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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 the report.

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 Union.

"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 Initiative.

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 process."

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24 August 2006