Sustainable Mining Today Engages Local Communities

The mining industry’s sustainability efforts in recent years have taken on an expanded scope, going beyond simply reducing environmental damage. Many companies are finding that successful implementation of sustainable mining requires engagement with local communities, whose lives are inextricably bound to the local environment.

Warren Te Brugge, CEO of Manzimvula, a consulting firm that assists mining companies worldwide with long-term community engagement, tells me that environmental sustainability has to go hand in hand with community sustainability.

Historically, mining companies weren’t concerned much with the external effects of their operations, but mines typically have enormous impact on their surrounding areas — both environmental and social. But Te Brugge insists that companies are increasingly seeing the value of a sustainability-based approach.

They might start out on the sustainability path because of regulatory pressure, because “from a cultural perspective, they’ve never had to do it before,” Te Brugge says. “They were the big boys that generated the revenue.” But as environmental problems from mining have come to the fore in recent decades, Te Brugge says “the decision maker has to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to do it because I’m told I have to. But is there also some value, and can I translate that into a statement for my shareholder?’”

Garden project sponsored by AngloAmerican in South Africa.

A key benefit they can point to, Te Brugge points out, is social stability. Mining operations, with their extensive environmental and social impacts, can destabilize communities. With community engagement, though, companies can reduce civil unrest that shuts down mines and costs money. “Addressing the issue after the fact is always significantly more expensive,” Te Brugge says. Hence the value of a proactive stance to community involvement.

“It’s part of a risk management process,” he says. “You’re about to make a massive investment, but how do you manage the risk inherent with what you’re about to do?”

Community engagement figures prominently in the Sustainable Development Framework adopted by the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM). Among its guiding principles are upholding human rights, respecting cultures and contributing to “the social, economic and institutional development” of the communities where companies operate.

A recent paper from ICMM, “MMSD+10: Reflecting on a decade,” reviewed the state of sustainability in the mining industry. In that paper, principal author Abbi Buxton wrote:

At the community level, social movements are emerging to challenge mineral investments and are being successful in some cases. A more connected and aware populace appears to be changing the face of cooperation between government, community and company.

Buxton reported that addressing social concerns is definitely “more prevalent and sophisticated than it was 10 years ago.” The most forward-thinking companies are playing “an increasing role in community development … particularly where government capacity has been lacking.”

How Companies Are Engaging Locally

London-based AngloAmerican, a $30 billion/yr mining company, has implemented a community-engagement program called Social Way. It is a “framework of requirements for social performance management during project development, operation and closure.” To carry out the Social Way on the ground, AngloAmerican has published the Socio-Economic Assessment Toolbox (SEAT), which helps walk managers through the processes of community engagement and sustainable development.

When a mining company begins operations in an area, the local population often increases, as people move in hoping to profit from the operation’s presence. “When an extractor goes in,” Te Brugge explains, “it really is a limited engagement. But the community that forms isn’t.” A new or greatly expanded community can form quickly without the infrastructure in place to support the needs of the population.

This is a key focus for mining operations’ sustainability efforts. “When we work with companies,” Te Brugge tells me, “we help them create an environment, to urbanize and socialize that community so [it] is sustainable and not dependent on the company.”

AngloAmerican’s Sishen iron ore mine in South Africa.

At AngloAmerican’s Sishen iron ore mine in the North Cape province of South Africa, managers employed the SEAT process to engage the local community to understand the effects of the facility and what needs the company could address. As a result, the mine operates a wellness clinic that is open to the community in addition to its own employees and contractors. To provide better access to health-care services, AngloAmerican has deployed nine mobile health units in a large urban district to serve the impoverished population.

In another move, AngloAmerican arranged to resettle members of an older community, built in the 1950s. The existing homes were already near the end of their useful lives, and with the expansion of the Sishen mine and its dust, vibration and noise had become a problem. A collaborative effort between the company and community determined that a move was the best solution. (See “Water management in mining: a selection of case studies,” ICMM, May 2012.)

As I mentioned in a previous article, the number-one environmental issue in mining worldwide is water. Water management has a strong impact on local communities, whose people depend on local water supplies for agriculture, drinking water and daily essential uses, not to mention the businesses and other industries in the area that have their own water needs.

Areva, a multibillion-dollar French mining and energy corporation, has committed to reducing its water usage globally by 35 percent from 2008 levels. When it came time to plan its new Trekkopje uranium mine in Namibia, it designed its desalination plant — uranium can’t be processed with seawater or saline groundwater — with a capacity not only to supply the mine but also the local community and industries. Local public engagement helped formulate the desalination solution, as well as solutions to other environmental problems that were raised by local groups.


Areva’s water desalination plant at its uranium mine in Namibia.


Minera Esperanza is a copper mine in northern Chile run in partnership between Antofagasta Minerals and Marubeni Corp. Initial planning of the mine identified a crucial problem: It was to be located in the Atacama Desert, one of the world’s driest places. Yet, the mine was expected to consume 20 million cubic meters of water per year. Rather than try to divert scarce water from human use, the companies designed the plant to run on untreated seawater.

Minera Esperanza was also developed with an eye toward enhancing the job skills of the local population. As of May, 1,500 local people have received training supported by the companies, most of whom had no mining experience and some of whom had no work experience at all. As of May, the mine already employed 370 local people. Its workforce was 12 percent female, in a country whose mining industry only averages 6 percent female employment.

Cases like these show that engaging in a collaborative process benefits all parties and assures sustainability in an environmental sense, a community sense and a business sense.




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