The mining industry evolves continuously and nowhere more so than in the areas of safety, environmental protection and corporate social responsibility (CSR). One hundred or even 50 years ago, mining was a dirty, dangerous undertaking. It is much less so now. Twenty-five years ago miners made a concerted effort to protect the environment, and they are largely successful. Now under the pressure of societal expectations, the industry is realizing it will lose its social licence to operate if it does not practice CSR at every opportunity.
There are many Canadian companies, in fact most of them, that apply best practices at their mines around the world as well as at home. In developing countries they extend their activities into non-core areas including health care, education and business development. They do so under the banner of sustainable development.
I have seen mining companies in South America give bricks and mortar to impoverished communities so that they can build schools. I’ve learned how the internet has reached villages high in the Andes Mountains. Clean water has been found and brought to homes. Health problems have been addressed both through providing medical care and through changing lifestyle practices. Local entrepreneurs are encouraged and taught how to create small businesses to supply the needs of the mine and regional markets, too. Similar programs are implemented wherever responsible mining companies find a minable deposit.
Sadly, not all such activities meet the test of ‘sustainability’. Mines don’t last forever, and every operation in a remote or developing country will eventually close. When the miners leave, the true test of sustainability begins.
If the mining company operated the local health clinic, the health professionals it employed will leave. The schools operated by the company will wither. The businesses that depended on the mines to purchase their goods will suffer the same fate. That is not a sustainable scenario.
Mining companies are willing to teach, educate, encourage, and finance local development. They take their responsibilities seriously, but must consider what happens when their operations conclude, just as they make closure plans for their mine sites.
Companies can get the most out of their sustainable development investment by partnering with organizations that have specific expertise in health care, schooling and small business. In that way the activities the companies nurture can continue after the miners leave. The clinics will attract locally trained doctors and nurses. The schools will have indigenous teachers. Small businesses will have developed regional markets and retain customers other than the mines.
That is the ideal of sustainable development. The industry should ensure it leaves a region with the advantages it brought to it when mining began. Getting to that point will require effort and money, but it is a goal well worth reaching.