Politics of Poverty

Mining’s chance to lead

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Waste rock from a nearby mine is encroaching on the relocated village of Teberebie, Ghana. Communities relocated to make way for gold mines in Ghana struggle with loss of agricultural land, unemployment, and environmental damage. Photo: Neil Brander/Oxfam America.

The global mining industry’s products are all around us – in our phones, buildings, cars and homes. The industry is a major part of the global economy, and demand for metals and minerals will continue to grow.

This post originally appeared in Mining Journal.

All of this demand has a huge impact on the environment and local communities where mining happens. Many countries rich in natural resources are often plagued by inequality, poverty and instability. Too often, the profits from mining are exported, and small towns and villages are left polluted – their economies destroyed. It’s simply impossible to do large-scale industrial mining without any negative impacts on land or water. While some can be controlled, they can’t be eliminated entirely due to the sheer volume of earth that is disturbed by modern mining practices.

We’ve seen the tragic consequences that happen when mining companies refuse to respect the rights of communities and the responsibility to minimise environmental impacts. From the Conga mining project in northern Peru where community concerns about the impacts of mining on water have led to a cycle of conflict, to Zimbabwe’s diamond and platinum wealth that has failed to benefit most locals and has become a significant source of conflict in the country, there is no shortage of examples. And in El Salvador and Guatemala, mining companies are proceeding despite local opposition. Forcing mining on these communities has led to protests, violence, and human rights violations. Salvadorans and Guatemalans activists have been the target of threats, unjust imprisonments, violence, and even murder.

However, under the right conditions natural resources can actually play a role in reducing poverty. The amount of revenue they can generate in some countries dwarfs foreign aid. Increasingly, a country’s ability to overcome poverty will depend on its ability to responsibly manage its natural resources. For this to happen, the mining industry needs to become a better partner to impacted communities and respect their human rights.

The mining industry has, on some levels, begun to do so. A number of companies have come forward to embrace principles such as revenue transparency and free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), which help ensure communities are involved in decisions about mining, their rights are respected and they are given adequate information about projects and impacts. Companies have also begun to look at how they use resources – water, most importantly – that communities need for their survival.

International mining company Anglo American, together with Northwestern University’s Kellogg Innovation Network (KIN), is trying to push the industry to become socially, environmentally and economically sustainable. They’ve developed a framework that outlines a vision for the industry – moving mining companies from extractors to development partners. Importantly, it recognises that the social and environmental impacts of mining need to be paramount. In some cases, the ecosystem may be too fragile, the land sacred, or the community opposed – and in those cases, mining is not appropriate. The framework could go farther in some areas, like fully recognising that unsustainable practices, like the destruction of natural bodies of water or mining that will require the permanent treatment of water, are no longer acceptable.

The mining industry is far from perfect, but some companies are taking steps to evaluate their impact and make changes in how they operate. Now they need to implement the KIN framework and ensure that they become a standard for the industry.

Major companies such as Anglo American need to ensure that this framework becomes an industry standard. Too many companies, including smaller, junior companies, have not adequately addressed social and environmental concerns in their policies and practices. Especially when it comes to human rights, the industry will be defined by its lowest performers.

Finally, these positive steps from the mining industry – especially around transparency – highlight the oil and gas industry’s gaps. The mining industry has been an active partner on transparency laws, while the oil and gas industry in the US has spent money on lawsuits and lobbying to block these laws and keep their payments to governments as murky as possible. Hopefully the oil and gas industry will take notice and follow as the mining industry becomes more transparent. It is the right thing to do and good business.

Companies that fail to implement responsible policies will be at a competitive disadvantage, but companies that show leadership will benefit all stakeholders.

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