Mining and biodiversity: towards best practice
Post Date: 06 October 2010
2010 has been declared the International Year of Biodiversity by the United Nations – a year to celebrate the diversity of life on earth – every plant, animal and micro-organism that makes up the bigger picture. Natural systems sustain human livelihoods and life itfself. People are completely dependent on biodiversity. In a carbon constrained world, natural CO2 sequestration is reliant on maintaining the integrity of natural systems and critical to any successful strategy to manage the impacts of climate change.
Environmental risk linked to climate change and biodiversity degradation is recognised as a significant challenge to the mining industry. Increasingly it is also recognized that opportunities to enhance biodiversity and mitigate the negative impacts of mineral extraction may be significant, with associated benefits at many levels, from improving livelihoods of local community members to addressing the global climate challenge.
Mining exploration and operations often take place in remote and sensitive environments and this is likely to increase as economic mineral deposits in developed areas become depleted. At the same time, we are in the midst of a global biodiversity crisis and ecosystems are being degraded at an unprecedented pace and scale – predominantly to create space for human habitation and agricultural activities.
As a result, intact, healthy ecosystems and the services they provide will be at an increasing premium, as they become more scarce and valuable. Mining operations and their impact on the environment will demand more attention and focus from government, society and companies, presenting both risks and opportunities.
The need to fully integrate and assess the risks to biodiversity across the full life cycle of a mining project has never been more essential in order to avoid the worst impacts and outcomes of mining operations. Furthermore, there is little doubt that integrating biodiversity considerations represents sound business practice.
Responsible operators benefit in numerous tangible and intangible ways, including securing access to land, strengthening the social and regulatory ‘licence to operate’, gaining access to capital, improved reputation and stakeholder relationships and hiring and retaining the best talent. Well managed mining companies recognise this and have been addressing biodiversity as a core concern for a number of years.
Perhaps one of the most critical aspects of integrating biodiversity into the mining life cycle is the engagement of key stakeholders – these include regulatory bodies and government institutions, local communities and local and international research and conservation organisations. In this respect, early and continuous constructive engagement is essential to the success of any operation that has a genuine commitment to addressing biodiversity issues.
By definition integrating biodiversity throughout the mining life cycle requires a ‘biodiversity lens’ to be cast across all activities, right from early stage exploration activities, through feasibility studies, construction, operations, closure and last but not least, post closure planning and implementation. When this approach is taken, then the real opportunities for biodiversity conservation can be realised.
In this respect, The International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) has produced an excellent publication ‘Good Practice Guidance for Mining and Biodiversity’ (GPG) (http://www.icmm.com/page/238/biodiversity-good-practice-and-offsets ) which articulates this and suggests a range of well developed systems, tools and processes for managing biodiversity that can be applied at the various stages of project cycles. This GPG provides indicators of the potential impacts on biodiversity of mining activities. It recognises that the importance of developing an understanding from the beginning of any project, of the long term interactions between the project and the biodiversity in the area. Whilst there are always negative environmental impacts caused by mining operations, it is increasingly recognised that there often exist significant opportunities to enhance nature conservation activities in the vicinity of mining operations.
If every mining operation were to fully implement the GPG then the reputation of the mining industry as one which harms the natural environment could potentially be neutralized, if not reversed!
We are currently in the midst of the greatest species extinction episodes witnessed to date with extinction rates resulting from human population expansion and the associated loss of habitat, land conversion and other impacts, estimated at 1000 times faster than would naturally occur. If there was ever a time to act decisively and positively, it is now. The mining industry, with its long time horizon, on the ground capacity, land under management, expertise and access to resources has the potential to make a significant contribution to enhancing the management of biodiversity and ensuring that humans can reduce the pressures on biodiversity.
Taking a holistic and comprehensive approach throughout the mining life cycle is necessary if this opportunity is to be realised and a number of the leading mining companies recognise this. May the chasing pack catch up and enable the industry as a whole to deliver a gold standard that exceeds expectations and sets an example for other industries to follow.
Case Study – Earthwatch and Rio Tinto
Earthwatch and Rio Tinto, an international business involved in each stage of metal and mineral production, recognised the potential for joint action on biodiversity conservation and management 20 years ago. This culminated in Rio Tinto becoming a founding member of the Earthwatch Corporate Environmental Responsibility Group (CERG) in 1990 and nine years later a global partnership was formalised.
To date, the focus of the Earthwatch-Rio Tinto partnership has been on increasing Earthwatch’s scientific field research capacity, and designing and implementing Rio Tinto’s Biodiversity Strategy. Both parties have also sought to use the partnership and its achievements to inspire others to engage in partnership action to advance biodiversity conservation worldwide.
Some of the key outcomes from this collaboration have included:
- Working with other Rio Tinto partners on the ongoing design and development of the Rio Tinto Biodiversity Strategy and its implementation
- Developing thinking around how quantitative measures of biodiversity conservation performance can be used to assess progress
- Promoting awareness and knowledge of biodiversity through active participation in ongoing field research programmes
- Demonstrating the ability of how business and civil society can work together as a way of promoting knowledge and awareness of biodiversity conservation and management.
During 2009 and 2010, Rio Tinto and Earthwatch are collaborating on two key projects. The first of these two projects is ClimateWatch, an Australian initiative providing opportunities for the general public to get hands-on involvement in the science of understanding climate change. The second is the Samburu Community Climate Change Mapping Programme at the Earthwatch regional research centre in Kenya. This project aims to develop a comprehensive land use and climate change model for the area, and to establish a sustainable business model for the development and operation of Earthwatch’s network of regional research centres worldwide.
For more information about our work with corporate partners, please visit