Mining in the Himalaya has never been easy. The staggering costs of digging underneath the world’s loftiest mountains involve risks. And like mountaineers, only the most intrepid entrepreneurs have dared.
Despite persistent warnings against mining in the mountains, and lack of proper assessment of just who would benefit, mine shafts and open pits scar Himalayan flanks from Pakistan to Burma.
Unlike the Andes, the Himalaya’s young and un-volcanic geology have deprived it of the gold seams and copper lodes that enrich parts of Peru, Chile and Bolivia. Noted Swiss geologist Toni Hagen, who traversed the Himalaya in the 1950s, didn’t think our mountains had much of a mineral potential. Four decades later, he still has to be proved wrong. There is still no major mining industry in the Nepal Himalaya, though it is not for want of trying.
Mining deposits of iron ore have been tapped in the past to craft khukris and forge cannons for the Anglo-Nepal wars. Nepal’s mountain rivers bear names of metallic ores (Tama Kosi, SunKosi). Deposits of iron on Phulchoki Hill southeast of Kathmandu, and the Those Mines in east-central Nepal have about 4.5 million tons of high-grade iron ore each, but they are not considered competitive enough for export to India because of the higher cost, particularly because of the need to import vast amounts of coal for the smelting process.
Mineral-based industries account for 2.34 percent of Nepal’s gross domestic product, and according to the Director General of the Department of Mines and Geology the pressing need to attain growth through industrialisation makes the search for minerals vital. Oil prospecting has begun in the eastern Tarai, and Nepal has called for international bids for prospecting at other blocks along the Tarai.
Inaccessibility does not seem to have deterred exploitation of the lead and zinc deposits at the lap of Ganesh Himal, north-west of Kathmandu, where workers have been burrowing into the strata at a height of 4,460m. They have already dug 1.8 km of tunnels under a Ganesh Himal spur. This is one of the highest mines in the world — only a notch lower than the sulfur quarries atop Chile’s Aucanquilcha volcano.
Visits by Nepal’s Prime Minister and the Minister of Industries have won the project official sanction, but critics charge that the Ganesh Himal mine is environmentally unsound, brings little benefit to the local people and that the 104km approach road from Trisuli has bulldozed through fragile terrain with the same lack of concern for the local people, primarily Tamangs.
Environmental considerations are beginning to loom large. Damage to the ecology occurs even if the effects are not immediately noticeable, according to a study on another high-altitude Himalayan mine conducted by Nepal’s Environment Impact Study Project. That report today lies in slumber, buried deep from public eyes.
There are those who fear that Ganesh Himal may duplicate the effects of mining in the Andes and the Indian Himalaya. But in Nepal there is no grassroot movement and a handful of elite environmentalists in Kathmandu seem to be howling in the wilderness. The cardio-pulmonary and chronic high altitude sickness prevalent among the tin miners of the Andes could also be a major concern here.
The main disturbance to the environment occurs from the debris displaced by the mines, according to a paper on mountain environment management by Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, an environmental scientist currently associated with ICIMOD. This damages farmlands, chokes river beds and disrupts the hydrological system. According to Bandyopadhyay, who studied the impact of mines in Doon Valley, dry-season discharges from spring sources in villages surveyed had decreased by half over 20 years and that explosives used in mining operations loosened shaky rock structures and triggered landslides.
The incredibly picturesque Chilime Khola region below Ganesh Himal is estimated to hold nearly two million tons of rich lead, zinc and silver ore. Ore samples indicate the presence of 15.7 percent zinc, 1.62 percent lead and 30 grammes of silver per ton. When production begins in 1992, 25,000 tons of zinc and 1,500 tons of lead concentrate per year are expected to come off a processing plant to be located in Rasuwa.
Some experts are asking where the mineral, originally planned for export to India, will be marketed. The cold wave in relations with India and the shrinking international demand for lead and zinc in this age of fiberglass and other light metals will make marketing difficult, they say. Meanwhile, the owners cling to the hope that the trade dispute will be resolved by the time they are ready for commercial production in three years.
At the magnesite mine in Kharidhunga, 100km northeast of Kathmandu, digging is in full swing. So far, 125,000 tons of magnesite have been extracted from the site, which has an estimated deposit of 180 million tons.
Both the Ganesh Himal and Kharidunga mines ownerships hold 49 percent of shares, with Indian interests holding the other half. The management of both mines cite employment generation as one of the important benefits. At Kharidhunga, 275 persons are directly employed in the quarries, and the company says 1,000 more benefit indirectly. Most locals are hired as unskilled labourers at an average rate of NRs27 a day. Because of the low wages, parents bring along their children to the mining site in order to supplement family income. All in all, the mines seem to have injected a limited cash income to the hill com-munities but by taking them away from the farms.
Kharidhunga’s quarry workers wear makeshift face masks which are not enough to prevent inhalation of the fine silica dust. Villagers have reported unprecedented flash floods on the Charange rivulet downstream from Kharidhunga. Tests of water samples also showed a higher than normal ammonia content linked to acidic discharges from the mine. A study suggests contaminated water may have affected productivity of the fields. Villagers at Jathul, near the magnesite quarry, live in perpetual fear of landslides triggered by mining activity.
“This year my harvest was only a tenth of my normal produce,” complained a villager at Lamosangu, where the plant that processes the magnesite is situated. Fine magnesium dust carried by the wind settle on his terraced fields and, mixing with water, causes the soil to harden. “The crops just withered and died. And when we harvested the stalks there was only husk at the end,” the farmer said. Soil scientists in Kathmandu explain that magnesium is chemically basic and would render the soil more alkaline than normal, thus harming crops.
As monsoon rains broke over Kharidhunga last month, the magnesite mine continued to spew dust. There were no signs that five years of operation had benefited Kharidhunga’s subsistence farmers. Instead, forests are dwindling and what little wildlife there was has been scared away by the dynamite blasts that rent the air.