Aluminium— the Villain of Environmental Degradation

BY TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 4 Jun 2018

Dr Ravi P Bhatia – TRANSCEND Media Service

4 Jun 2018 – Environmental degradation and pollution are well known crises facing humanity in most parts of the world, leading to climate change, global warming, irregular weather conditions, health problems, harm to flora and fauna   and rising sea levels. This has been recognized by international organizations including the UN which organized the largely attended COP-21 (Conference of Parties) meeting in Paris in December 2014 to discuss the plan of actions by all the nations to reduce global warming and environmental pollution to pre-determined levels. This was followed by the Morocco COP-22 Conference a year later to finalize the commitments made by industrialized nations including USA, China and India towards reducing global warming and pollution.

The common factors behind this crisis are industrialization, mining, infra development activities, burning of fossil fuels for production of electricity, vehicular traffic, deforestation, burning of agricultural residues and countless other causes that are part of our modern life styles.

But in recent years it has been determined that apart from the above factors the commonly used Aluminium is causing not only environmental degradation but also leading to unspeakable misery among the indigenous peoples of India and of other countries. How is this so?

Bauxite mining for the extraction of Aluminium metal has one of the most serious impacts both for the people especially the tribal populations it displaces as well as or the degradation of the soil. A detailed book on the subject — Out of this Earth by Felix Padel and S Das published by Orient BlackSwan  about eight years back but is still very relevant and critical of how the mining barons continue to exploit the earth and the indigenous peoples (Adivasis of India) that are displaced are driven to misery.

In the Foreword of the book the well-known activist Arundhati Roy writes

The process of refining bauxite into Alumina and then into Aluminium is one of the most toxic processes in the world. What this means is that it is not just the mountains that hold bauxite that will be destroyed ….

Hundreds of thousands of people will also be displaced in order to provide water and electricity for Aluminium refineries.

She has also written:

The low flat-topped mountains of Orissa contain some of the largest deposits of the best quality bauxite in the world. … But these bauxite mountains have been home to the Dongria Kond tribe long before there was a country called India or a state called Orissa. The hills watched over the Kond. The Kond watched over the hills and worshipped them as living deities. Now these hills have been sold for the bauxite they contain. For the Kond it’s as though God has been sold.

The authors of the book Felix Padel and Das feel that

Perhaps the Konds (a particular tribe of the state of Orissa) are supposed to be grateful that their Niyamgiri hill home to their NIYAM RAJA has been sold to a company like Vedanta (Hindu philosophy that teaches the ultimate nature of knowledge). 

Mountains are the primary foundation of Adivasi religion rooted in an awareness that all life depends on water, sourced from mountains in countless perennial streams. Coal, iron manganese chromite and other minerals to feed power stations and the steel industry are abundant here. Some of the best bauxite (Aluminium ore) is also found here. Adivasis live all around, especially the Kond tribe. Khondalite the basic rock of these mountains is named after them. Facing invasion of Aluminium companies, Adivasis have taken part in some of India’s strongest people’s movements.

The book Out of this Earth has listed the use of Al (chemical symbol of Aluminium) in everyday life:

Electric cables, foil wraps, cartons, drink cans, saucepans, electric kettles, laptops; fruit juice packaged in plastic and Al tetrapaks which are unrecyclable. In addition, cars and aircraft extensively use Aluminium in place of steel. 

Demand for Al keeps increasing; its use has increased from about 1 kg/person/year to about 15-30 kg. Medical practitioners say that there is a link between Alzheimer’s disease and increasing use of Al.

Manufacturers of arms, armaments need large amounts of Al, what results in larger amounts of GHGs (greenhouse gases) that cause air pollution. Mining of Al has another adverse effect on the moisture content of soil. As long as bauxite is not mined and remains in the soil, it helps in sustaining water content in the ground. Removing it from the soil obviously makes the soil dry and harmful for agriculture – growing of crops and vegetables and other plants. The earth’s fertility depends on the alchemy of minerals, water and sunlight. Aluminium plays an important role in transforming inorganic matter into organic.

Padel and Das allege that companies are not discrete but work hand in hand in a cartel to discover newer regions of metals for profit. They say that they are mining for development of peoples including the Adivasis, ignoring the serious adverse impact on our lives as mining increases. Mainstream modern life styles guzzle unsustainable quantities of metals and oil.

Earlier Adivasis lives rested on nurturing the soil and forests and have been living in harmony for centuries.

Adivasis are not laying low and letting their age old cultures just die anymore. They protest peacefully against Odisha’s mining projects and follow Gandhi’s principles of NV. They face huge repression by security forces and company mafias. This often leads to Maoist insurgency to protect their forests and their life styles and against exploitation of huge quantities of metals and fossil fuels that lead to destruction of the Earth.

Recently a town named Tuticorin in the southern state of Tamil Nadu in India was in the news because the local people were protesting against the mining and refining of copper by a company called Sterlite Copper.  The reasons for their protest were similar to what was happening in the case of Bauxite— purchase of farmlands, displacement of people, shortage of water for agriculture and domestic use, pollution due to garbage and similar other factors. The protest led to police firing where 12 people were killed. The High Court subsequently decided to stop the activities of the copper mining group.

It is not that only the mining companies are to blame Since Aluminum is easily available and has diverse uses in our lives as well as in the armaments and other sectors; it will be difficult if not impossible for us to curtail the use of Aluminium and the mining of bauxite to be reduced. But the book has brought out the serious consequences of mining and refining it to Aluminium. Will we listen to their advice?

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Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, an educationist, Gandhian scholar and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University.  ravipbhatia@gmail.com

 

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 4 Jun 2018.

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One Response to “Aluminium— the Villain of Environmental Degradation”

  1. Debu says:

    This is a very informative piece Dr. Bhatia. I didn’t know we are surrounded by aluminium in our lives and it’s adverse effects. But I believe, by acknowledging, half the problem is solved which is why your article is very fitting. It’s unfortunate that very little is being done about it and for some, to fill their pockets they are exploiting the use of aluminium. Alas! if only those big giants understand that none of us are taking anything with us beyond this life.