Our Perspectives

What has salt got to do with development?


Salt mine in DRHaitian workers transport salt at the Las Salinas mine, Dominican Republic. Photo: Reuters/Ricardo Rojas

Do you know where the salt that flavours your food comes from? What about the lime to set our concrete walls, the aggregate and the sand that pave our roads, the pigments that colour our paints, or the bricks that hold up our ceilings?

Construction materials, dimension stones, industrial minerals and semi-precious stones are the hidden bedrock of our society, and the people that mine them in many parts of the world are often humble small-scale miners. These so-called “low value minerals” may not generate the same attention as diamonds, copper or gold, but their value lies in their potential to be minerals of development, boosting the livelihoods of millions of people.

We hear a lot about their high-value cousins. We read news reports about the blood diamonds of West Africa, the conflict minerals of the Congo and thousands of miners panning for gold in the Amazon. The stories that we tell about rocks are about the fouling of rivers, the clearing of forest and the fuelling of war.

Not all commodities, however, have such potential for misery. The humbleness of the low value minerals and materials sector sometimes, though not always, extends to the sector’s environmental footprint.

Many of the major environmental problems of mining come from the release of metals into the environment. The process chemicals used to extract the commodity, such as mercury used to extract gold, can contaminate local waterways. Low value stones, however, are usually inert. And sometimes, like salt, renewable. There are indeed minerals that can be mined or recycled forever.

The development community has only relatively recently realised the development potential of the low value mining and materials sector. International financial institutions and governments have concentrated on high value minerals due to their potential to generate foreign currency for governments. Low value minerals, don’t generate big fiscal returns, but at the same time they don’t rely on a promise that the benefits will trickle down to the poor.

For example, in Ethiopia, the cobblestone project aims to promote the use of local materials as well as community participation in the construction of roads. It has created 489,000 jobs and produced more than 2,202 kilometres of roads in 140 cities over the past five years.

A 2011 report revealed that 21 African countries had more than 100,000 artisanal and small scale mining operators each, providing livelihoods for 600,000 to 9,000,000 people in each of those countries. Women make up more than 40 percent of the workforce.

The small and medium scale miners who mine low value commodities have taken development into their own hands and could benefit from support. It is in this context that the African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) Group of States, the European Commission and UNDP are working together on the ACP-EU Development Minerals Programme.

Over the next three years the ACP-EU Development Minerals Programme will promote knowledge exchange among thousands of miners, government representatives and civil society advocates in over 40 countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.  

Our aim is to improve the human development and the sustainable development outcomes associated with the mining of construction materials, industrial minerals, dimension stones and semi-precious stones. Our mission is to bring some visibility to an oft-neglected sector, and to support the miners of low value commodities to reach their potential as agents of sustainable development.

Daniel M. Franks Extractive industries Blog post speakers corner Sustainable development Environment Agenda 2030

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