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ASM-PACE Launches its Latest Guest Blog: "Reflections on Sustainable Project-affected Community Engagement"

Through its Guest Blog Series, the ASM-PACE Programme (Artisanal and Small-scale Mining in Protected Areas and Critical Ecosystems) invites ASM experts to share their knowledge, experiences and opinions on issues pertaining to ASM, and particularly on ASM in protected areas and critical ecosystems, with the aim to foster continued dialogue, country-specific learning and share best practices on ASM interventions.

Read the latest Guest Blog on ASM-PACE by ASM Researcher and Analyst Ruby Weinberg , where she writes about what mining companies can do to leave a lighter environmental and social footprint:

Since we can all agree that mining is in itself an unsustainable practice (the substances being mined are in finite supply), how then do we use the two terms- mining and sustainability- in the same sentence and in a way that resonates with all stakeholders impacted by this far-reaching industry? And, more specifically, what can junior, mid-tier and larger mining companies do to ensure that they leave a light environmental and social footprint during and in the wake of their projects?

I recently attended a three-day convening on just this subject in Vancouver. One theme that especially resonated for me during this multi-stakeholder dialogue was the impact that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives have on the wellbeing and sustainable development of mining-project affected communities. Alternative livelihood programs, resettlement and livelihood rehabilitation, roads, school and hospital construction, consumer reporting, traceability and conflict minerals management initiatives are all rapidly emerging as integral and complementary components of mining operations globally. Key to consider, however, is whether or not these frameworks and systems are simply a way for companies and governments to perform an exercise in box-ticking to exhibit compliance with international standards and regulations, and pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

There is a history behind sustainable development that goes back for more than half a century. The central message has always been that we need to tread gently on this Earth so that it can provide not only for us but for future generations. Others have expanded the definition to be about resource equity across space, as well as time. Most recently the dialogue has since evolved with the United Nations' publication of the imperative that resource development or extraction projects receive the 'free, prior and informed consent' (FPIC) from impacted communities. These concepts have begun to be enshrined into national and international natural resource governance frameworks. But what does this really mean? Do the plethora of standards that mining companies use really ensure that FPIC will be achieved? What do companies do if the communities do not consent? Do they continue their operations regardless? What does transparency really achieve if impacted communities do not have the ability or authority to halt a project in its tracks?

I think these questions have particular relevance for artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) communities. A sector that is so often scapegoated by governments, communities and civil society alike, ASM is rarely treated by mining companies as a project-impacted community that is entitled to give its free, prior and informed consent—in part because in some cases it is murky as to who was there first. What typically happens is mining companies only consider artisanal miners as distinct stakeholders when they have become a problem for operations. And ASM can be a big problem, if not engaged constructively! This oversight is an error that needs to be corrected—not only in the interests of the ASM, but also to help minimize potential liabilities for the mining companies.

Companies should put in place an engagement strategy before any conflict is on the table; ideally, as soon after it hits the ground as possible; it is much more problematic for the company to start thinking about sustainable engagement with mining communities after a problem has already arisen. A first step would be to conduct an extensive mapping project of the stakeholders who have any involvement and/or interest in the ASM activity that is likely to be impacted by the exploitation project. At the same time, mining companies need to understand that artisanal miners are coming from a different perspective and carry with them distinct challenges that other stakeholder groups may not pose. There is no cookie-cutter engagement strategy in these circumstances. Whatever strategy a company adopts should be derived from the particularities of the artisanal and small-scale miners (and their stakeholders) in question. These challenges could include (but are certainly not limited to): ASM miners were mining the concession without state permission (though they could be mining with the permission of a non-state authority such as a chief) and now risk being displaced by a mining company that holds the title to the land; the miners were displaced or resettled from another area when an industrial project began; or the miners were evicted from a protected area, causing them to rush onto another mineral-rich site. As such, the relationship a company develops with the artisanal and small-scale mining community should be innovative and bespoke to the community in question.

What do these international standards and norms aimed at the extractive industry really have to offer ASM communities to ensure that they benefit in the long-term from a given mine project? Do they offer the protections and social enhancements that they are intended to achieve for these stakeholders? There is recognition that the impacts of these standards must be assessed and the various bodies governing them have begun to do this. The Responsible Jewellery Council, for example, is evaluating the impacts of its Code of Practices against ISEAL's new impacts standard. But I am not aware of any assessment of how the various international standards and norms that guide exploration and mining companies' engagement policies and risk management are achieving their goals vis-à-vis a companies' impacts on ASM. I believe that there needs to be a critical evaluation of these various standards and their impacts on artisanal mining communities. Then as a second step, we should consider how to make these standards (at the very least) more useful for mining communities--and mining project affected communities at large--so that FPIC as it is intended can become a reality. Let us stop using these standards as one Dialogue participant put it,"comfort food" and ensure that they accomplish what they were originally aimed to do.

The conference I attended was called the GEMM 2013 Dialogue, which was organized by the Responsible Minerals Sector Initiative, which is run out of Simon Fraser University's Beedie School of Business in Vancouver, Canada. The title of the dialogue was "Building from the Ground Up" Implementing Sustainability in the Mineral Sector. The central question of the Dialogue was mining for whom and to what end?, which was examined through the use of several media, namely a film and on-going discussion between CSR representatives and mining company CEOs, non-governmental organisations and advocacy groups, Canadian First Nations representatives, founders of artisanal and small-scale mining cooperatives, government officials, academics and consultants. There were also a bit of mining-themed ballads performed by the artisanal and small-scale gold mining expert (and my teacher), Marcello M. Veiga. At the end of the Dialogue the participants split up into working groups to spend the next year delving into the critical issues identified during convening.

Written by Ruby Weinberg, Researcher & Analyst at ELL. Ruby specializes in natural resources management, with an expertise in artisanal and small-scale mining. She can be reached on ruby@estellelevin.com. Twitter: @ruby_weinberg.

The blogs posted on the ASM-PACE Guest Blog site do not represent the views of the ASM-PACE Programme, its donors or partners, or the author’s organization, unless otherwise specified.  

If you or your organisation works on issues of ASM and wishes to submit a blog on your experiences, please contact us.

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