Can mining be sustainable?

Via IISD’s SD-list, I just came a cross a very interesting book about a sustainability project by Alcoa. Given the reputation of the mining industry with regards to environmental stewardship, respect for local communities and transparency, the claim to develop a sustainable local development process raises suspicion. From a quick read through the report, it looks like this project does take a new approach with regards to the social integration and transparency:

There is the license issued by the proper authorities, and this is very important. But just as important, or perhaps even more so, is the license to operate that is granted by the local community, because this is where you’ll be living each day. (…) The operation is fundamentally integrated into community and at any time,  if the community does not grant us its license to operate, it can halt production, whether on the railroad, at the port or in the mine itself.

It is great to see that a mining operation has sought to build a very inclusive and long-term partnership including the local community, civil society, government and researchers. The following are a few questions that came to mind reading the report. The process seems to still be ongoing and parts of the model are not yet implemented, but it promises to be a great experiment that might be able to serve as a model for other companies to do business differently.

The model presented in Part 3 reminds me strongly of an approach I helped develop in FAO: Participatory and Negotiated Territorial Development (PNTD).  One of the things we struggled with was to figure out how (and who) to facilitate and coordinate such a process for the local population and other partners to feel fully integrated and to develop a long term partnership between the actors. I’d be curious to find out how this was done in this process? Do the Centre of Sustainability Studies of the Getulio Vargas Foundation and the Brazilian Biodiversity Fund play a role in the facilitation? Was facilitation needed? If yes, is this facilitator only involved in the beginning of the process? When is the time to leave the partnership alone?

The report talks less about the other two dimensions of sustainability (economic viability and environmental stewardship) than it does about social integration and partnership building. While there is a provision to develop indicators for sustainable development, these do not seem to have been developed and agreed upon yet. Also, it would be interesting to see what Alcoa as a company wants to achieve with regards to reducing the impact of their activities on the ecosystem of the region.

In the PNTD discussions we realized that one can easily encounter a situation where the interests of all stakeholders (private investor, local community and government) can converge to use the natural resources of a territory without taking higher level principles of environmental protection into account that would guarantee the overall resilience of the ecosystem, potentially leading to overuse and degradation. By placing so much weight on integration with the local stakeholders, does the project lose sight of these overarching goals? How are these principles structurally embedded in the process? Some legal and regulatory frameworks are mentioned in the report, but how seriously are they taken in the implementation of the process by the local actors?

Equally, even though the overall long term benefits of creating a true partnership are very much highlighted, it does not mention the costs of the overall process. Can mining ever be environmentally sustainable (i.e. can be replaced what we take from the earth) or is it just about minimizing the negative impacts? If the damage can be reduced to a minimum, such as to make mining really worth it from a sustainability standpoint, how scalable are projects like these considering the time and funding needs to get them set up and implemented? Is this replicable across extractive industries and in other places where the local views of the concessionaire may not be as positive? Is there a risk that projects like this remain individual projects used to satisfy the public’s wish for buying from or investing in a socially responsible business? How can tis experience be used to change the organizational culture of the participating companies? What are Alcoa’s lessons from this process and how will that influence other ongoing and planned operations?

It is my hope that the partnership will put out more information for those of us interested to follow and learn from this process.

UPDATE: Some more and updated information an be found on Alcoa’s website.

2 thoughts on “Can mining be sustainable?

  1. Dear Stephan, thanks for your questions. How many questions! As you found, the process is be just beginning, although the Council is fully working, the Fund will open the first call for propositions next month and the Indicators will be delivered soon. Then, we all (members of government, NGOs, CBOs and companies) are learning by doing the process and all this mechanisms.
    I will try to answer part of your questions, but please considering that I have no authority to give the exactly right answer.
    1 – Who is facilitating the process?
    Each part is self-facilitated, but we work to connect them and make synergies to operate coherently. For example, the Council is formed by dozens of organizations, but is directed by a board of 15 members (9 civil, 3 government, 3 companies), with a executive secretary formed by the City Hall, Alcoa and the 100% Juruti Movement (NGO). All the facilitation process is coordinated by this secretary.
    The Centre of Sustainability Studies the Brazilian Biodiversity Fund play a role in the facilitation of the Indicators system and in the Fund, respectively, but they Indicators system is followed by a working group of local organizations, and the Fund has its own Council and executive secretary. The strategy consider that they will be more highly involved in the beginning of the process, helping to strengthening local capacities to operate all the process, and in the near future (2/3 year? Maybe) they will reduce their participation, but probably not to leave the partnership alone.
    2- Principles of environmental protection
    The Council, the Fund and the Indicators s are formally based on principles of environmental conservation. Through the engagement of the plurality of social interest, including environmentalist groups, in the governance system we hope a balancing with development-oriented parts, even considering the fragilities of the legal and regulatory frameworks and enforcement. The Council, for example, besides principles, has a Working Group on Environment monitoring this issue in the territory.
    3 – Is this replicable across extractive industries and in other places where the local views of the concessionaire may not be as positive?
    Probably yes. At least, to begin, the concepts (pluralistic governance, strengthening local capacities and implementation, etc) could drive new investments and strategy, but how to do depending on the territory (environment, society, institutional conditions, etc). Then, the proposed model should be adapted to the context.

  2. Thanks for the quick comments Fabio and for replying to my numerous questions. As I write in the post, it would be great to be able to follow the progress of this project. Is there a way to do that? Some website that is updated frequently or a blog? I live in Brazil, so it can be in Portuguese.

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