In the year 1987 His Eminence Barstsham Rinpochey Lam Naku told us that the Bhutanese people would first earn their living by selling timber, then next would be water and at last stones. Mining in Bhutan has become a polemic subject although almost every item in the house comes from mining. For its size of the country, Bhutan is blessed with many minerals.
Mining is the oldest profession in the world. As per the radio carbon dating 43,000 years back, the Paleothic humans mined hematite minerals to produce iron to make weapons for hunting animals. But mining by the use of gunpowder for blasting of rocks began in the year 1627 in Slovakia. Mineral is a natural wealth for every country and its citizens. So, if there is market for the mineral it is better to mine for commercial purposes, earn revenue for the country and generate employment for the citizens. For instance in the late sixties, copper had a lucrative market in the world but after it was substituted by aluminum the world copper value dropped. Thereafter many underground mines had to be abandoned and some right after the gestation period incurring losses of billions of dollars. The fact that scientists are in a constant innovation mode and in the quest for cheaper substitute means the mineral, which is considered lucrative at present, may be reduced in its demand later on.
In many countries, mining is considered a priority for export and contribution to the GDP. For instance in under developing countries such as Papa New Guinea, Zambia, Ghana, Kazakistan and Chile, the contribution of mining to GDP are 30%, 19%, 20.4%, 13.10% and 13.9% respectively. Out of the total exports, the contribution by the minerals are, 78.5% in Democratic Republic of Congo, 66.0% in Chile, 65.2% in Guinea and 63.0% in Peru. It proves beyond doubt that mining plays a great role in the economy of the country.
Mining is carried out in two broad methods; opencast and underground. If the opencast mining is not viable or not permitted due to environmental reasons, underground mining is adopted. But in both cases the project must be technically feasible and economically viable. In Bhutan only opencast mining is practiced because of the nature of the topography and mineral deposits. As per convention opencast mining is done in benches, starting from the top of terrain down to the bottom depending on the extent of deposit. The waste known as overburden is handled by the waste dump yard where the check damp holds them on the hill slopes. Ultimately when the deposit is exhausted the final mined out benches are known as berms on which trees must be planted as per the rules. So the topography ultimately changes but it can be reclaimed in a scientific manner. If the mine owner does not carry out the reclamation works, environmental restoration bond will take care of it. The fragile hill slopes thereafter will become stable because of berms and check dams. Many abandoned mines are converted into lakes and tourist resorts and military training centers which otherwise would be costly to develop.
In Bhutan, the Geological Survey of India (GSI), Bhutan Unit, commenced the geological investigation of mineral deposits in the year 1962. Since then minerals such as gypsum, limestone, marble, coal, graphite, dolomite, iron ore, slate, quartzite, copper, tungsten, granite, lead zinc, soapstone etc were explored and mapped. The Geological Survey of Bhutan was established in 1981 and later it became Department of Geology and Mines (DGM). Initially core drilling to prove the mineral deposits was done by GSI and then later by DGM, Cement Corporation of India Limited, and Associated Cement Company Limited. Based on the report of proved or measured deposit Final Mine feasibility Study, Environmental Management Plan and Environmental Impact Assessments reports are prepared in order to obtain a mining concession.
In fact, Mining in Bhutan started when Dupthop Thangthong Gyelpo visited Bhutan, smelted iron ore and produced iron chains, which even today are rust free. But the modern mining with lease system began in the year 1979 and today there are 81 mines as per figures in The Bhutanese news paper. The revenue from mining in the year 2012 is Nu.377.00 million excluding captive mines, which is quite a substantial contribution despite a lot of challenges faced by mining activities in Bhutan.
On the contrary the miners have lot of positive and proactive role to play if mining practices thrive in Bhutan. The mine plan and environmental management plan must be transferred from paper to the ground to the full satisfaction of the regulatory agencies. Otherwise, mining will remain as a matter of controversy. The common complaints faced by mining are: 1. Air pollution. 2. Water pollution. 3. Noise pollution. 4. Damage of landscape aesthetics. 5. Impact on flora and fauna. 6. Too close to the infrastructures
Air pollution: Sprinkling water on the road can mitigate the dust. If possible the road can be coated with bitumen to make it dust free. Dust in the mines where machineries ply must be suppressed by wat
Water pollution: Th is no water pollution fr mining except that rainwat mixes with over burden s which can be diverted check dams. The waste can be tapped separately an sold from the mines or used in blasting as an explosive fuel.
Noise pollution: All machines must have a good silencer system to reduce the sound. The noise from blasting can be reduced by controlled blasting or by the use of hydraulic rock breakers. Ground vibration due to blasting can be reduced by delay or sequential timer blasting or optimizing explosive charges per blast hole. Fuse ignition blasting practiced at present in most of the mines is also a technique to reduce noise and ground vibration but the blast ignition must be in sequence.
Damage of landscape: If the mines are re-oriented with respect to the vantage points the visual impact will be mitigated. In fact there are more scars due to landslides in southern Bhutan then due to mining, which generate more visual impacts.
Impact on flora and fauna: One can see thick forest grown in Kalapani areas in Gomtu where the mines were abandoned. No one will ever notice that there were mining activities in that area. The animals, birds and insects are back as the plants have rejuvenated.
Too near to infrastructures: Elsewhere in the world there are hotels and tourist resorts near the mines, which are well regulated. Yet, mining and tourism go in a parallel way. It may not be practically possible to have all the mining activities far away from the infrastructures in today’s world, where the population is increasing exponentially and space for human being is decreasing. If possible a horizontal distance of 500m may be maintained.
Bhutan has billions of tonnes of quartzite and dolomite deposits in southern Bhutan. The Indian railways are looking for stone ballast to use on the tracks, works departments are in need of aggregates and others are looking for boulders. They require millions of tonnes of stone every year. Bangladesh has a huge demand of stones. The stones washed away by the rivers up to the borders must be collected and sold, because our neighbours are harvesting the downstream. Letting the boulder and sand wash across the border is a great loss for the country.
Minerals in Bhutan must be mined in a scientific manner so that rupee and unemployment problems can be solved. If minerals are not mined today, tomorrow it may be a matter of remorse for us. It is quite unfortunate that we are buying the same sand and aggregates from India by paying exorbitant price. Concretes made from aggregate, sand and cement can produce joinery products for buildings and reduce the use of timbers. If miners cooperate, regulatory authorities monitor and politicians and public support, then mining will thrive in Bhutan without any rumpus. Mining in Bhutan, quo vadis.
What matters if the hill is mined and produces the flat plain lands that we lack!
By Dorji Norbu
Chief Executive Officer,