters say that restoring mining sites is an opportunity to prove that something productive can be made of lands that have been degraded by decades of extractive activity, particularly at a moment when trees are increasingly valued for their climate benefits. Forests can capture planet-warming emissions, create safe harbor for endangered wildlife species and make ecosystems more resilient to extreme weather events like flooding.

“The chestnut is a good fit for this effort, researchers say, because the tree’s historical range overlaps ‘almost perfectly’ with the terrain covered by former coal mines that stretched across parts of eastern Kentucky and Ohio, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania.

“Another advantage of restoring mining sites this way is that chestnut trees prefer slightly acidic growth material, and they grow best in sandy and well-drained soil that isn’t too wet, conditions that are mostly consistent with previously mined land, said Carolyn Keiffer, a plant ecologist at Miami University in Ohio. …

“ ‘We humans brought in the nonnative fungus that killed the tree,’ Dr. Keiffer said, referring to the parasitic fungus that was accidentally introduced to North America in the late 1800s on imported Japanese chestnuts. … ‘Maybe we can be the ones to bring the trees back.’

“That calling has always motivated Thomas Brannon, even as a third grader in the 1940s planting trees with his siblings on his family’s land in eastern Ohio, the property that Mr. French visited in August.

“ ‘If I can make that 230 acres look better, then that’s enough for me,’ Mr. Brannon said.

“His grandparents sold mining rights to parts of the property in 1952, and nearly four decades of coal mining followed. In 1977, the federal government passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, requiring mining companies to return land to the general shape it had before the mining activity.

“As a result, mining companies would backfill excavated land, packing rock material tightly against the hillside so it wouldn’t cause landslides, said Scott Eggerud, a forester with the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the agency that enforces the mining law. To prevent erosion, mining companies would plant aggressive, mostly nonnative grasses that could tolerate the heavily compacted soil. …

“In theory, compacting land and greening it up quickly was a good idea, in terms of preventing erosion and water contamination, said Sara Fitzsimmons, chief conservation officer at The American Chestnut Foundation. But it made re-establishing forests difficult. …

“When Green Forests Work arrived on the Brannon property in 2013, they focused on undoing some of the damage done to the land, bringing in bulldozers with giant ripping shanks that dig three to four feet deep into the soil, loosening up the dirt and pulling up rocks.

“By springtime, the group had planted upward of 20,000 seedlings, a mix of 20 different native tree species including the American chestnut, the Virginia pine and a variety of oaks.

“They also planted 625 chestnuts in a one-acre space they called a progeny test to evaluate the health of hybridized chestnut trees — fifteen-sixteenths American chestnut and one-sixteenth Chinese chestnut — that were crossbred by scientists at the American Chestnut Foundation, a nonprofit group formed in the 1980s.”

More at the Times, here. Still more at the environmental radio show Living on Earth. No firewall.

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Photo: Rosa Santomartino/ University of Edinburgh
Sphingomonas desiccabilis, a microbe unfazed by changes in gravity. Research in space suggests it could be used to mine rare elements on Mars.

Today I’m putting the idea of mining on Mars out there not because it’s imminent but because I’d appreciate hearing folks’ views on that sort of thing. I know we use rare minerals such as those on Mars for all our electronics, but on Earth the mining leads to exploitation and pollution in places like Africa and Afghanistan.

Here’s what Kenneth Chang at the New York Times has to say about the potential of Mars and how certain microbes could perform a cleaner kind of mining.

“Microbes may be the friends of future colonists living off the land on the moon, Mars or elsewhere in the solar system and aiming to establish self-sufficient homes.

“Space colonists, like people on Earth, will need what are known as rare earth elements, which are critical to modern technologies. These 17 elements, with daunting names like yttrium, lanthanum, neodymium and gadolinium, are sparsely distributed in the Earth’s crust. Without the rare earths, we wouldn’t have certain lasers, metallic alloys and powerful magnets that are used in cellphones and electric cars.

“But mining them on Earth today is an arduous process. It requires crushing tons of ore and then extracting smidgens of these metals using chemicals that leave behind rivers of toxic waste water.

“Experiments conducted aboard the International Space Station show that a potentially cleaner, more efficient method could work on other worlds: let bacteria do the messy work of separating rare earth elements from rock. …

“On Earth, such biomining techniques are already used to produce 10 to 20 percent of the world’s copper and also at some gold mines; scientists have identified microbes that help leach rare earth elements out of rocks.

“[Charles S. Cockell, a professor of astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh,] and his colleagues wanted to know whether these microbes would still live and function as effectively on Mars, where the pull of gravity on the surface is just 38 percent of Earth’s, or even when there is no gravity at all. So they sent some of them to the International Space Station last year.

“The results, published [Nov. 10] in the journal Nature Communications, show that at least one of those bacteria, a species named Sphingomonas desiccabilis, is unfazed by differing forces of gravity. …

“At the space station, Luca Parmitano, a European Space Agency astronaut, placed some of [Bacteria and basalt samples] in a centrifuge spun at speeds to simulate Mars or Earth gravity. …

“For two of the three types of bacteria, the results were disappointing. But S. desiccabilis increased the amount of rare earth elements extracted from the basalt by roughly a factor of two, even in the zero-gravity environment. … The results were even somewhat better for the lower Mars gravity. …

“ ‘Certainly this isn’t a demonstration of commercial biomining. … [But] I think eventually, you could scale this up to do it on Mars,’ Dr. Cockell said.” More here.

I wonder — by the time countries are capable of doing mining on Mars, will we even be using those minerals?

Photo: ESA & MPS for OSIRIS Team
Planet Mars, the “red planet.”

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Photo: Laura Cluthé
The Christian Science Monitor says the 1,250-foot Superstack in Sudbury, Ontario, is “a symbol of the city’s gritty past” but is being replaced by two smaller, cleaner stacks.

Sometimes the worst offenders against the public good are the first to test a new course. As today’s story shows, it does help if they get a nudge from government regulation.

Sara Miller Llana reports at the Christian Science Monitor about a big polluter in a Canadian mining town that’s decided to cooperate with greening efforts.

“When the Superstack was constructed in 1972, it was the tallest structure in Canada – and the tallest smokestack in the world. At 1,250 feet, it’s visible from every vantage point in the area [and] has long stood as a reminder of the environmental devastation that mining wrought here. But this year the chimney is being fully decommissioned. …

“Whether or not the structure remains a fixture on the skyline when it’s taken out of operation, it tells a powerful tale of renewal. The stack was built as part of an industrial complex that denuded the land here of any kind of vegetation, leaving blackened rocks and lakes without fish. The landscape drew comparisons to moonscapes and barren Martian worlds. At one time the smelters in Sudbury were the largest point source of sulfur dioxide in the world.

“It got so bad that scientists, politicians, industry officials, and the community finally came together to halt the pollution, replant the trees, and restock the lakes. It has been 40 years of toil and triumph, and the story is not over yet. But today Sudbury enjoys some of the cleanest air quality in Ontario. Residents swim and fish in the 330 lakes inside the city’s boundaries.

And those here say the community of 165,000, at the gateway of northern Ontario, offers a lesson in how to break the cycle of conflict that the current climate crisis often creates, pitting industry against the environment. …

“Says David Pearson, an earth scientist and driving force in turning around Sudbury, ‘When one speaks of the Sudbury story, [it] somehow seems local and isolated, and it’s not local and isolated. It’s an example of what we need to modify in order to be able to live alongside a thriving environment.’ …

“Dr. Pearson, who arrived from a coal mining town in northern England, remembers distinctly how bad the air smelled one day in 1969. … ‘I parked in the parking lot, and I had to run in order to be able to hold my breath long enough to get into a building because the smell of the sulfur dioxide was so powerful even in my car. … I had never experienced anything nearly as penetrating a pollution as this.’

“For a child in Sudbury back then, fun didn’t involve climbing trees or playing hide-and-seek in the forest. Young people like Dave Courtemanche, who went on to become mayor, clambered over rocks. There was no greenery to be found in his neighborhood or at his school. …

“On a hillside, he and classmates carved out an acre of land and limed and fertilized it. As tufts of grass began to poke through, he recalls a feeling that might be comparable to children of the tropics seeing their first snowflakes. ‘Looking up and seeing a green patch emerging from the dead earth was nothing short of a miracle,’ he says. … Mr. Courtemanche was unwittingly among the first volunteers in one of the largest regreening efforts in Canadian history. …

“Laurentian University was established in 1960. ‘Nobody was going to say anything against the company, essentially,’ says Peter Beckett, an ecologist at the university and chair of the city’s advisory panel on regreening. ‘And so the university was kind of the first independent thing in the town, and people started asking questions: “Can one do anything about the landscape?” ‘ … 

“Dr. Beckett and Graeme Spiers, another scientist from Laurentian University, … have traveled the world [with a roadshow] called ‘Sudbury, 40+ Years of Healing.’ 

“None of this would have been possible without tough regulations, though. When the Superstack was built, mining’s motto for the era was ‘Dilution is the solution to pollution.’ New technology and evolving processes helped reduce emissions in Greater Sudbury, but the Superstack dispersed them further afield, to neighboring provinces, and as far as the United States and Greenland. …

“The provincial government developed the Countdown Acid Rain program, which forced Inco and other major polluters in 1985 to cut emissions by more than 60% in under a decade. The companies balked at first.”

Read how they eventually not only got on board but decided to do more than required, here.

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29112018_polandcoal

Photo: Kacper Pempel/Reuters
In the top photo jeweler Katarzyna Depa, 26, holds a silver ring with coal at her atelier in Katowice, Poland. Below, Grzegorz Chudy, 36, paints at his atelier in Katowice, where affordable rents have drawn artists.

Having recently watched the devastating 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA about a Kentucky mining strike, I’ve become a little more skeptical about longtime miners’ ability to transition to a new kind of life. Although I have blogged about efforts to help miners learn programming skills, for example, or be trained for jobs in the solar industry, such things may attract only younger people.

In this story from Public Radio International (PRI), we learn about recent changes in Poland, where the conservative government still supports the mining despite climate-change issues.

“When the Wieczorek mine, one of the oldest coal mines in Poland, closed [last] March, Grzegorz Chudy noticed for the first time the neighborhood was vibrant with trees in the full bloom of spring. The smell was heady.

” ‘It was incredible. You never knew all those trees were there,’ he told Reuters in his art studio in a housing estate for mining families in the southwestern Polish city of Katowice. ‘The smell wasn’t there while coal was being transported on trucks. The dust covered it up.’

“The Wieczorek mine in Katowice, with its towering brick shaft, is among dozens closing down throughout Poland, home to one of the most polluted coal mining regions in Europe. …

“Poland has had a painful and difficult experience with the economic transition from coal. Even as it counts down to [November 2018 climate talks], it announced plans for a new coal mine in the south of the country.

“Its government drew support in part from those with an emotional attachment to the job security, social fabric and national pride associated with mining that overlooked the downsides for health and the planet. …

“Chudy, 36, whose paintings often depict the life and architecture of Nikiszowiec, is one of hundreds of people who have moved to the area, drawn by its industrial feel and affordable housing.

“Built to house the families of miners at the start of the 20th century, Nikiszowiec was designed as a self-sufficient neighborhood with its own communal bread ovens and pigsties, as well as a bath house for miners and laundry facilities. …

“Those in the artistic community say their work could only exist with the inspiration provided by decades of mining.

” ‘For me using coal in a different way than it used to be, which was energy, shows its completely new face, so we can call it our new, cool black gold,’ said Katarzyna Depa, who makes jewelry from coal.

“But for those with mining in the blood, moving on is harder and the smell of coal dust is as sweet as blossom. Above all, they miss the community spirit even if it meant shared danger and hardship.”

More at PRI — which is, by the way, an amazing window on the world. Check it out if you don’t know it.

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Funny how things work out.

If Suzanne hadn’t spoken to a woman speaking Swedish to her little girl after toddler music class, I probably would never have known about the Australian mining community Tom Price and the Chinese opera written about it by the Swedish woman’s American husband. But there you are.

Ben Collins, Vanessa Mills, and Hilary Smale put together a story about the opera for ABC Australia.

“It’s a contender for the most unlikely arts even of all time,” they write, “the story of a small North West Australian iron ore mining town told in Chinese operatic style.

“It’s the attention grabbing work of an American artist called Daniel Peltz, who says he aims to provoke ruptures in the socio/cultural fabric through which new ways of being may emerge. In this case that means Chinese opera in a remote Australian mining town.

” ‘I look at Chinese opera as something that’s embedded in the landscape of China, just as iron ore is embedded in the Western Australian landscape. And I think of the gesture of the piece as a way of extracting this resource from China, digging it up and bringing it to Tom Price to tell a story of the town,’ Mr Peltz says. …

“The opera follows the story of Thomas Moore Price, who is said to have died at his desk just before the deal was completed that led to the mine which the town serves.

” ‘I did find an out-of-print book on Tom Price that was produced by Kaiser Steel which confirmed that component of the narrative. But my aim is not to write historically accurate narrative, it’s actually quite the opposite… I’m really looking at extracting elements of the story of this place and sending them to China to be transformed into this opera,’ Mr Peltz says.

“In the opera, Thomas Moore Price’s only daughter, Shirley, has an encounter with the ghost of her father at the summit of Mt Nameless. A 30 minute film of the opera being performed in China will be presented at the Tom Price Community Centre.

” ‘I’ve done a lot of work to make sure that it’s well subtitled so that people can access the narrative,’ says Mr Peltz.”

Wish I had known all this when Dan and his wife (the artist Sissi Westerberg) brought their daughter to my grandson’s two-year-old birthday party a few weeks ago.

The missed opportunities of life!

Read more here and listen to a clip of the traditional-style Chinese opera.

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