Monday, July 5, 2021

Sustainable Mining – what exactly does it mean?

by David Ovadia*

David Ovadia is an IAPG member, former coordinator of IAPG-UK.

David Ovadia
These days, almost every mining project is described as ‘sustainable’ – an adjective that is being liberally applied to many things including the UN’s sustainable development goals all 17 of which are worthy and important. But is mining something that can be described as being sustainable?  When the commodity is depleted, it does not grow back. The metal, or aggregate, or oil has gone and the extractive activity ceases. Is ‘sustainable’ really the correct term to use?

Many people think it is. Anglo American has published its Sustainable Mining Plan which, quite rightly, refers to the sustainable benefits that come with, and from, mining activities. We should all be in favour of mining that minimises damage to societies and the environment; that leaves behind restored landscapes, agricultural land or forests; that builds and maintains infrastructure and skills that will exist well after the mine closes, and other such noble aims. These describe good mining, but I am not sure that sustainable is really the correct term to use.

Near to my home is to be found the Attenborough Nature Reserve which is a splendid facility for wildlife, walking, leisure, vegetation and water sports created from disused gravel pits on the banks of the River Trent. The gravel has long gone, but the benefits survive and prosper. Would it have been right to call those old gravel pits, when they were being dug out, sustainable mining? Probably not.

Whilst we all understand what is meant by the term ‘sustainable mining’, is there a better term to use? What about ‘responsible mining’?

It has the advantage of suggesting that the mining is not a dig-and-abandon activity. However, it does not strictly imply a positive, beneficial result. I know that I am being pedantic, but an open pit mine that is later filled with toxic waste is the responsibility of someone through mismanagement, corruption or weak legislation. We might want to use the term in a good way, but being responsible for something does not guarantee a positive outcome.

So what else can we use as an adjective that means what we want it to mean? How about ‘ethical mining’? This seems to embrace most of the positives without giving the false impression of renewability or permanence. Good ethics might be linguistic tautology, but the generally accepted meaning of the term includes the technical aspects of the mining itself – much of which is covered by the definition of Geoethics – with the broader social, legal, economic and environmental requirements to behave professionally, properly and sensibly.

We are left with three adjectives to describe mining, none of which perfectly state the things we wish to read into them. Does it really matter which term is used?  Of course not. English is a flexible language; there is no equivalent of the Académie française or the Accademia della Crusca to define the meanings of words. Whichever of these terms is used, and there are probably others that could be selected, what matters is that mining projects are designed, funded and controlled to do as little or no long term damage to the environment or the people they touch. We can all agree on that. 


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