May 08, 2002
Mining Industry Reports on Its Problems, but Remains Vague on Solutions
by William Baue
A new report identifies the global mining industry's social and environmental pitfalls, though its
recommendations may prove hollow, according to an industry watchdog.
Last week, the Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development Project (MMSD) released its study of
the global mining industry entitled, Breaking New Ground: Mining, Minerals,
and Sustainable Development. The report acknowledges the mining industry's hesitancy to
identify its social and environmental liabilities, but asserts the necessity for the sector to
confront these shortcomings if it is to shed its negative image. However, the voluntary and overly
general nature of the report's recommendations may reveal the industry's lack of true commitment
toward sustainable development, according to MiningWatch Canada, a nonprofit organization that monitors
"From the industry perspective, taking part in this project was a
risky business," said Sir Robert Wilson, Chairman of Rio Tinto plc (ticker: RTP). "It was
nevertheless an essential step, not least for business reasons. The industry realised it is
difficult to do well as a business when you belong to an industry that has a bad reputation. If we
allowed the widespread negative attitudes to our activities to go on, we would eventually have
difficulty accessing resources in the ground and markets for our products."
In 1999, nine
of the world's largest mining companies established the Global Mining Initiative (GMI) in order to assess
the industry's social and environmental impacts. In April 2000, the GMI, in conjunction with the
World Business Council for Sustainable
Development (WBCSD), commissioned the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) to
initiate the MMSD project. The intention of the MMSD project has been to present the resulting
report at the World Summit for Sustainable Development this September in Johannesburg, South
The MMSD project, which had the financial support of 28 mining companies,
established four regions of concentration (North and South America, Southern Africa, and Australia)
with additional coverage of 16 nations outside these regions. The report's conclusions grew out of
175 commissioned studies and 23 global workshops, as well as feedback from a seven-week public
review period of the preliminary findings. The report identified both challenges and solutions.
Among the nine challenges were issues such as indigenous rights, corruption, waste
management, transparency of information, oversight of artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM), and
integration of regulations. The MMSD report explains that the heterogeneous nature of the mining
industry precludes the recommendation of specific solutions, hence the generalization of its
conclusions. However, critics of the mining industry suggest an alternative explanation.
"We consider the MMSD to be a well-resourced attempt to distract public attention from the many
environmental and social costs of mining--at all its stages," said Joan Kuyek, the national
coordinator of MiningWatch Canada. "It is just rhetoric until the industry pays the full costs of
its operations, including reclamation and monitoring in perpetuity; until it takes responsibility
for abandoned mines; until it respects the rights of indigenous people to say no, and the
livelihoods of small scale miners; and until it stops its corrosive lobbying for tax breaks, trade
deals, the repression of unions and human rights."
For example, the report encourages
companies to act as if permission is needed to access indigenous lands, even if no law requires
such authorization. Although this suggestion makes ethical sense, it expects a degree of
self-regulation that may not be realistic, considering the industry's historical precedent.
The MMSD report acknowledges the mining industry's checkered past in rectifying environmental
damage from mining activity. The report recommends the establishment of a Mineral Legacies
Initiative to clean up abandoned mines and other remnants of mining's environmental and social
However, the report does not recommend any accountability or legal regulation
requiring such cleanup. Similarly, the report recommends the establishment of global "Complaints
and Dispute Resolution Mechanism," but it does not provide any binding framework for enforcement or
"Promoting a voluntary international body to arbitrate disputes is an insult
to all those communities and governments that have been battling for responsible mining practices
for years," said Ms. Kuyek.