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Changing Mineral Exploration Industry Approaches to Sustainability

Ian Thomson
Ian Thomson
On Common Ground Consultants Inc., 906-1112 West Pender Street, Vancouver, BC V6E 2S1, Canada
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Susan Joyce
Susan Joyce
On Common Ground Consultants Inc., Sucursal del Perú, Calle Mariscal Blas Cerdeña 137, San Isidro, Lima, Peru
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January 01, 2005


For the last 35 years, mining has been under persistent pressure to change, in common with many other industries, as society in general has come to realize the cumulative effects of uncontrolled development. Environmental legislation introduced through the 1970s and 1980s provided definition to the circumstances under which mining could take place, and management of the environment became progressively internalized as a mining management function. With the 1990s, rapidly evolving social attitudes and expectations brought a new set of pressures related to the well being of communities impacted by mining projects. By the late 1990s, mining was an industry whose role and contribution to society were in question in many parts of the world, with permits to operate more difficult to obtain from the regulators, and well organized grass roots opposition to new mine developments. Leading mining companies have responded to this challenge by attempting to reshape their activities and their public image to reflect contemporary social values, reorienting the industry around a new vision and practices based on the principles of sustainable development.

Mineral exploration retained a go-anywhere licence to discover, measure, and deliver new orebodies for many years after the miners were reined in by public pressure and legislation. Nevertheless, it, too, is now under intense pressure to change as explorers are being challenged to respond to community concerns about their activities, to provide answers to questions about mining before a discovery has been made, and to give assurances that communities will share in the benefits should a mine be developed.

This paper traces the evolution, in general terms, of the mining industry’s perception of its role in development and the shift over time from an inward-looking focus on core business to an industry needing to look outward and demonstrate its positive contributions to social well being. The pressures that the industry has experienced over the last decade are examined, as well as the changes required to become not only environmentally responsible but also a fully integrated part of local society and economies; the sustainable development approach. Emphasis is placed on the role of mineral exploration within this larger set of pressures and how the realities and the culture of exploration make the sustainable development challenges that much greater.

It is concluded that mining has a place in an economy based on the principles of sustainable development that goes well beyond the basic need for resources from the ground. The exploitation of mineral wealth can contribute directly to growth in other forms of capital—human, social, cultural, economic— while protecting the environment, thus generating improved opportunities that will sustain local communities long after a mine has been exhausted. Exploration, the critical first phase of the mine life cycle, is distinctive from mining and has specific challenges from a social perspective. Adopting the principles of sustainable development provides explorers with tools to help manage the social and environmental challenges by asking managers to take a more holistic view and to consider the long-term implications of a successful exploration project.

Best practice approaches are being developed and implemented and recent trends indicate that it will become increasingly important for explorers to be equipped to apply the framework of sustainable development to both the evaluation of geological targets and the management of exploration projects. Educational institutions have recognized that, in the future, exploration professionals will need to have a broader range of skills. Programs have started to appear in several countries in which the basic curriculum for a geoscientist or geological engineer is augmented by environmental and social courses that will equip graduates to take an active role in the implementation of sustainable development.

Laws and regulations have recently been introduced in a number of countries that are intended to encourage socially responsible practices and, in some cases, promote sustainable development in the mining sector. This trend is expected to continue and exploration will become subject to increasing levels of regulation to accommodate the concerns of communities and other interest groups.

It is anticipated that the industry will become increasingly differentiated between those groups that incorporate sustainable development principles and those that retain traditional approaches to doing business. Registration and certification of companies and individuals, both miners and explorers, appear probable in the short term and these processes will be part of the sustainable development approach becoming an essential part of how business is conducted. However, by fully adopting sustainable development as a management function, industry can move ahead of the introduction of legislation. Thus, the mining industry, including exploration, can actively participate in the construction of relevant regulations, rather than be reactive and defensive, as has been the case in the past.

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Figures & Tables


Special Publications of the Society of Economic Geologists

Wealth Creation in the Minerals Industry: Integrating Science, Business, and Education

Michael D. Doggett
Michael D. Doggett
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John R. Parry
John R. Parry
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Society of Economic Geologists
ISBN electronic:
Publication date:
January 01, 2005




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