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Canada’s efforts to promote ethical mining amount to no more than tap-dancing on the tip of an enormous iceberg of problems.
Recent months have seen heated debate about CIDA’s venture into funding partnerships between Canadian mining companies and international development NGOs. Earlier in March, CIDA Minister Julian Fantino told a gathering of international resource companies, government officials and NGOs that Canada’s venture into such partnerships is part of a larger vision for the mining sector. “A responsibly managed extractive sector,” he said , “can drive sustainable economic growth, lead to more gainful employment, and provide more resources for families and their communities.”
Fantino’s words make it sound as though an ethically responsible approach to mining is already well understood, lacking only a bit of willpower, cooperation and funding to be put into effect. With the right management, he implies, mining can deliver ‘wins’ all around—for mining companies, Canadian and foreign governments, the environment and local communities.
High on that list of sound management techniques are apparently efforts such as the CIDA-funded projects in the area of corporate social responsibility, which see mining companies aiming to improve communities in the locales of their mining sites. Coming at the issue from another angle, Canada also has a strong track record in advocating for voluntary measures such as transparency initiatives (which seek to make public the financial transactions between mining companies and governments) and compacts to stem the flow of minerals bound up with armed conflicts.
Doubtless these initiatives do some good. As appealing as they are, however, they amount to tap-dancing on the tip of an enormous iceberg of problems besetting the global mining industry. Such is the argument made in a disturbing recent article , “The Missing Ethics of Mining,” written by Shefa Siegel, a Canadian journalist and scholar with degrees in environmental policy and mining engineering.
For many decades, he observes, renewable resources such as agriculture, fishing and forestry have been scrutinized with respect to their impacts on development and the environment. But the ecological and human sustainability of mining, by contrast, has received almost no comprehensive ethical study. The survey he presents of what an ethics of mining should deal with reveals a massive array of appalling current practices.
As Siegel shows, today’s global mining industry involves the twin problems of scarcity and monopolization. Scarcity exists because the world’s easily accessible supplies of high-grade ore are depleted, and all that’s left to meet ravenous global demand is increasingly low-grade ore. Because such ore is tremendously expensive to extract, it must be processed on an enormous scale to produce a worthwhile return on a mining company’s investment.
In turn, the enormous scale of mining for low-grade ore means that vast areas must be wholly monopolized by mining activities. As Siegel writes,
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