Responsible Mining: Fact or Myth?

Responsible Mining: Fact or Myth?

By Dr. Edgardo, Alarcón León

The mining industry since its inception, approximately 3000 years ago, has left socio-environmental problems difficult to solve and is creating problems that affect the stability and sustainability of that industry. Otherwise, responsible and sustained mining activity will remain a myth.

The mining industry since its inception, approximately 3,000 years ago, has left socio-environmental problems that in many cases are difficult to solve. Clark and Cook Clark (2005) indicate that in contrast to the industrial processes of current mining, mining activity in times prior to the industrial revolution was only to recover high-grade ore and for this they usually needed reduced excavation and processing processes . As such, due to the meager level of disturbance and potentially the reduced amount of mining waste, the environmental and social effects were localized, with less significance and quantity.

With the passage of time, especially with the evolution of the industrial revolution, a quantitative leap was observed in the extraction process of mineral resources and with it the impact on the natural environment (through, for example, the loss of plant and animal species and air, surface and groundwater pollution) or local communities (through, for example, cultural modifications and / or social relationships due to the presence of personnel with different ways of life) became more noticeable (Alarcón León, 2009, Miranda et al. 2005). In response to these consequences, some governments, supranational organizations, scientific research centers, and non-governmental organizations have developed hundreds of studies to define whether the mining industry is sustainable and whether its role within society is positive. One of these conceptions, Chapter 4 of Agenda 21, calls on governments to "promote efficient production by optimizing the use of natural resources and reducing waste." Although the premise implies a global vision on the use of energy and natural resources, for the mining industry this means greater responsibility with the environment, maximizing the preservation of habitat, interaction and inclusion with / of the communities influenced by the activity, the use and adaptation of innovative technology, the minimization of mining waste and the reuse and recycling of materials.

Unfortunately, instead of voluntary action as part of an entire socio-environmental planning program, the use and application of these premises are only carried out in compliance with guidelines developed by regulatory entities. Thus, for example, the World Bank (2005) indicates that the Peruvian government, in response to the incremental extraction process of mineral resources and the socio-environmental conflicts, adopted the Code of the Environment and Natural Resources in 1990. Subsequent to that , during the 90's, to mitigate in a more efficient way the growing socio-environmental conflicts, the Peruvian Government;

a) developed an institutional system to harmonize institutional responsibilities and environmental legislation,

b) developed sectoral environmental standards and

c) defined standards for water, air and soil management.

The National Environmental Commission (CONAM), in its capacity as national environmental authority and governing body of the National Environmental Management System (SNGA), was in charge of facilitating and linking the development and implementation of these and other specific legislation.

According to some opinions (for example, World Bank 2007, De la Puente 2005), the range of legislation, although not conclusive, underpins basic concepts for the mining industry to develop its activities in a sustained manner, considering a good and aligned environmental management. with a sound social-cultural practice. However, due to factors that mainly border on immediate economies and purely extractive practices, mining socio-environmental responsibility is not a determining factor within the procedures that regulate the extractive process of mineral resources. Thus, recently, due to serious socio-environmental conflicts, Beatriz Merino, the current head of the Ombudsman's Office, indicated “… that about three years ago there was no environmental institutionality… and that almost half of the conflicts are socio-environmental and they derive from the fear of contamination caused by extractive industries and especially mining ”(La Republica, Sunday August 16, 2009).

The observations obviously indicate that the Peruvian State and the mining industry, as an institution itself, are not taking seriously and fairly the role of the mining industry in the integral development of the country. This is worrisome because;

1) If the government does not invite compliance with the established laws, in the long-term, the State will acquire an increased responsibility and the solutions to socio-environmental problems will be more complex and expensive, and

2) Mining, by not developing its activities in accordance with existing regulations, is creating problems of a socio-environmental nature that in the long-term will only affect the stability and sustainability of the industry as a whole and its role within society will be increasingly impaired.

The aforementioned problems are not necessarily exclusive to the so-called developing countries, such as Peru. Many industrialized countries, for example Australia, Canada, the United States, New Zealand, also have serious problems due to the historical legacy of mining activity. In recent years, to regulate and remedy these environmental liabilities, the governments of these countries have implemented modern legislation that encompasses sustainability concepts with the priority use of modern technologies and advanced environmental and social management systems. For example, as part of its sustained development and essential regulations for the good management of its environment, New Zealand has evolved its laws through a Resource Management Act (Resource Management Act, 1991). The results are positive and obvious. The legislation has generated greater environmental and social responsibility on the part of mining and non-mining extractive activities.

Unfortunately, despite all this implementation of policies that consolidate concepts of sustainable and responsible development, there is still no system of international standards that regulate mining activity or example cases where a mining site has been satisfactorily rehabilitated and closed. However, because mining has become the mainstay of many national economies, as in the case of Peru, governments have recently introduced a series of laws that try to modernize the economic activity of mineral resources.

Lately, the Peruvian government through the Ministry of the Environment has introduced the National Environmental Policy (MINAM 2009). Within the Mining and Energy chapter, there are a series of specifications that aim to promote, promote and improve good practices in the management and development of the mining industry. However, without stinging the spirit of these policies, the new regime does not specify about the establishment of firm links - under the law - between social actors (1) and industry. The promotion of social responsibility policies does not necessarily imply that the industry has a legal responsibility not to continue with its activities if there is no “mutual agreement” with the social actors. That is, the protection of the interests of the communities living in or around the influenced site falls on the degree of responsibility that individual companies and those responsible for the projects are willing to adopt. Nor do the norms determine - as a law - the application of proven concepts and the use and transfer of modern technologies during the exploration, extraction, rehabilitation and closure of mining sites. Another point that is overlooked is to generate a greater concept to promote the transformation of mineral products and thus promote greater eco-efficiency in the use of minerals and their derivatives. These two points are key because in the long-term they determine the degree of competitiveness of the company and of the social actors with interests in the integral development of the industry.

The general evaluation of these indicators shows the complexity of the political, social, economic and environmental relations that exist around the mining activity. At the same time, the scaffolding of legislation in place shows that the industry needs to radically change its short-to-long-term perspectives. In modern times and globalization, the industry and those responsible for the projects are in the need to develop and apply holistic concepts, based on social dialogue, the use of methodologies and cutting-edge technologies for a sustained development of the activity. This also implies that governments have the obligation to constantly reevaluate their laws to adapt them to modern times. The industry, in the same way, through its administrative channels first need to recognize that;

a) According to its socio-environmental responsibility, the industry is prepared to face potential problems that may occur during the entire time that the activity lasts, and

(b) the entire activity development plan, including the mine closure plan, are linked to the expectations set by the social actors and the State (Alarcón León 2009, Clark and Cook Clark 2005).

All this gear focuses that;

i) respect and support for the sustainable development of the communities located in the areas of influence of its operations, which are the central axis of the mining activity,

ii) labor relations and the provision of basic services including health and education policies are strategic for the development of the industry,

iii) the development of the industry contributes to the economic, technical-scientific, social and cultural growth of social actors with an interest in mining and

iv) Industry, in order to increase its degree of competitiveness and reduce its environmental impact, needs to develop and introduce new technologies and modern mining practices.

In sum, the application of the many concepts exposed in benefit of the extraction of resources will make the mining activity responsible and sustained. Otherwise, responsible and sustained mining activity will remain a myth.

Dr. Edgardo, Alarcón León - Geoenvironmental / Geotechnical Scientist - ENVIROAndes


Alarcón León (2009) Mining and climate changes. Geonoticias, April 2009, Geological Society of Peru. 5pp

World Bank (2007) Republic of Peru Environmental Sustainability: A Key to Poverty Reduction in Peru. Country Environmental Analysis. Report No. 40190-PE. Washington D.C. 322 pp

World Bank (2005) Integrating Environmental Considerations in Policy Formulation: Lessons from policy-Based SEA Experience, Report no. 32783, World Bank, Washington D.C.

Clark, A.L., Cook Clark, J. (2005) An international overview of legal frameworks for mine closure. Chapter IV. 11 pp.

De la Puente, L. (2005) The previous environmental assessment: considerations around mining and hydrocarbon projects. Journal of Mining and Oil Law, Institute of Mining, Oil and Energy Law, Year LI 2004 -2005 No 60.

La Republica, Sunday August 16, 2009

MINAM (2009) National Environmental Policy. 23 pp

Miranda, M., Chambers, D., Coumans, C. (2005) Basic Framework for Responsible Mining: A Guide to Improving Standards. 170 pp

(1) Human communities with economic-social-environmental interest in mining activity

Video: Ethical gold, ethical mining. Your choices have power. #EveryGramCounts (May 2021).