Sustainable mining – do we have consensus on what it really means?

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Sustainability – a long-term goal. Sustainable development – the pathways and processes needed to achieve that goal. 

Sustainable development, as per UNESCO, refers to “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  The Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development ​ expanded this description in 2002 by adding that there is “a collective responsibility to advance and strengthen the interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars of sustainable development at local, national, regional and global levels”. Further to this, paragraph 46 in this document provides a framework by which ‘mining, minerals and metals can contribute’ to sustainable development models moving forward.

It all sounds simple in theory, but the reality is that nearly 2 decades later, and despite paragraph 46, there still appears to be a big gap between what governments and companies on the one hand, and local and indigenous stakeholders on the other, understand sustainable development to mean.

That’s probably because, although basic human needs are the same the world over, the ways in which these needs are met can differ considerably, even between communities in the same area. Furthermore, how communities in developed parts of the world obtain their immediate needs is going to be different to how those in remote, undeveloped areas in 3rd world countries do. This creates vastly differing perceptions around ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’.

How communities in developed parts of the world obtain their needs is going to be different to how those in remote, undeveloped areas. This creates vastly differing perceptions around ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’

To be truly sustainable, the processes (sustainable development) by which a project achieves sustainability must adequately reflect the needs of all its stakeholders ie local and indigenous communities as well as companies and governments. In most cases, that means no 2 projects are going to be identical in terms of their development because there really is a no ‘one size fits all’ formula when it comes to truly sustainable development. That’s where developing ‘consensus’ around mining sustainability comes in.

According To Current Literature…

report​ tabled recently reviewed some 50+ of the most relevant academic articles produced over the last 2 decades around the topic of “consensus building on sustainable mining”.  What the authors found is that literature on the topic contains many viewpoints that, whilst valid, clearly demonstrate how much lack of consensus there is about ‘sustainable mining’ and critically, how it can be achieved most effectively. They include:

  • The idea that an adequate reduction of adverse effects ‘based on economic, social and environmental impact assessments and indicators’ can be used to offset any unsustainable development that may occur,
  • A belief that so long as successful recovery, recycling of existing metallic minerals, and the adaptation and use of acceptable ‘more green’ substitutes keeps pace with, or exceeds, the ‘rate of exploitation’, it can be called ‘sustainable mining’,
  • Presumptions that if the right regulatory regimes and policies are in position, sustainable development will automatically follow.

There also appear to have been limited attempts thus far to establish valid frameworks that ensure all stakeholders are on the same page with respect to the sustainability of mining operations that affect them. Realistically, it’s only when this happens, when all affected stakeholders are involved in the development process from the beginning, that a project has the best chance of being truly ‘sustainable’ in all the ways that matter.

What influences community perceptions of sustainable development?

The experiences of the past generally determine the expectations of the future. Specifically, the ways in which mining has both positively and negatively affected the quality of life in local communities and amongst indigenous peoples will strongly influence their judgements about sustainable mining – what it is, how it works, and the activities associated with it.

Given that these are the groups most directly and personally affected by mining activities, it’s therefore logical to focus on developing agreement around sustainable mining practices and policies here. In other words, the industry must decide first how best to work with local and indigenous peoples to ensure their current needs are adequately met ‘without compromising the ability of (their) future generations to meet their own needs’ before moving on to other phases of a project.

The themes of sustainability

The authors of the abovementioned report state that obtaining consensus about sustainable development, including mineral resource development, involves 3 key areas: Social, Environmental, and Governance (ESG).

Any ‘plan’ that ignores consensus around any one of these aspects, or ignores any of the stakeholders, won’t be truly sustainable. We’ve already found this out the hard way! History is littered with (disastrous) instances where authorities and miners have made assumptions about (or worse – ignored!) the ‘needs’ of community and indigenous stakeholders, and how best to meet those needs.

They have also, inadvertently or otherwise, liased with professed stakeholder ‘representatives’ who were ultimately more interested in looking after their own vested interests than in representing their communities! All these experiences now mean the industry has to work harder both to overcome its reputation and build consensus around the sustainability of its activities.

Social sustainability and mining

sustainability is an open values-based system, where the prevailing needs of a society determine its ends and how to meet these ends“. 

Social sustainability is essentially about ensuring society has access to the resources required to meet both its current AND its future needs. ‘Needs’ includes the basic necessities of life – food, water, shelter, sanitation, energy and jobs. The concept of social sustainability also involves many other significant aspects of a community like culture, religion, customs, power, and authority. The only way to accurately determine ‘how’ to ensure these aspects are adequately factored into development decisions is by involving those affected in all the relevant conversations.

Technology, including satellite imaging and remote sensing, is now an integral part of the resource industry, making it much easier to see land use patterns and the environmental impact of mines

To this end, there needs to be a thorough process by which to integrate all the diverse views and opinions about sustainable mining, including those of local and indigenous communities, vulnerable groups within those communities, and other local stakeholders. This will help identify a very broad set of past, present and future needs of those directly affected by mining activities.

These needs can then be systematically examined and modified as required to develop the foundations for building consensus around what constitutes sustainable mining and development for any particular project. This will in turn make it possible to implement suitably sustainable programs and development pathways that fully meet the expectations of those directly affected, particularly the more vulnerable groups within these communities (often women and children).

Environmental sustainability and mining

Environmental sustainability can be described as the preservation of natural capital, protecting the factors and practices that contribute to environmental quality such as preservation of ecosystem services on a long-term basis”

A common viewpoint that arises when talking about mining and environmentally sustainable development is that they are mutually exclusive activities. This perception is in large part due to what some claim is “the sector’s inability to adhere to protocols that protect the environment. Examples of such protocols include “The Equator Principles“, and the “Environmental Health and Safety Guidelines” of the World Bank,”[] [Parameswaran, K. Sustainability Considerations in Innovative Process Development. In Innovative Process Development in Metallurgical Industry: Concept to Commission; Lakshmanan, V.I., Roy, R., Ramachandran, V.,Eds.; Springer International Publishing: Cham, Switzerland, 2016]

Another significant aspect of mining and environmental sustainability is that historically local host communities, particularly those in developing nations, have suffered from what can be called ‘environmental literacy’ or more specifically ‘illiteracy’. Whilst it doesn’t automatically follow that this means affected stakeholders don’t know or understand anything about sustainable mining, it can still significantly impact consensus about the potential environmental impacts of mining activities that affect them.

In fact, many communities in some of the poorest and least developed regions of the world have been ill-equipped in this regard. Admittedly the situation hasn’t been helped by the historic absence of cold, hard scientific evidence through which to educate communities about sustainable mining either.

However, this is changing. Technology, including satellite imaging and remote sensing, is now an integral part of the resource industry, making it much easier to see land use patterns and the environmental impact of mines, both past and present. This data can be used to help educate local stakeholders about the environmental consequences of mining within their area and allow them to make better informed decisions about these activities. It’s all part of what we now refer to as a ‘social licence to operate’.

Solution is to integrate socio-economic and traditional knowledge ​into all the stages of a project’s life – from planning through the exploration and feasibility phases and then during the lifetime of the mine

There are still issues with this type of technology though. Notably, correlating the tangible data returned by satellite imaging and remote sensing systems with intangible socio-economic and local environmental knowledge remains problematic.

The solution is to integrate socio-economic and traditional knowledge ​into all the stages of a project’s life – from planning through the exploration and feasibility phases and then during the lifetime of the mine. Such a model, where research, technology, sustainability science, ​and traditional knowledge all come together, would help develop truly environmentally sustainable mining operations that build on cohesive consensus between all stakeholders.

Governance and sustainable mining

In an ideal world, all governments would have economic sustainability policies in place. Under such policies, a generous portion of the proceeds from all mining operations would always go back into the host communities to improve living standards there. The money would be used to improve local production, create jobs, build infrastructure, generate various other long-term benefits, and provide for a range of social and environmental benefits. That’s what happens in a strong sustainable mining industry!

These types of initiatives also comply with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, notably Responsible consumption and production (#12), Conserve life below water (#14) and Protection of life on land (#15).
Unfortunately, many of the host communities, notably in developing countries that depend on mining to keep the country’s coffers open for business, that could benefit the most from mining operations are typically the ones that see the least real benefits. They’re also often the ones that suffer the most from the negative consequences of mining activities, particularly the most vulnerable members of these communities. Mining however can be used as a platform for launching sustainable industries like green tourism, agro forestry, fishing etc, thus broadening the economic diversity of local economies.

Some authors propose a 4-pillar approach to sustainable mining:

  • Minimal disruption of the land
  • Reducing the input of materials that substantially affect the surroundings ie land
  • Reducing output
  • Responsibly reclaiming and rehabilitating land that has been mined

However it’s approached, one thing is clear. Existing models and frameworks used to evaluate sustainability are not adequate, and are becoming increasingly inadequate the longer they’re used. It’s time to go back to the drawing board, and develop solutions that are about building consensus amongst all stakeholders.

Amongst other things, this means providing local and indigenous communities with more opportunities to contribute their unique knowledge and experiences to the equation. It means developing frameworks that incorporate local social, economic and environmental indicators as points of reference that can be authenticated by governments, businesses and the local communities themselves.

When all parties to a project are on the same page ie when true consensus around what is and isn’t sustainable for that particular project has been achieved, and all points subsequently adhered to, then and only then can mining development be considered truly sustainable.

(This article first appeared in Mining International Ltd.)