In the past several decades, mining companies and governments have greatly improved how mines are closed and rehabilitated from an environmental perspective. Over the same period, our expectations have changed for how we manage the social impacts of mining, including those felt during the closure period. The practice of managing closure-related social impacts is known in the industry as “social closure.” The social impacts of closure are the socioeconomic and cultural aspects of mine closure. They can be real or perceived and are distinct from the social impacts of construction and operations.
Every site and community are different, and the changes brought by closure can be both positive and negative.
The term ‘social closure’ is currently the most commonly used term to describe social aspects of mine closure. However, that term is increasingly being called into question for several reasons. It can be confusing and misleading: we aren’t talking about ‘closing’ the community; and we hopefully aren’t talking about ‘closing’ the relationship between the community and company or other stakeholders. Additionally, the social impacts of mining activities are never truly ‘closed.’ The presence of a mine will always change the local area in some way and after closure, things won’t go back to exactly how they were before. Increasingly the term ‘social transition to closure’ is being used as it more accurately describes the process of mine closure as being one of transition.
Some of the common social impacts of closure are changes to the community’s economic structure (e.g. employment and business opportunities) and dynamics (e.g. demographic changes, the return of or departure of employees). Local emergency or health services may be affected if a company’s support is removed or as local government revenues are reduced.
Environmental impacts of the mine on water or the land can be long lasting and impact future land access and use. Infrastructure can be removed or repurposed. Likewise, post-closure the land may be used or accessed in different ways. For example, it could be used for cultural practices, smaller scale resource extraction, renewable energy projects, or tourism activities. If done well, the process of mine closure can empower community structures and leaderships.
Managing the social impacts of closure properly has many benefits. Companies and the mining industry will have a more positive reputation, which can lead to support for mining activities from communities and governments alike. Well-planned social closure leads to stronger local support throughout the life of mine because people feel their long-term concerns and objectives are being addressed. Stakeholders and rightsholders are also then better prepared to manage the changes from closure and can benefit from the mine in new ways, such as through access and use of land to support cultural and economic endeavours. Managing the social impacts of closure properly helps the industry live up to our commitments and values of responsible environmental and social performance.
There are still many questions about what the management of the social impacts of closure looks like in action. Those involved in social closure should focus on three core elements.
Work Systematically. Having an integrated and transparent process to understand, plan and make decisions related to social closure is paramount. This can be achieved by hosting multi-stakeholder and multi-discipline working groups, integrating closure plans and future land use into mine site planning early on, and including the social impacts of closure in assessments and monitoring socio-economic changes throughout the life of mine. The costs of social closure must be budgeted and accounted for in plans and models. Working systematically also requires the use of social performance experts, people who understand how to identify and manage impacts and support positive engagement and collaboration.
Partner and Collaborate. Partnering and collaborating means that all rights holders and stakeholders keep the lines of communication about closure and mine planning open. There are often many unknowns and the future can be unclear, but companies, communities, and government must continuously communicate about mining activities, other economic activities in a region, major social changes or issues, and government plans.
Support a long-term vision for the local area. It is a human tendency to focus on short-term opportunities and issues. A vision helps extend that focus to consider long-term goals and objectives and set a path forward. Mining brings change, but mining is also finite and on their own mining operations cannot sustain development. A mine needs to fit into a broader vision for development for the area where the mine is located.
A long-term vision may be articulated in a regional development plan or a community development agreement (often referred to in Canada as an Impact Benefit Agreement).
Specific closure goals can be developed to articulate how to achieve this vision. Defining the goals should be led by the local community in partnership with the government and mining company. Closure goals may describe how:
- Social programming can be maintained (e.g. health services, education support);
- Economic activities can be diversified (e.g. training and skill development, support for employees to transition to other industries); and
- Changes to community structure and dynamics can be managed (e.g. support for employees who return from fly-in/fly-out contracts).
The earlier we start thinking about and planning for the social impacts of closure the more successful we will be. We are often afraid to talk too much about the future, especially early in the life of a mine. But having open and honest discussions with local rightsholders and stakeholders early, allows us to better manage relationships throughout the life of mine and into closure. That being said, it’s never too late to plan for the transition to closure and as a new generation of mining operations looks to closure it will become more important than ever.
CAROLYN BURNS is director of operations at NetPositive, a non-profit that works with diverse stakeholders to help local communities see sustained positive outcomes from mining. JANE CHURCH is a co-founder and director of collaboration with NetPositive.