Mining Industry Looks to Retool for Sustainable Development
30 January There are thousands of abandoned mines leaching pollutants
into rivers and streams, and there are thousands of indigenous people who have
been displaced by mines. It is not a flattering image for an industry, but the
mining industry is hoping to change all that.
Mining continues to provide essential and valuable materials, from the aluminum
in microchips to gold and diamonds. Although many commodity prices are now low,
it is expected that demand for mined products will continue to grow.
"The CEOs in the industry recognized that what the mining industry was
doing wasn't working," according to David Baker, Vice President of
Environment, Health and Safety for the Newmont Mining Corporation. "They
realized that they needed to do something different."
So for the last two and a half years, the mining industry has been developing
its Global Mining Initiative, a process to work towards a transition to
sustainable development. The process will come to a head at an industry-wide
meeting in Toronto this 12-15 May, the Global Mining Initiative Conference. The
meeting, which will feature discussions between industry officials and
non-governmental organizations and community groups, will result in a consensus
that will direct how the industry moves forward. It will also serve as the
industry's contribution to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in
Johannesburg this August.
The Toronto meeting, and the Initiative itself, will revolve around the
recommendations of the Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development project, an
independent assessment organized by the United Kingdom-based NGO, the
International Institute for Environment and Development. While the industry is
paying for the assessment, it says it has absolutely no control over what is in
To help set up a mechanism that will carry the Initiative forward, the industry
has set up the International Council on Mining and Metals, based in London.
Heading the Council is Jay Hair, a long-term environmentalist who formerly
headed the National Wildlife Federation and the IUCN, the World Conservation
"Some people have asked me, 'Have you lost your mind?'" Hair said at
a side event taking place during the second Preparatory Committee meeting for
the Johannesburg Summit. But he said this was one of the most exciting projects
he has worked on.
"This is not about greenwash and it's not about putting on a positive
picture," he said. He noted that the Global Mining Initiative had been
boycotted by several NGOs, and some people had suggested the industry had
simply tried to hijack the term sustainable development. "That is an
absolutely ludicrous argument," he stated.
"It is my absolute belief that the only way sustainable development will
have any traction is if we make the business case. If we don't fundamentally do
it from a business point of view, it's not going to happen."
Hair said the industry was well aware that it has a difficult legacy that
continues to be a burden. But he said that the industry has many new leaders
willing to take a new direction and that "good things are happening."
Although he did not know what would emerge from the Toronto meeting, one issue
that will be discussed concerns certification. There are questions that must be
resolved, he said, since it is difficult to establish a chain of custody for
mined commodities, unlike for paper or wood. "Once the copper is combined
in the smelter," he explained, "you can't tell where it came
from." It will also be necessary for the industry to decide whether the
leaders in sustainable practices want to be recognized as distinct from the
laggards, he said.
But Nur Hidayati of Friends of the Earth Indonesia, which has boycotted the
Global Mining Initiative, said that in three years, the industry has managed to
blame the small-scale operators for problems. "Have you cleaned up your
operations?" she asked the major companies participating in the
Peter Eggleston of Rio Tinto said, "This is about a change process. There
are big multinational corporations, there are small-scale operations, and there
are 10-15 million artisanal miners. The process is going to be patchy and
spasmodic. But we are about change. There are some in the industry who are
going to embrace it more forecfully than others. It isn't going to be a tidy
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24 August 2006