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Mineral wars

Update:2012-08-24 10:18:53  Source:AntimonyNet  Author:Miranda Return

The death of 34 striking miners in South Africa, gunned down by police last Thursday in the course of an industrial dispute, has thrown the country\'s mining sector into turmoil. Even as South Africa mourns its dead, production at Lonmin\'s Marikana platinum mine remains halted, amid predictions that similar unrest will spread to other parts of the sector.

For those involved, this affair is a tragedy. Yet it is also an important reminder of the nature of the global economy C and, in particular, that the products we purchase have not sprung from thin air, but often depend on minerals dug out of the ground in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, by people in conditions of extreme hardship. When things go wrong, either for managerial or political reasons, the results rebound around the global supply chain: thanks to the Lonmin debacle, the price of platinum, whether in wedding rings or catalytic converters, has ticked sharply upwards.

One of the marvels of capitalism is the way in which the market works its way around blockages in the system, and finds alternatives when supplies of particular resources run short. At the same time, there are a host of minerals C in increasingly short supply C that are more important than platinum, or located in more awkward places. There has already been much discomfort over China\'s near-monopoly of vital rare earths, or the proceeds from "conflict minerals" (not least tantalum from Congolese coltan, used in advanced capacitors) being used to fund bloody African conflicts. Substances such as antimony, iridium, neodymium or dysprosium may not be the most familiar names on the periodic table, but they could be vital to our future. Whatever the outcome of the dispute in Marikana, there will be many more such shocks to come.




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