How can environmental transparency help make mining more sustainable?
|Sierra Rutile - Sierra Leone 2011 ©Caroline Thomas/UN Environment|
At first sight, ‘sustainable mining’ is the very definition of a contradiction in terms. How can an industry that digs holes in the ground, extracts mineral resources and often leaves significant environmental damage in its wake possibly be associated with sustainable development? And why would an agency like UN Environment, charged with the task of protecting the global environment, associate with the mining sector in the first place?
I work as a senior extractives adviser in UN Environment’s Disasters and Conflicts branch in Geneva. The branch works on disaster risk reduction, carries out strategic assessments of post-conflict environments and conducts research into the role natural resources play as a driver of conflict and opportunity for sustaining peace. During my Masters in International Security I had studied the latter, in particular ‘blood diamonds’ fueling civil war in West Africa and other ‘conflict minerals’ financing armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
|Artisanal gold mining is impacting landscapes in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2016 ©UN Environment|
I first started working in extractive industries governance for Adam Smith International, a development consultancy, followed by a fellowship with the mining and metals team at the World Economic Forum. I managed projects to reform the legislative, regulatory and institutional frameworks governing the mining sector and to facilitate public private cooperation. The aim was to help governments maximize the benefits of resource wealth for their citizens and future generations. I quickly realized that whereas a poorly managed mining sector is a recipe for conflict and environmental disasters, well-managed mining projects can be an important catalyst for sustainable development.
Development considerations aside, mining also plays a critical role in the global transition to a green economy. From the lithium in electric car batteries to the steel needed to build wind turbines to the gold in mobile phones, we depend on mining to provide many of the resources which enable technological progress. Coupled with a circular economy and improved resource efficiency, the sector can help us achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. So if the global economy and modern human wellbeing depends on mining, how do we make sure local communities and ecosystems don’t pay the price?
|UN Environment conducts a community consultation process amongst local men in Umm al Jawasir, Northern state. Community hearings and consultations have been critical components of UN Environment’s assessment work, Sudan 2010 ©UN Environment|
At UN Environment, we took a closer look at what drives conflict in the mining sector and noticed that a lack of dialogue and access to information about environmental impacts often contributes to misperceptions, a breakdown of trust and social conflict. One of the largest environmental drivers of conflict relates to water. The International Finance Corporation and the International Council of Mining and Metals have found that 70% of operations of the world’s biggest mining companies are located in water stressed areas. The impacts of climate change, including increasing water scarcity, will only make matters worse. Getting it right is more important than ever before. Whereas a number of global initiatives are already promoting greater transparency in the sector (e.g. Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative), environmental transparency is often neglected.
In addition to access to information, local communities are also asking for more inclusive decision making and a meaningful role in monitoring the environmental performance of mining operations. In order to address these needs and enhance development outcomes we started looking towards innovations in communication technologies and the idea of digital disruption. Together with experts at the University of Geneva, and the World Bank, UN Environment has developed an online mapping platform to collect the best available data about the impacts of the extractive sector, independently assess the integrity of the data and help analyze and visualize the information to make it accessible to the broader public.
The head of Kasai Occidental’s Mining Division lays out a concession map showing the whole province demarcated into mining blocks, 2010 ©UN Environment
The MAP-X platform can be tailored to address a broad range of issues: We have pilot-tested it in the Democratic Republic of Congo to link payment and production data with the development and environmental performance of the mining sector; in Afghanistan to map and assess drivers of conflict at the project level; and in Nigeria to serve as a platform for environmental monitoring of the oil spill clean-up in Ogoniland. Going forward, we are looking to support countries in monitoring mercury reduction in the artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector, enable territorial planning in post-conflict countries and support participatory monitoring by integrating community data. We hope to deploy MAP-X as part of our planned work in Colombia.
|Large scale industrial mining dredge near Condoto, Colombia (abandoned) 2017 ©David Jensen/UN Environment|
So far, we have had extremely positive feedback on the prototype platform. Over 100 World Bank staff and partners turned up for a live demonstration back in October. We also published our first blog posts on GOXI and the EITI websites that together received over 1000 views.
The potential of the mining sector to be a positive agent for change is substantial but more transparency about its impacts is needed to allow for evidence-based policy and decision making. Building on UN Environment’s impartiality and the organization’s vast experience in environmental stewardship, we have a unique chance to make a difference on the ground and I am inspired by the opportunities that lie ahead.
If you’d like to learn more about our work you can either visit the www.mapx.org or view our demo videos.