It may sound counter-intuitive to a project engineer, but that’s one suggestion an executive offered at the CEO roundtable on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which was held recently at the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada’s (PDAC) annual convention in Toronto.
He was speaking about dealing with the local community and said if a mining company arrives with a plan, they are already “not listening.” The mining company needs to bring a clean slate. Until it discusses it with them, the mine cannot develop a plan that addresses the needs of the local community.
Hosting a CEO roundtable was a first for the prospecting group and the audience quickly discovered that issues related to CSR are fairly complex. The theme of the discussion was “Linking Strategy to Sustainability” and five CEOs participated: Donald Bubar, Avalon Rare Metals; Steven Letwin, Iamgold; Donald Lindsay, Teck Resources; Andrew Michelmore, Minmetals; and Aaron Regent, Barrick Gold. Tony Hodge, president, International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), moderated the discussion. For about 10 years now, the ICMM has been working to address the core sustainable development challenges faced by the mining industry.
Hodge opened the discussion by asking each of the panelists to discuss the top sustainable development issues and to explain how they would work to overcome them. The mining industry is all too familiar with most of the issues, which include the social license to operate, water, energy, resource nationalization, environmental stewardship, access to land, costs of compliance and reporting, maintaining law and order, and employing indigenous people. Each of the CEOs offered some valuable insight.
Pointing out that exploration crews are the ambassadors for the mining community, Bubar, who represented a small-cap junior, explained the costs related to sustainable development issues can be overwhelming for small companies. Michelmore discussed the importance of the company’s reputation, wisely describing what takes years to build can be easily blown overnight. Letwin believes mining companies need to cultivate an active partnership with the communities and partnerships are symbiotic relationships, not parasitic.
Lindsay talked about the difficulty of defining sustainable development and the need to create a vision, which includes empowering employees. Teck developed a sustainability work group with six areas. A senior vice president was assigned to five of the areas and Lindsay personally handled the sixth, people. “They saw my level of commitment and they were inspired,” Lindsay said.
Regent reminded the audience that the mining industry was already starting from a good spot. Mining is a great catalyst for improving commerce and most mines already successfully coexist with local communities. “How often do you get the chance to work on a project that will improve the lives of thousands of people in areas that oftentimes need it the most,” Regent asked. Considering that some mine plans span 30 years, he believes mining companies should demonstrate a certain level of flexibility. Mining companies should expect regional governments to maintain law and order and to be firm, but fair. When it comes to infringement on human rights, however, Barrick has a zero tolerance policy.
What was really remarkable was the fact that the mining industry was able to host this discussion in a public forum. As little as a few years ago, mining companies would have been hesitant to discuss these issues openly, but they now have a level of confidence inspired by the experience of seeing what works and what does not.