Cuba Looks to Expand its Open Pit Nickel Mines

By Isbel Diaz Torres

Cuba’s nickel production in tons.

HAVANA TIMES — Cuba’s nickel industry is looking to expand its strip mines in search of this precious metal. According to Juan Ruiz Quintana, the managing director of Mining at the Ministry of Mines and Energy, “geological studies to discover new areas rich in this and other metals” are underway.

The official is currently just took part in an international forum on the nickel and cobalt industry that China organizes every year, which was held through Thursday in the city of Guangzhou, in the southern Guangdong province.

According to Prensa Latina, Ruiz Quintana presented an analysis of this sector’s current state in Cuba at this event, including the current conditions of Cuba’s nickel industry and prospects for investment.

Besides Moa’s nickel mine, Cuba currently has a project in the works in San Felipe, Camaguey where there are over 300 million tons of nickel, according to the managing director of Mining, and another smaller mine in Cajalbana, Pinar del Rio with approximately 50 million tons.

On the contrary, experts within the sector told official media, in July, that at the current rate of extraction, national reserves would only last for about 18 to 20 years, and so the Ernesto Che Guevara nickel plant’s (Moa, Holguin) immediate plans “aren’t about growth, but about looking for more efficient metal extraction methods so as to reduce production costs.”

Days later, at the Mariel Special Development Zone, Holland’s vice-minister of Foreign Trade, Guido Landheer, mentioned “some setbacks in the Cuban economy due to low nickel prices” on the global market.

From 52,000 USD per metric ton recorded in 2007, prices fell to an average of less than 10,000 USD in 2016, with maybe a small increase this year.

Cuban nickel production continues to decline and it will try to produce 54,500 tons this year (2017), which represents a quarter less of what it used to produce at its peak.

According to IPS, this decline is the result of the Rene Ramos Latour plant being shut down in 2012 and damages caused at the Ernesto Che Guevara plant by hurricanes, which is also limited because of its out-dated equipment.

Nevertheless, at the end of August 2017, Cuba had 468 mining concessions in force: 4 permits, 32 for geological studies, 273 for extraction, 132 for extraction and processing and 27 for processing.

The impact of mining

Strip mining is the most widespread extraction method used in Cuba, and one of the ones with the greatest environmental impact. A mine’s operating life is between 10 and 100 years, however, climate change and related social and community changes endure for a much longer period of time.

The negative influence on the environment can be generally seen in the total annihilation of plants, animals, hills and landscape, as well as secondary effects mainly relating to river, air and soil pollution.

According to Moa’s 2015 Annual Statistical Report, 99.7% of soil in this eastern municipality are classified as “very unproductive” for farming.

Respiratory and diarrhetic diseases have been the most common in the open pit mining areas.

The majority of these effects are impossible to avoid, especially in a Cuban context, where the environmental issue isn’t included in mining projects, the system used doesn’t have variables for restoration and workers, engineers and managers lack environmental training.

For example, almost all of the state’s investment expenditure for protecting the environment in Moa goes to the Ministry of Mines and Energy, who is precisely the main culprit of polluting the environment.

According to the National Office of Statistics, while the local government only received a little over 11,000 pesos (450 USD) for investing in environmental protection measures between 2010 and 2015, the Ministry of Mines and Energy received over 56 million pesos (around 2.3 million USD) from the state budget to do the same.

The reality is that mining in towns in Cuba’s eastern provinces has led to what is called “lunar landscapes”, that is to say, the near absolute annihilation almost of life in the areas where there are mines; thereby affecting human communities nearby, whose inhabitants suffer from acute lung disease due to the constant red dust that covers these settlements.

In the case of Moa, acute lung disease takes the lead according to government statistics between 2010 and 2015, with 57% of those reported published by the National Office of Statistics, in accordance with Moa’s Annual Statistical Report.


Sources consulted:

Isbel Diaz

Isbel Diaz Torres: Pinar del Rio and Havana are my cities. I was born in one on March 1, 1976, and I’ve always lived in the other. I am a biologist and poet, though at times I’ve also been a musician, translator, teacher, computer geek, designer, photographer and editor. I’m very non-conformist and a defender of differences – perhaps due to always having been an ever-repressed “model child.” Nothing enthralls me more than the unknown, nature and art; these serve as my sources of mystery and development. A surprising activism has been born in me over the recent period. Though I’m not very sure how to channel it, I feel that it’s a worthy and legitimate energy. Let’s hope I have the discernment to manage it.