Mining firms start to worry about long-term impacts – But do they understand them?

29 August 2016

Mining activities – whether artisanal or industrial in scale – result in two types of environmental and social impacts: primary impacts, which occur on or immediately adjacent to an extraction site, and secondary impacts, which occur because of infrastructure development, population movements, and changes in local economies.

Secondary impacts can include deforestation along roadways constructed for transporting the extracted products, and biodiversity loss, for example through increased fuel wood harvesting, bushmeat hunting or poaching to support miners’ families. They can also include the introduction of invasive alien species through transport operations, expanded agriculture into natural forests, and expanded illegal logging.

Extractive companies, local communities and government agencies are better able to reduce secondary impacts if they know where environmental sensitivities exist; know how to mitigate impacts; have sufficient incentives to address secondary impacts; and are operating within a legal and policy framework that can identify, manage and monitor a broad range of impacts.

Information sharing

The operations of large companies, particularly in the extractives sector, have huge potential for environmental impact. Business reputation increasingly depends on working to minimize this damage. Many oil and gas, and mining companies want and need to know how to manage secondary impacts, and how to plan and manage their activities so as to avoid or mitigate impact. All too frequently, they lack access to the information they need to do this effectively. In particular, while primary impacts of mining activities are often envisaged in environmental impact assessments, the same is not true for secondary impacts.

Secondary impacts can start before mining operations have begun and can continue long after operations have ended. They are long term, can have impacts over a wide area, and can have an unlimited effect on ecosystems.

The extractives sector is beginning to consider such impacts. For example, a concession request was recently denied in Limpopo, South Africa, because proposed activities threatened the climate resilience of the surrounding area.

The most recent Ernst & Young ranking (in 2014) of the top 10 business risks facing the mining and metals industry included – for the first time – “access to water”, explaining that the availability of affordable water is “an essential part of operations… and has become increasingly difficult”. With competition for water expected to increase and the long lifespan of a typical mine, there is a strong case for mining companies to plan ahead to pre-empt or mitigate any shortages. And that means working with local communities and governments over the longer term to look at the bigger picture, including forests.

Financing for REDD+ readiness and implementation represents an opportunity to address mining sector engagement in deforestation and forest degradation. In particular, financing for strategic and innovative analyses may assist in identifying solutions such as incentives or business model innovations to address secondary impacts of mining. For example, the Government of Zambia is currently conducting an assessment of the business case for mining sector engagement in the management of surrounding indigenous forests surrounding its operations and the establishment of forest plantations for its own timber needs In North Western Province in the context of its national REDD+ process.

Africa Mining Vision

Regional initiatives such as the Africa Mining Vision (AMV) seek to manage the impacts of extractive industries including through broader dissemination and awareness-raising on environmental risks, and increase public participation in decision-making processes.

AMV was adopted by Heads of State at the February 2009 Africa Union summit. It is Africa’s response to tackling the paradox of great mineral wealth existing side by side with pervasive poverty.

AMV advocates thinking outside the “mining box”: Besides making sure that tax revenues from mining are optimized and spent wisely, mining needs to be much better integrated into development policies at local, national and regional levels. That means thinking about how mining can contribute better to local development by making sure workers and communities see real benefits from large-scale industrial mining, and that their environment is protected.

What’s next?

Natural resources extraction is an important economic activity that will contribute to many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The linkages between the extractives sector and the SDGs are numerous and well documented. Recognizing these dependencies requires us to consider very carefully how progress on one goal may have contingent positive or negative impacts on other goals, and anticipate such outcomes in our development projects and programs.

Drawing links between extractive industries and the health and productivity of ecosystems is one way to implement an integrated landscapes management approach. Using the data and science generated through REDD+ activities is an important first step towards science-informed policy-making on the secondary impacts of mining.