Will Eco-warriors prevail against Eco-terrorists miners?

They dedicated their military careers to saving their countries.  Now, they’re dedicating their lives to saving the planet.  Meet The Operatives.

Sounds exciting. Commandos for social justice, swooping in on those eco-terrorists illegally mining and destroying protected Costa Rican rain-forests. I haven’t been able to watch the programme because of geographic digital restrictions silliness, but the trailers are available and I base my discussion on those. The show actually deals with a range of environmental crimes, but I’m most interested in the episodes dealing with illegal miners. In this particular video they present the miners as desperate criminals, guns primed to blow the heroic rangers to bits.

I suppose this kind of simplistic cops and robbers narrative makes engaging reality TV, but it ignores the nuances of the miner’s motivations. The artisanal miners (and no-one is trying to put a “Brooklyn-esque spin” on what they do — they are artisanal because they don’t use machinery) are not archetypal villains plotting their next devious scheme to pollute an unspoiled paradise. They don’t have a list of endangered animals they seek to bash, chop, shoot, and poison into extinction.

So why are the miners there? Watching the trailers, The Operatives doesn’t seem to explore that. From my experience with artisanal miners, the root cause of the environmental impacts they generate is less to do with the mining, and more to do with a lack of other sources of income.

Mining without any modern machinery doesn’t look like much fun. You have to do hard manual labour. You need to muck about with nasty chemicals. And you do that without the nice protective gloves, overalls, and dust filter equipment you need. The Health and Safety department puts up safety awareness signs that read “Hooray for Hazards!” Then you get screwed over by the dubious characters you have to sell your gold to. They certainly aren’t giving you market value for your goods while they wave their guns about in your face.

What drives people to engage in this small-scale illegal mining? Is there coercion from a powerful cartels? Are people just desperate for money? Perhaps the full episode of The Operatives answers these questions and I’m being unfair, but more likely it just shows the excitement of arresting people in a jungle. People who dwell at the bottom of the illegal gold supply chain. Then the Operatives can pat themselves on the back and say they are doing their bit to save the planet.

I intend to explore issues around illegal small-scale mining in future posts. What do you think drives this sort of mining, and what ways can we tackle it?

Image credit: Anna Wloch from TakePart “Behind the Scenes Photos”