There are generally thought to be 2 big employment sectors for geologists who want to earn heaps of money very quickly, these being the oil industry and the mining industry. After I finished my Masters’ degree in the UK I headed to Mongolia to work in mining, the stories of which could probably fill a whole book (a very short and uninteresting book) let alone a short blog post.
Yesterday a story popped up on the BBC about the current state of the Mongolian mining industry, and is well worth a read. The story paints a pretty terrible picture of mining whereby families dig small holes in the ground through the permafrost (Mongolia is bloody freezing in winter) and try and retrieve tiny lumps of gold, which are sold to local traders and eventually make it onto the world market. These people earn pitiful amounts of money and in the process have to sacrifice their traditional nomadic herder lifestyles and customs, ways of life which have survived relatively unchanged since the time of Ghenghis Khan and even beyond.
This is a side of Mongolian mining that I never experienced or was even aware of. We (the ex-pats) knew there were some problems, but generally thought they involved awful wealth distribution and massive exploitation by the huge international mining firms. In fact, it seemed that the illegal miners working in our tenement (the term was ‘ninja miners’) were earning significantly more than us, as evidenced by their much shinier 4×4 and better quality metal detectors. We thought that with some local knowledge and a spade, anyone in that country could make a lot of money with relatively little effort if they knew where to look. It is therefore very sobering to see an article describing the real human cost of the spiralling gold price (the higher it goes, the more likely people are to ditch their other source of employment and take up mining), especially as it is so dichotomous with my own personal experiences.
Around the world there are a myriad sources of precious metals ranging in size from small holes in the ground to, well, big holes in the ground. Even though when we buy or use these metals it is very hard to tell where they come from, I still feel it is important to consider the human cost, as well as the more widely publicised environmental cost, of exploiting the earth and taking all that we need from the ground. It also falls to geologists to make conscious ethical decisions about who they will work for. And THAT is why I’m doing a PhD.