Mining operations, which are often located in sparsely populated and remote areas, can be a source of livelihood and wellbeing for many people. But sustaining the positive impacts and limiting the downside risks remains an ongoing problem for near-mine communities, policymakers and mining companies.
For emerging nations, such as those in Africa, mines attract foreign direct investment, domestic investment, foreign earnings and government revenues. They also provide a means of stimulating local economic activity, while creating employ- ment and contributing to infrastructure and services. But such operations also attract hazards, both social and economic, while the pit-to-port infrastructure often associated with extractive industries is not generally designed to support the nonmining economic activities required to sustain livelihoods beyond mine closure.
Sustainability itself is a concept that is not easily and narrowly defined. However, it can be summed up as the collaborative involvement of multiple stakeholders towards maximising a mining company’s contribution to the wellbeing and benefit of its host society, as well as the environment and the economy.
The International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), which is dedicated to improving sustainable-development performance of the mining, minerals and metals industries, believes the focus cannot be strictly on how mining can be sustained, as all individual mining operations have a finite life span. Instead, attention should be given to how mining, minerals and metals can contribute to sustainable development.
This opinion is a conceptual shift away from a singular analysis, concerned with the mitigation of impacts to a more comprehensive analysis that looks at the wider contribution of the industry and its products.
ICMM president Dr Anthony Hodge tells Mining Weekly that the council’s focus on contribution is a “tougher but fairer approach”, as it demands from mining companies a demonstration of positive impacts and not just the mitigation of negative impacts.
“Such an approach is essential if mining- and metals-related activities are to achieve a net positive contribution to the wellbeing of communities and the ecosystem in the long term – something that is both demanded by society and sought by industry leaders,” he points out.
Society’s expectations of the industry’s performance are already high and continue to increase as communities place pressure on mining companies to improve their standards of social and environmental performance, and become more transparent. Further, communities – which historically have played a marginal role in decision-making – are now participating more in these processes. In some cases, this will inevitably lead to more stringent laws and regulations, says Hodge.
Simultaneously, the nature and fairness of the distribution of benefits from mining and metals operations is being challenged, he adds.
This means that the mining industry needs to focus on gaining the appreciation and trust of a far wider constituency than it currently has. The industry is moving towards becoming a development partner rather than an isolated extractor of resources. As a development partner, collaboration is essential, as the responsibilities required by sustainable practices cannot rest on the shoulders of a single party.
Therefore, for companies to be effective in addressing the complex issues underlying the social and environmental implications of modern mining and metals operations, industry, governments and host communities need to have a shared vision, and all need to play a part in implementing initiatives.
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