By Dr. Anthony Hodge

The extraction and processing of minerals to provide services important to human society has gone on for millennia. The resulting metals and minerals play a vast, essential and evolving role in today’s society, a role that will continue far into the future, inevitably expanding to include usages that are not currently understood.

However, in some communities and regions, the environmental and social legacy of mining and metals manufacturing is far from positive. In the early 1990s, concerns linked to this observation led some to question whether in certain circumstances the presence of a mineral endowment was a kind of “resource curse.” We now know that this does not need to be the case. If managed responsibly and effectively, mining and metals manufacturing can and will provide a foundation for achieving the kind of life that different cultures seek.

But what does this “managed responsibly and effectively” really mean? Minerals and metals are a critical part of developing a modern society—providing essential products, wealth, jobs and opportunity. But in some countries, these resources have been misused and squandered, fueling conflict and political unrest. There have been disputes over land use, property rights, environmental damage, transparency of revenues, and a growing debate about the distribution of the spoils. 

At the same time, demands for a “green” and/or “low-carbon economy” are growing. Critically, the millennium development goal of reducing poverty must be met. In reality, for human kind to walk more lightly on the earth and to achieve the poverty reduction that is needed across the world, we need evolution that is marked by innovation, creativity and sensitivity. These needed approaches are not possible without mined metals and minerals.

The International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) was formed in 2001 to catalyze change and enhance the contribution of mining, minerals and metals to sustainable development. Our 21 member companies employ close to 1 million of the 2.5 million people working in the mining and metals sector worldwide. These companies have some 800 operations in 62 countries and produce many of the world’s commodities—38% of the gold, 30% iron ore, 37% platinum and 34% nickel (World Mineral Production 2004-2008, British Geological Survey 2010). These operations place our members on the front line in dealing with the many complex environmental and social issues apparent today.

Mine projects follow a life cycle that starts with exploration and proceeds through construction, operation, closure and post-closure. Something that is little understood is that across this full life cycle, a 20- to 30-year operating mine can involve five to seven generations of “relationship” between industry and host community at a given location. The seven generation perspective of many indigenous peoples has a practical and direct application to mining and metals operations.

In following a path that is responsible and effective, an approach is called for that is built on a full understanding and explicit recognition of all benefits, costs, risks and responsibilities that accrue to all parties that are affected. This is a tough challenge and inevitably entails collaboration to ensure that an equitable distribution of these is achieved.  

Each one of these—benefits, costs, risks and responsibilities—is complex when viewed from the perspectives of different interests. But all must be considered.

For example, from a country-level macroeconomic perspective, the generation of foreign direct investment, foreign exchange and government revenues are all important. At the local level, however, it is the direct benefits of jobs, infrastructure and community services that become critical to consider. It is here that a community’s confidence can be enhanced in achieving the future that it wants for itself.

When developing a mine, companies risk the capital of their investors to create the project and ultimately generate a return. However, communities too face risks, in terms of the effect mining has on their way of life over the long term.  

Importantly, if we are to ensure that the needed balance of benefits,  costs and risks is achieved, all parties—government, company and community—carry certain responsibilities that must be clearly assigned and resourced if we are to ensure that accountabilities are maintained and learnings drawn out that will lead to performance refinement and improvement over the long term.

The industry has made significant progress in the last 20 years, but there is much to do. The long-term nature of mining provides an opportunity to be a partner with communities over multiple generations. If the activities are designed and implemented in a way that reflects the overlap in values of all the parties—government, company and community—then there is a tremendous opportunity for a positive contribution over the long run. 

Importantly, within the mining and metals industry, there is a key role for collaboration as well.  

Mines often occur in clusters and, when they do, collaboration between companies to address service and infrastructure needs of projects and communities alike is critical if the possible efficiencies are to be achieved—not only for the mine projects, but also for the region, and not only for the time of operating mine, but also for long after. Small players in the industry are nimble, agile and fast movers. Large companies have the resources and the technical skills. There is an opportunity to value and benefit from each other’s skills and strengths. Seen in this way, the mining and metals industry is a complex, interdependent web of players.

Aristotle said it is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen. We need to become better at communicating what the real contribution of the mining and metals industry is, how we can redefine this contribution, make it stronger and ensure it is better understood across the world. Open and transparent decision-making will enhance trust and respect. A full and open treatment of strengths and limitations is essential. Listening and hearing others concerns as well as our own is essential. 

If you ask engineers to design something so that the ecosystem after you have finished is just as nimble and just as capable of reproducing, they will accept that challenge and find a solution. 

You may ask: what is the value of mining to your country—can it be a bridge to a better future? Our answer is yes, if the process is done responsibly and effectively. Learning our way forward to being more responsible and effective, strengthening our contribution to sustainable development is the task before ICMM, its members and the industry as a whole.

Dr. Hodge is president of the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), a membership organization for performance and sustainability improvement in the mining and metals industry.