A social and eco obligation
There is no getting away from the fact that mining and the extraction of mineral resources from the earth and underneath the world’s oceans, is in no way sustainable.
However, there are areas in which the industry can be improved and work to a more sustainable model. Let’s look at environmental impact assessment (EIA) and social assessment.
The mining industry has a crucial role to play in the responsible development of the world’s natural resources; however at the same time mining can have a substantial and direct social, environmental and economic impact on the surrounding communities.
As demand for the world’s mineral resources continues to grow, exploration and mining activities are expanding into areas of critical habitat.
Degradation of these areas can result in the loss of threatened or endangered species, as well as ecosystems vital to the provision of services such as food production and freshwater availability. There is clearly an urgent requirement for the mining industry to become more sustainable.
International mining environment and social expert Robert Coyle comments that, “the exponential rise in the price of minerals – gold, copper, nickel etc has led to mining operations being undertaken in even more remote and sensitive locations and undertaken by start up companies with little experience of addressing complex EHS and social issues”.
An according to retired vice president for sustainable development at the Royal Dutch/ Shell Group Tom Delfgauuw, “If companies do not pay attention to external signals, and do not practice sustainable mining, there can be a number of negative consequences”.
The sustainability of the mining industry, particularly the local environmental impact of mines, has been a hot topic for many years and mining companies, after many years of neglect, have worked hard to address these issues.
However, failure by mining companies to manage local environmental and community relations effectively can cause serious disruption, ranging from temporary shutdowns to project delays loss of licenses and severe reputational damage; ultimately resulting in an unsustainable mining industry. This, along with the growing awareness of sustainability in mining, has lead to an increased demand for EIA and SIA professionals working within the mining industry.
Not only do EIA licences need to be granted for the mining project to proceed; demonstrating the move to more sustainable mining, but also the EIA processes provide a valuable opportunity for the local community to participate in decisions about mines, and their involvement at the planning stages are also beneficial in the prevention of issues further down the line.
By evaluating each stage of the mining process in terms of its environmental and social impact; mining companies are more informed to be able to move towards more sustainable and socially responsible mining practice. Indeed, stakeholder engagement and the resulting ‘social licence to operate’, has become one of the single biggest challenges in modern day mining.
Each phase of mining has an environmental and social impact on the local community.
A good ESIA professional will ensure that the potential health risks of mining; such as the hazardous chemicals in waste and water, do not affect the local environment or community and consequently move the mining company in the direction of a less polluting and more sustainable strategy.
SIA professionals may have to manage the resettlement of communities during a period in which they feel particularly vulnerable.
Maintaining good relationships with local authorities and enabling local communities to play a role in the decision-making process can ensure that the views of the local community are taken onboard and not infringed.
Managing the communities demands on land use, water and waste infrastructures, are also important aspects’ involved in the SIA management role and again are crucial to steer mining projects towards a more socially responsible agenda.
The social impact of mining is complex, although mining can create jobs, roads and infrastructure in undeveloped communities, it can cause considerable disruption. Assessing the treatment of communities is therefore an important part of making the mining industry more sustainable.
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