sharing in governance of extractive industries

Challenges and Opportunities in Environmental Monitoring of Mining: An Interview with Flaviano Bianchini


By Jasmin Blessing and Sarah Daitch, GOXI Community Facilitators

Flaviano Bianchini is the founder and director of SOURCE International and an Ashoka fellow. His studies on the extractive industries’ impact on environment and health have led to changes in the mining law in Honduras, the adoption of precautionary measures by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights in Guatemala and the adoption of laws on the welfare for the city of Cerro de Pasco in Peru. Flaviano was one of the guest speakers in our Dec. 4th GOXI Learning Series Webinar

SOURCE is an NGO that works with communities facing environmental pollution issues and health problems caused by the extractive industries. It provides free scientific and technical support to local communities to assess environmental damage and promote restorative actions, building local capacities for developing environmental monitoring systems. www.source.org

What are the main environmental and health impacts of mining?

If not properly managed, mining can have huge negative impacts on environment and health. Moving millions of tonnes of rock has a big impact on waterways, air pollution (mainly with dust) and the food chains. Although major spills (normally from tailing dam failures) make the news, continuous leaks and mismanagement of water wastes are often the cause of long term pollution and health impacts. Mismanaged mine waste can lead to acid rock drainage resulting in acid water polluted with heavy metals - these go into the trophic chains for dozens of kilometers downstream, affecting environment and human health. Heavy metals are cancer-genic and teratogenic and once they reach underground waters and soils it is almost impossible to avoid that they reach human bodies. In dry areas, mineralized dusts are also a main problem, especially for lungs and eyes of local people.

What key guidelines should be considered when starting an environmental monitoring process in mining?

Water is a useful indicator as it reacts very quickly to pollution and it is often the main source that affects humans. Furthermore, water is easy and cheap to analyze if compared with other elements. Every country has his own standard for water quality but the WHO has very useful guidelines, often considered a golden standard for water control.

What are the main challenges when doing environmental monitoring?  What can be potential conflict of interests? How are these resolved in the monitoring process?

The main challenge of environmental monitoring today is that those doing the water monitoring (the controller) are often paid by the entity being monitored (the controlled – frequently a mining company). This is by far the major challenge that we face today in mining monitoring and in mining evaluation, because mining companies pay for EIA studies.

When the government does the monitoring we face two different problems:

  1. The absence of enforcement mechanisms: We often see government agencies finding pollution resulting from the work of the mining company. However, after the detection of pollution, governments are frequently unable to enforce any changes. Sometimes fining mechanisms result in long and expensive appeals and counter-appeals; it can be cheaper for companies to pay a fine than to change their infrastructure.
  2. The desire of local government to not interfere with businesses: Over the years, we have seen a long battle of deregulation of mining activities among developing countries with the aim to attract more foreign investments. As a result government are often weak in their goal to hold mining companies accountable.

What role, if any, can civil society play in environmental monitoring, for example through community based participatory monitoring?

Community-based monitoring can be a great instrument as it comes directly from the potentially affected people and it is not affected by the problems that often affect government monitoring. Furthermore, it gives local communities effective control over their environment. As a result, communities are very confident to receive the investments and to negotiate with the company and the government. It is also a great tool for conflict prevention as the community is more empowered and therefore more inclined to negotiate instead of initiating conflicts.
What are the challenges when involving civil society in the monitoring process?

The main challenge in community-based monitoring system is the consistency. Community monitors are not professionals, they are often local farmers and it is hard to maintain a consistent monitor (once a week or once every two weeks) during the whole year. Furthermore, corruption and conflict of interests can also be an issue. In this case it is important to set up a monitoring body of the monitoring system such as a community-based external committee that can control the operations of the monitoring committee. This mechanism avoids corruption and conflict of interest but makes it more difficult to maintain consistency over the whole mechanism. 

Why is access to information so important when it comes to environmental monitoring in mining? What are some considerations when thinking about how to make monitoring information accessible and easily understood?

It is fundamental to make the whole process of community based environmental monitoring transparent and accessible. We have already explained how community monitoring can help prevent conflicts; but if the process is not 100% transparent, the community monitoring itself can become a trigger of conflicts. A key element is to maintain the transparency and the external control for the whole process.

Can you share any country examples and experiences of environmental monitoring and information sharing processes? 

In Mexico, for example, the community of Carrizalillo, in the state of Guerrero, has been monitoring the impacts of the local mining company on water and air since 2012. As a result of the monitoring they were able to obtain almost 50 million dollars in compensation over 5 years and started a shared monitoring process with the company.

In Guatemala, the indigenous community of Sipakapa has been publishing their annual report of community-based water monitoring system since 2007 and they have successfully decreased conflicts in the area.

In Peru, there are several communities that have successfully implemented a community-based monitoring system. The indigenous communities of Canaan de Cachiyacu and Nuevo Sucre in the amazon forest are successfully monitoring the impacts of oil extraction inside their indigenous land. They constantly report social and environmental affectation to their environment.

If you engaged in our GOXI Learning Series webinar on this topic, and would like to take the conversation forward, we welcome you to pose questions and discussion points here on any aspects of environmental monitoring and access to information in mining. 

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