By Daniel Litvin – This article originally appeared in the Mining Journal publication, Mining Environmental Management
Recent high profile gatherings show world leaders starting to treat mining as a hot topic. Forward-thinking mining firms will welcome the attention.
Should it be a cause of concern or celebration that mining is becoming a hot topic in global political discussions? Once the sector was barely on the radar of world leaders, except those representing mining countries. But recently it has featured in discussions of the G8, the club of the world’s most powerful economies. At their June summit in Germany, G8 leaders made commitments not just on standard topics of global importance – such as terrorism and climate change – but also on the issue of “responsibility for raw materials”.
Among their specific proposals in this area (which covered both mining and other extractive industries), the G8 leaders announced backing for a major conference on extractive sector transparency. They promised to investigate potential certification of mineral products through a pilot project focused on artisanal mining. They also indicated their support for a “consolidated set of principles and guidelines that apply to the international mining sectors in the developing countries”. In general, while the G8 leaders noted the social and environment problems of resource extraction, they also highlighted its potential to reduce poverty.
A combination of recent trends have made mining a suitable topic for global summitry in this way. Civil society pressures in G8 countries have clearly continued to focus political attention on the downsides of mining and oil. But recognition is also growing that many of the world’s poorest countries, for good or ill, will need to rely on resource extraction to kick-start their development process. Recent commodity price increases, meanwhile, have unnerved many G8 countries, with fears growing both over the cost of imports and security of supplies. The growing scramble for resources in Africa between western and emerging powers, such as China, has also raised the spectre of potential conflict between importing nations over the long term.
To mine managers around the world, engaged as they are in day-to-day challenges of production, cost-control, community relations, and the like, the growing interest of world leaders in the issues surrounding the industry may seem irrelevant, and even damaging if it leads to political meddling. But in fact, this trend should be welcomed by the industry and – by major global mining groups – actually encouraged.
The reason is that the social, environmental, and economic problems often associated with mining, whether real or perceived, ultimately rebound on the industry’s long term health: they limit access to land, for example, by encouraging suspicious communities and governments to turn against new developments, and they constrain downstream markets by fuelling concerns among consumers and regulators. Moreover, tackling such problems clearly requires concerted action from governments, as company action alone is insufficient. Governments, for example, often need to provide more infrastructure to local communities, spend resource revenues more wisely, provide a fair framework for dispute resolution, and so on.
For long, too little international political attention has been focused on these governance issues. New global commitments should be carefully scrutinised by the industry for sure, lest they pose an unfair threat to commercial interests. But that the G8 has begun to talk about this area represents more of an opportunity than a threat for the industry. The G8 leaders should now be encouraged to follow through on their commitments – and not just by civil society, but by mining companies too.
© istockphoto.com/Tomas Burcic