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Nanotechnology may help solve conflicts over mining

Innovative water monitoring and purification introduced by neutral parties could reconcile trade-off ‘water or gold’

Ineke Malsch

Mining activities in several Latin American countries have been surrounded by prolonged and at times violent conflicts between local populations and mining companies for decades. Competition for scarce water resources and water contamination are key issues. Quick technological fixes are not foreseen, but the introduction of innovative mining water and effluent purification solutions by a neutral third party in close consultation with all stakeholders may well change the dynamics in these conflicts. A potential scenario for such an intervention in the medium to long term is sketched in this article, in an effort to stimulate responsible research and innovation in nanotechnology.

While overall use of freshwater by mining and other industrial sectors was only 10% in Latin America in 2011, regional differences are great [1]. Several sources indicate that water pollution from mining activities poses problems in Northern Chile, Peru, Colombia and other countries (e.g. Perez and Cirelli [2]). In Colombia, for example, 590 tons of mercury are used per year, half of which are released into the environment, mostly from gold mining (35%), oil and combustion (24%). Worldwide, Colombia has the highest mercury contamination [3].

The World Economic Forum reports a flaring up of local conflicts over mining in 2012, after a relatively quiet period. This includes stakeholder protests against a proposed extension of the Yanacocha  gold  mine in Peru, increasing opposition from local communities through legal action in Chile, and provincial governors demanding larger shares of mines in Argentina [4]. The Huffington Post analysed the conflicts over the Yanacocha mine, criticising in particular the role of investments by the World Bank and International Finance Corporation [5]. This gives an idea of the intricate web of contacts between mining industry and national and international governmental bodies.

To complicate matters even further, artisanal miners are active on remote mining sites in several countries, often using simple tools and toxic chemicals to extract gold and other minerals in order to make a living, bringing them in conflict with both local farmers and mining corporations.

Several local and international stake-holders have proposed solutions to these conflicts (e.g. Arana [6], WEF [7], Pax Christi International [8]). Main building blocks in these solutions include awareness raising, knowledge sharing and capacity building to achieve a common understanding of the issues, broad stakeholder dialogue facilitated by a neutral third party, monitoring of compliance and law enforcement and mediation in disputes. Apparently, there is a gap between the local stakeholders on the one hand and the mining companies on the other. Both sides appear to be talking more about than with each other.

This brief introduction should give a flavour of the magnitude and complexity of the issues at stake, often simplified in the trade-off: “Water or Gold.”

Promising technological developments

Even though most envisaged solutions are social, some recent technological developments may contribute to break-throughs in the existing stalemates, albeit in the medium to long term.

In Colombia, the national nanotech-nology network RedNano Colombia is targeting its research on monitoring and remediation of mercury contamination. A main contributor to this problem is the (artisanal) mining sector. The NANOSENS project developing diagnostics is in the starting phase.  This aims to detect mercury and arsenic by a network of interconnected sensors: a “lab in a mobile phone” [3] currently, the group has developed a prototype of an 8 kg mobile Arsenic detector that fits in a suitcase [9].

In the long term, nanotechnology offers innovative opportunities for desalination and water remediation. Nanomaterials including Graphene (single layers of graphite) offer opportunities for improved and more efficient membranes for desalination. Nanotechnology offers solutions for remediation of effluents containing toxic liquid waste of mining. Most research relating to mine water issues remains at laboratory scale, such as magnetic nanoparticles for recovery of e.g. gold from water solutions (listed in [10-12]).

Non-applied applicable technologies

A major bottleneck in R&D in Latin America is the wide gap between universities and companies. Most university professors don’t have contacts in industry. Very few companies invest in R&D in Latin America. Furthermore, government policies fostering innovation are at best fledgling. For comparison: in Europe, the European Commission, governments, industry and research organisations are increasingly joining forces in public-private partnerships to overcome the valley of death between academic research and industrial applications.

For nanotechnology, this has resulted in the Nanofutures roadmaps, based on consultations with hundreds of representatives from research and industry throughout Europe. In the most recent implementation roadmap, the partners have committed to invest dozens of millions of Euros in four pilot lines, provided that the European Commission invests the other required 70%. The pilot lines are needed to produce nanomaterials and devices for development into nanoenabled products in several value chains that bring together nanomaterials producers, intermediary product manufacturers and end users. Foreseen environmental applications include water supply, sewerage, waste management and remediation [13-14].

While overall, Latin America lags behind Europe in overcoming this valley of death, some small scale good practices can be identified. A relevant example is the public-private collaboration between the national copper company CODELCO and BHP Billiton established in 2009 in Chile. This partnership aims to support 250 world-class local suppliers to develop innovative solutions for local mining-related issues including shortages of water, by 2020. It includes universities and technology centres  [15].

By 2009, of the 4000 local Chilean supplier companies to the mining industry, 67% had a low capacity for absorbing innovation, 30% was able to adapt available technologies and 3% was capable of developing the next generation of innovations. No companies were able to engage in frontier R&D [16]. By end of 2012, 36 suppliers had enrolled in the programme, with 5000 employees and US$ 400 million in sales, generating cost reduction of US$121 for BHP Billiton (Shared value initiative website). While the company identified 140 challenges, the World Class Suppliers programme targeted five priorities for investment of US$70 million, related to Health, Safety, Environment and Community (HSEC) and efficiency improvement.

Some participating companies were positive about the support offered and the easy access to information about the company’s needs and the context where the innovation should be applied, thereby reducing the innovation risks.

The suppliers had to conform to the same changing circumstances the mining companies are operating in, including improvements in labour regulations, subcontracting and community relations over the last five years [17].

To conclude, Latin American innovators interested in developing nanotechnology solutions for mining water remediation have much to gain from cooperation with more established European public-private networks. Such cooperation could also be interesting for European counterparts, given the fact that the water technology market in Europe is already saturated, while there are few existing solutions for mining water pollution in Latin America [10-11]. To make sure that the technologies target societal needs in Latin America, they should be developed in a responsible way.

Trends in Responsible Research and Innovation

In Europe, nanotechnology was the first area for which a strategy for responsible research was developed and implemented from an early stage of research onwards1.  In 2004,  the European Commission Communication To-wards a European Strategy for Nanotechnology” COM(2004) 338 proposed an integrated and responsible approach for Europe. This was worked out in the European Commission Action Plan “Nanosciences and nanotechnologies: an action plan for Europe 2005-2009”, COM(2005) 243. Part of this plan was the European Commission Recommendation on a Code of Conduct for Responsible Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies Research, that was adopted in 2008. This recommendation is addressed to EC Member States governments, who were asked to stimulate and monitor adoption of the code of conduct by researchers and other stakeholders under their jurisdiction.

The recommendation is considered a form of “soft law”: while it has not the same legal status as formal law, it may play a role in court cases and thereby influence jurisdiction on responsible research and innovation in the field of nanotechnology. Another interpretation is that the code should stimulate reflection on ethical, legal and societal aspects among researchers and other stakeholders in nanotechnology rather than enforce compliance.

The code consists of seven principles: meaning, sustainability, precaution, inclusiveness, excellence, innovation and accountability. Subsequently, Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) has become a horizontal priority in all research funded by the European Union under its Horizon 2020 programme. While the discussion about definitions of the concept is still ongoing, the EU narrows it down to six keys: public engagement, open access, gender, ethics, governance (or institutional reform) and science education. Each of these keys labels a priority in research funding and a challenge to consortia applying for funding2.

In Latin America, Bioethics appears to be more established than Ethics of Science and Technology, and codes of conduct tend to be limited to the members of some professional associations. In Mexico, Venezuela, Chile and Honduras, Civil Engineers have a professional Code of Ethics. In Costa Rica, the Federal Association of Engineers and Architects has such a code, as well as the Dominican Republic’s Association of Engineers, Architects and Surveyors. In Argentina, there are three professional codes governing physical, mathematical and engineering science professionals, scientist in general and medical doctors, respectively3.

Discussion on responsible research and innovation is not very common in Latin America. So far only the Argentinean National Committee on Ethics in Science and Technology CECTE has organized an international conference on adapting the European code of conduct on nanotechnology research in 2008. However, this has not yet resulted in an Argentinean code of conduct for nanotechnology. Instead, it has published more general “Propositions for an socially responsible science and technology” [18]. This includes seven main principles as well as guidance for individual researchers and research organisations. The seven main principles are: respect for human rights, consolidation of democratic values and practices, contribution to peace and justice with special attention to the most vulnerable sectors, care for the environment, biodiversity and the biosphere as a whole, open access to knowledge and information, equal access to the benefits of knowledge, freedom of research and the development of the capacity for critical analysis and innovating creativity.

In parallel to the technological development, ongoing dialogue on the concept of responsible research and innovation and their embedding in national contexts in Latin America and Europe is called for.

Organising the intervention

Short term (2020)

As argued above, some promising initiatives that may foster nanotechnology solutions for conflicts over mining are already underway. Within five years, results may be expected from them. The Chilean investment in 250 innovative high tech suppliers to copper mining companies by 2020 officially covers water purification, so it may be worthwhile for local spin-offs or SMEs with skills in nanotechnology for water purification to enrol in this scheme.

European or other international companies offering water purification of Arsenic or other heavy metals could by then enter the Latin American market. Such companies might allow local stakeholders online access to their water quality monitoring system.

Furthermore, the Latin American research community in cooperation with European and African partners may have established a stakeholder platform overseeing new innovative projects(www.baleware.org).

It is important to engage other stakeholders than just nanoscientists, water technology producers and the local population. Maintenance and powering needs of the systems and the local capacity for these must also be taken into account.

More general initiatives stimulating citizen science engagement in water quality monitoring could be expanded from the current parameters such as temperature, pH and turbidity to heavy metals. Examples include the World Water Monitoring Challenge that has been ongoing since 20074 with global participation and the League of the Water led by Engineers without Borders Colombia5.

Medium term (2020-2030)

Within fifteen years, the UN Sustainable Development Goals set the following relevant targets for water, that may a.o. inspire the development of nano-based water solutions:

6.3 improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater, and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally.” Some nanotechnology applications for potabilisation and waste water purification that are currently in the beaker stage may be scaled up to pilot and industrial scale by then. The establishment of public-private partnerships engaging universities, applied research centres, industry and civil society in common Research and Development and Innovation programmes in open dialogue with local stakeholders and government representatives would enable such development.

6.a expand international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries in water and sanitation related activities and programmes, including water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency, wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse technologies.” In response to this goal, capacity for nanoinnovative water technologies development in Latin America may be set up as a three-stage process. In the first stage, Latin American research organisations, industry and SMEs as well as government agencies responsible for innovation could join existing European Technology Partnerships including Nanofutures6  and the Water Supply and Sanitation Platform (WSSTP)7  and international networks such as the International Water Association (IWA)8, the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC)9  and the emerging BALEWARE (Bridging Africa, Latin America and Europe on Water and Renewable Energies Applications) platform10.

In the second stage, Latin American tripartite networks may be established with support from their European and international counterparts. In the third stage, the Latin American networks should be able to define their own priorities and innovation strategies as fully equal partners to their European and international counterparts.

“6.b support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management.” Contributing to this, the proposed Colombian NanoSENS lab-on-a-smartphone network allowing local stakeholders to participate in water quality monitoring may be established by 2030.

Long term (2030-2050)

In the long term, the World Economic Forum Mining & Metals Industry Partnership considers seven drivers of change, including a growing concern for the environment such as the protection and sustainable management of water. The partnership expects limited access to resources including water and higher costs derived from the introduction of “true cost internalization” in the late 2020s. This should lead to cooperation between companies, local governments and communities, developing mutually beneficial adaptation strategies and operating standards. More stringent requirements are expected for water reuse within operations and for post-use treatment.


Several minerals mining projects in Latin America are surrounded by social conflicts. Although quick technological fixes are not expected, in the medium to long term nanotechnology enabled water monitoring and purification techniques could contribute to a solution reconciling the trade-off ‘water or gold’. Liaising with neutral third parties present on the ground in the mining regions is a prerequisite for the success of such projects.


The work leading to these results received funding from the European Community’s 7th Framework programme under grant agreement number 608740 and the EC’s Horizon 2020 programme under grant agreement number 685931.


[1] Frost & Sullivan. Perspective of the Water and Wastewater Treatment Market in the Global Food and Beverage Industry. M7DE-15, 2012.

[2]  Perez A. & Cirelli A.  Arsenic and Water Quality Challenges in South America in Schneier-Madanes, G and Courel, M. (eds.), Water and Sustainability in Arid Regions, (Springer Science+Business Media B.V) 275-293, 2010.

[3]  Gonzalez, E. et al. El problema de contaminación por mercuro. Nanotecnología: retos y posibilidades para medición y remediación. (RedNanoColombia, Bogotá) 2015.  http://rednanocolombia.org/

[4] WEF Responsible Mineral Development Initiative 2013, World Economic Forum, Geneva, http://www.weforum.org/reports/responsible-mineral-development-initiative-2013

[5] Huffington Post. How the World Bank is Financing Environmental Destruction, in Huffington Post, 17 April 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/17/how-worldbank-finances-environmental-destruction-peru_n_7056372.html

[6] Arana Zegarra, M. A.: Resolución de Conflictos Medioambientales en la Microcuenca del Río Porcón, Cajamarca 1993-2002, Tesis para optar el grado de maestria en sociologia, Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru, Lima Septiembre 2002 [Solution of environmental conflicts in the basin of the river Porcon, Cajamarca, 1993-2002] http://cajamarca.de/download/marco-tesis.pdf

[7] WEF Scoping Paper: Mining and Metals in a Sustainable World, World Economic Forum Mining & Metals Industry Partnership in collaboration with Accenture 2014 http://reports.weforum.org/mining-and-metals-in-a-sustainable-world/

[8] Pax Christi International. Comunidades en Resistencia no violenta; ante conflictos generados pro proyectos extractivos. Systematización de experiencias en Colombia, Guatemala y Perú. Pax Christi International, Brussels, 2015. www.paxchristi.net

[9] Salinas, S., Mosquera, N., Yate, L., Coy, E., Yamhure, G., & González, E. Sensors & Transducers  183 (12), 97-102 (2014).

[10] Arnold, M., Lima Toivanen, M., Lindorfer, M., & Malsch, I.  A Roadmap for EU-LAC collaboration on nanotechnologies for meeting water sustainability challenges. The Book of Abstracts for The 2015 Annual Conference of the EU-SPRI Forum: Innovation policies for economic and social transitions: Developing strategies for knowledge, practices and organizations. Pp 280-283. VTT Oy, June 2015.

[11] Malsch, I., Lindorfer, M., & Lima Toivanen, M. Final roadmap and recommendations for nano-health, nano-water & nano-energy deployment for societal challenges in Latin American Countries. Deliverable D2.4, NMP-DeLA project (2015).

[12] Malsch, I.  Nanoethics  9 (2),  137-150 (2015).

[13] Nanofutures. Integrated Research and Industrial Roadmap for European Nanotechnology, Nanofutures association, 2012, www.nanofutures.eu

[14] Nanofutures. Implementation Roadmap on value chains and related pilot lines, Nanofutures ETIP, 2015, www.nanofutures.eu

[15] BHP Billiton Ltd “Sustainability Report 2011 Case Studies”, 2011; Chilean Economic Development Agency “Mining Cluster in Chile”; ICMM (2007) Chile – the Challenge of Mineral Wealth; Company sources; BCG

[16] Urzúa, O. (2013) World-class suppliers to the global mining industry. Corporative presentation (online: http://www.worldbank.org/content/dam/Worldbank/Event/EI%20%20Local%20Content/World%20class%20suppliers%20to%20global%20mining%20industry%20-%20Vienna%20Worldbank%20Sep-oct%202013%20V%20final%20Osvaldo%20Urzua%20Day%201%20Session%203.pptx)

[17] Bravo-Ortega, C., Muñoz, L. Knowledge intensive mining services in Chile; Challenges and opportunities for future development. IADB, Institutions for Development Sector, Competitiveness and Innovation Division. Discussion paper no. IDB-DP-418, October 2015, https://publications.iadb.org/handle/11319/7275

[18] CECTE, Suggestions for Socially Responsible Science and Technology, 29-05-2013 (in Spanish) http://www.cecte.gov.ar/proposiciones-para-una-ciencia-y-una-tecnologia-socialmente-responsables/


1. This development was undertaken in close cooperation and dialogue with the USA and OECD countries, but such broader international comparison falls outside the scope of this article. See e.g. Malsch, 2015 for a recent analysis.


3. Source: Global Ethics Observatory: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/social-and-human-sciences/themes/global-ethics-observatory/access-geobs/

4. http://www.monitorwater.org/

5. www.laligadelagua.com

6. www.nanofutures.eu

7. http://wsstp.eu/


9. http://www.setac.org/

10. www.baleware.org


Ineke Malsch Ph.D. 

Malsch TechnoValuation, Vondellaan 90, 3521 GH Utrecht, The Netherlands, www.malsch.demon.nl, www.ethicschool.nl/english E-mail: postbus@malsch.demon.nl

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