Mining sustainability: Is it possible?

1 November 2013 | ResolutionPossible

Our Minerals series continues by, rather ambitiously, trying to understand the true meaning of ‘mining sustainability’. A contradiction to some, an unconditional necessity to others – but what does it actually mean?

'Sustainable mining' | Photo: sustainablemining.ca

‘Sustainable mining’ | Photo: sustainablemining.ca

There are numerous environmental and human rights regulations that directly target the mining industry in western countries. British companies have to comply with many Health and Safety Acts and Regulations and more recently a number of environmental regulations, from taxes  to directives.  These regulations are mostly legislated and enforced by the government (UK or European Commission), though there are a few ‘voluntary regulations’.  Naturally there is considerable dispute between the government and the industry over the necessity, fairness and viability of these, which demonstrates two key points; one, the potential rifts that can occur when governments intervene in industry, and two, the complexity of trying to achieve sustainability within an industry that is inherently destructive to the environment and presents challenging conditions to its workforce regardless of location or corporation.

Men working in gold mine in north-eastern Congo | Photo: Lionel Healing/AFP

Men working in gold mine in north-eastern Congo | Photo: Lionel Healing/AFP

The mining legislation mentioned above primarily attempts to achieve one thing: reform the sector into one that is sustainable and accountable. But what about mining operations in central Africa? Despite the extent of regulation applied in western countries and the extent of their presence in central Africa it appears as though rules are often thrown out the window, with many corporations fronting images of non-accountability in their overseas operations.

So what explains the disparity in environmental and human rights regulation across mines in western countries and those in central Africa? Is the missing piece the role of the host government? Or the contradictory nature of the term sustainability itself?

Sustainability in the mining context

There are four dimensions to mining sustainability – environmental, mineral, social (livelihoods and human rights), and industry – but grouping each of these under the umbrella of sustainability is itself unhelpful due to the number of contradictions. For example, can the quality of the surrounding environment and the minerals themselves truly be sustained if the longevity of the industry is sustained, or should we accept that some damage is permanent and irreconcilable?  Similarly, can the industry support so many livelihoods if it behaves responsibly, or would it face cutting its workforce? Many companies, in line with governments, have argued for growth at the expense of the environment.

Sustainability can be viewed through short term and long term lenses, based on the structural transformation that occurs as a country develops, such as subsistence farming turning to modern forms of agriculture. The earlier phases of development that countries in central Africa are experiencing are associated with exploitation of humans and environmental resources, like limited working rights and environmental degradation. Increased wealth could subsequently allow for better conditions that can alleviate human and environmental exploitation, which explains the level of regulation in western countries. However, just because exploitation has been the norm historically, does it make it any more acceptable or palatable today?

Recycling to meet demand for metal | Photo: UNEP

Recycling to meet demand for metal | Photo: UNEP

If we accept that operations in central Africa are not going to be subject to an influx of government regulation in the short term at least, what other pathway is there that would ensure that the environment and human rights are taken seriously in the mining industry? Unwrapping the meaning of sustainability and talking about responsibility instead would clarify some of the challenges facing mining companies. Rather than engaging in a dialogue of ‘sustainable mineral mining’, which as discussed can never be truly sustainable, the conversation could start to bring strategies of recycling minerals and mineral waste into focus.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is currently raising awareness of a potential ten-fold increase in mineral demand as developing countries join the consumer market, and is promoting the novel concept of mineral recycling as a viable solution.

As populations in emerging economies adopt similar technologies and lifestyles to those currently used in OECD countries, global metal needs will be three to nine times larger than all the metals currently used in the world.

–UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

UNEP is stressing a ‘product-centric’ approach, which would see approaches targeting the specific components of a product, devising ways of separating and recovering them, and would use materials found in landfill where valuable metals are continually buried and forgotten about.

ResPoss asks:

Should we be looking less to the mining companies and more towards alternative, independent solutions to alleviate the negative impacts of mining? What would this mean for those relying on an income from the mining industries, especially people out in rural areas in central Africa who have no alternative income?

Is trying to promote sustainability in an inherently unsustainable industry only serving to stagnate progress?

Could reducing the space corporate responsibility takes up in the conversation about mining allow room to think creatively about alternatives – maybe even replacements for the raw minerals we rely on so much?

What about the role of us as consumers? The mining companies exist because we buy the products. Could a demand for recycled products extend a challenge to corporates to view recycling as a viable profit source?

How do you feel about the term sustainability, or any of the topics brought up by this blog? We’d love to hear your opinions. If you’re hungry for more information, take a look at our Minerals pages.

Contributing writer/research: Megan Setchell

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