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Who Will Use A Global Mineral Assessment?

An Industry Perspective
G. E. McKelvey

An assessment of the global mineral endowment, what is known and could remain undiscovered, would be a valuable tool for mineral users, mineral explorers, land planners, international governments and environmental protectors alike. The mineral industry does not use mineral assessments directly to discover new ore deposits, but an assessment can be a tool that, in concert with other measures of Earth’s resources, might provide a logic-based forum for long-term land use planning, coordinating environmental issues and assisting in the legal issues. As a result, the assessment could help us provide sustainable resource needs of the planet’s inhabitants. Perhaps such a forum will find the common ground necessary to ensure that the needs of all are equally addressed with logic, planning and facts.
 
A global mineral assessment, however, can only be useful if the planners, governments, protectors and all minerals users clearly understand the potentially serious limitations inherent in a mineral assessment.
 
The first danger we face is that we do not have the data necessary to complete a global mineral assessment. Regardless of the explosion of earth science data and sophistication of assessment techniques, the basic data is incomplete. Large areas are poorly understood, some remain unstudied because of political or social issues. I have yet to see a map or assessment that clearly acknowledges regions and domains where the data are insufficient to assess minerals potential. The recognition that real information is lacking may well be the driver for acquiring meaningful data.
 
Statistical assessments might provide some measure of the likelihood that we will find new deposits. But some land-use planners, government lawmakers and other users may believe the specific numbers rather than understand the concept of mineral discovery potential and the inherent limitations of discovery. Cold statistics from incomplete data used by people not personally familiar with a region result in an assessment, but I prefer relying on the gut feelings of innovative people who have spent time in the field thinking and mapping and questioning paradigms.
 
The second danger we face is that assessments are often expressed in numbers of deposits or monetary units and then compared with other competing uses on the basis of preserved value — a tradeoff approach. While we can use and misuse mineral assessment reports from various sources, we should not just accept the cold numbers. Instead, we should understand the limitations of the data we use and, if that information is not enough, get better data. It is the data, not the assessment, that is most valuable to the mineral discovery industry.
 
A third perilous flaw in any assessment process are the existing deposit models. By definition, ore deposit models, genetic models and the resulting search models are based on what is known. The deposit is first known, and then the model is developed. Even when a description is detailed in every way, when we have a perfect understanding of how a deposit formed, and when the unique geologic domain is globally well documented, a mineral assessment can fall short.
 
The fewer types we know, the fewer deposits an assessment can estimate. Any user of a mineral assessment should consider not only the numbers, but also new deposit types, new products or commodities not yet considered important, new technology that could render poor-quality deposits economically feasible, and a possible lack of relevant data for identifying a permissive domain. Mineral assessment is not a static process.
 
A paradigm worth breaking is the misconception that modern, well-managed mineral production and the environment are mutually exclusive concepts. The producing community is taking a proactive role to change this mindset. A history of poor stewardship is not a valid indicator of the future stewardship of Earth. Every year offers more examples of visionary, well-managed enterprises for extracting minerals in ways that protect the environment. Mining companies protect large areas of the Amazon, for example, from clear cutting, farming and burning. Times have changed and the industry is eager to partner sustainable environment practices with sustainable resource development.
 
The assessment process, like the discovery process, is dynamic. Today’s estimates will change tomorrow. But a global mineral assessment is long overdue. It may not lead directly to discoveries, but it can be a useful forum to coordinate what are now fragmented, conflicting efforts to manage sustainable growth and environmental stewardship. I urge that we are cautious and that we remember that the process is not perfect and needs to change as we learn more. But this inherent imperfection is no reason not to start.

McKelvey, an exploration geologist with Phelps Dodge, has worked 37 years in the exploration and discovery business. E-mail: gempress@qwest.net



 

An Environmental Perspective
Penny Flick Langhammer

The loss of biological diversity is one of the most serious environmental problems facing our planet. Species, genetic diversity within species and biological communities are disappearing at a rate faster than at any time in history. Environmental degradation, extinction, and the subsequent loss of biological diversity, or biodiversity, has wide-ranging implications for humans. The fact that we will leave our children with a biologically impoverished planet may be the lesser of our concerns. Environmental degradation has been linked to poverty, malnutrition and disease. While the root of this degradation often lies in the consumptive behavior of developed countries, the consequences are felt most strongly in developing countries, which may not have the technology or capacity to cope with the problems.
 
Effective conservation depends on identifying potential threats to biodiversity before they have irreversible impacts. An early warning system that helps conservationists identify threats, and react quickly to address them, requires accurate, up-to-date information from many different sources. Scientific data from the fields of biology, taxonomy, behavioral ecology, geology, economics and sociology are critically important to devising conservation strategies that work. Identifying areas of potential resource development is an important component of this early warning system.
 
Past mineral exploration and development has resulted in direct and indirect damage to biodiversity, and current exploration and development pose increasing threats in the hotspots and major tropical wilderness areas. There is some concern that a global mineral assessment might highlight, and consequently target, biologically sensitive areas for mineral exploration. The reality is that mining companies probably have this information already, whereas most conservation organizations do not. It is important to know which areas are suitable for mineral development so that, when faced with such development, conservation groups can propose areas of lesser biological value or devise strategies to mitigate this development. Information resources from the geosciences, such as the global mineral assessment initiated by the U.S. Geological Survey, can level the playing field.
 
As conservation efforts increasingly aim to protect entire ecosystems, biologists need earth science information to understand the habitat requirements of organisms, including abiotic components such as water, soil, substrate and nutrient cycles. The distribution of biodiversity is defined largely by the physical structure of Earth: elevation, soils, river meander, even continental drift over time.
 
Biologists need geological and topographical data to model species distributions when expensive field survey data are not available. Information on the distribution of species, especially those that are threatened and endangered, is important for designing systems of protected areas and for monitoring. In turn, biologists can help geoscientists to define a research agenda that would enhance conservation efforts. They can also work together to understand the effects of mineral exploration and development on biodiversity and human cultures. Science underpins effective conservation, and boiologists and physical scientists need to collaborate.

Langhammer manages the State of the Hotspots program at the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science at Conservation International in Washington, D.C. E-mail: p.langhammer@conservation.org
 
 


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