15 May 2023

From India to Australia: the bauxite paradox

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In India, the mining of bauxite, a rock needed for aluminum production, takes land away from agriculture, producing permanent soil damage. But this same resource, paradoxically, may carry with it a solution

by Matteo Cavallito

 

Mining for bauxite is reportedly producing serious consequences in India, especially in the Gumla district of the northeastern state of Jharkhand. This is the accusation made by the American NGO Mongabay. Companies in the industry, in particular, are allegedly not complying with regulations that require fields to be filled in after operations are completed, the organization claims.

“Mining activities have been ongoing in the region for the past 30 years and there is continuous movement of ore-laden trucks,” Mongabay continues. “This has left the land barren, the air polluted and there is worry over among the local people, about the dwindling groundwater level, which they also attribute to the mining activities.”

Mongabay: “Mining impacts local agriculture”

Bauxite is a composite clay rock that is mined and processed mainly for the production of aluminum, the second most used metal in the world after iron. According to GlobalData, India is the sixth largest global producer of the resource with about 23 thousand tons mined in 2022, accounting for 6 percent of the Planet’s total.

Top of the list is Australia, which with 100 thousand tons of bauxite mined annually, 40 percent of which is for export, has long been the world leader in the industry.

Mining, however, produces high environmental and economic costs. Handling results in emissions and air pollution, expanding operations in deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and impacts on water resources. Once subjected to mining, land becomes unproductive and the peasant population is thus forced to abandon their traditional activities, becoming “completely dependent on bauxite mines for employment and livelihood.”

Mining pollutes water

Of particular concern to observers is the impact of mining operations on the soil. According to Sarvesh Singhal, chairman of the Jharkhand Biodiversity Board, quoted by the NGO, “Mining produces many chemicals that pollute the water. Because of this, the water holding capacity of the soil decreases.”

Topsoil is the most important resource in any type of agriculture and can ideally be divided into two parts, D.K. Shahi, dean of Birsa Agricultural University in Ranchi, the state capital, explained to Mongabay. “The first layer – 15 cm from the surface – is an important one. Some crops have deep roots and in that case, the second layer – – 15 to 30 centimeters – also becomes important. If the top layer gets eroded, the soil loses its fertility.”

Bauxite, however, can be a resource for the land

The negative effects of mining, in short, appear well established. But if properly treated, at the same time, bauxite, could turn from a problem into a solution. Since its byproducts can be reused in a circular way to fertilize the soil.

In late 2021, for example, researchers at the Sustainable Minerals Institute at the University of Queensland in Australia announced the launch of a project to recover red mud, the main waste product of aluminum production.

Normally the by-product is disposed of in landfills with high environmental and climate costs associated with its transportation. The solution proposed by the researchers, is to develop a technology that can directly implement what is known as bioweathering in the field. That is, the process of erosion and crushing of rocks produced by microorganisms and underlying the transformation of these into fertile soil. In this way it would be possible to create “a functional growth soil, that is compatible with ecological attributes of native/exotic plant species and communities.”