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Mining and Biodiversity Protection – Efforts at International Governance

Recently, I was asked to contribute a small section on mining and biodiversity to the first global assessment of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).  This contribution, which would be part of section 2.2.5 of Chapter 6 of the IPBES Global Assessment, is provided below and the full assessment will be published later...

Recently, I was asked to contribute a small section on mining and biodiversity to the first global assessment of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).  This contribution, which would be part of section 2.2.5 of Chapter 6 of the IPBES Global Assessment, is provided below and the full assessment will be published later this year. The section headings follow the template provided by IPBES to all contributing authors for this part of the assessment.

A mining site in Rwanda – a country which shares important biodiversity protected areas with neighboring states in the region. Photograph by Saleem H. Ali

1.      Identifying legal instruments

Mining activities are geologically determined and occur in a variety of ecosystems. Thus there may be many instances of co-occurrence of mining with areas of high biodiversity. Much of the international regulatory framework around mining comprises a series international standards and certification systems which are meant to link existing national laws on environmental planning for mine sites. Most environmental assessment laws on mining worldwide have provisions for biodiversity assessment in some form. In addition, financing of projects through international donors and banking institutions may impose additional safeguards against biodiversity loss, particularly those from the International Finance Corporation (Performance standard 6, which focuses on Biodiversity) and the Equator Principles adopted by the world’s major financial organizations (IFC, 2012; Equator Principles, 2017).

The only international environmental treaty which has a clear mention of mining and its environmental impact is the Minamata Convention on Mercury which has specific provisions around the phase out of mercury usage in artisanal gold mining because of its environmental health impact (Clifford, 2014).

The International Council on Metals and Mining – an industry group currently comprising 23 of the largest and most influential mining companies in the world as well as 34 national industry and commodity associations (thus covering a large part of the global mining sector) – has worked with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) tand other partners to develop guidelines for the industry. In 2003, ICMM made a commitment through its position statement on biodiversity and protected areas that all its member companies will “not mine or explore in World Heritage properties” (a designation undertaken under UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention). Furthermore, the ICMM has also established a Mitigation Hierarchy for biodiversity impacts in partnership with the Equator Principles and the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association (IPECA) has four parts which are noted below (ICMM, 2017);

  • avoid –  anticipation and prevention of adverse impacts on biodiversity before actions or decisions are taken
  • minimise – reduction in the duration, intensity, significance and/or extent of impacts that cannot be realistically avoided
  • restore –  measures taken to repair degradation or damage to specific biodiversity features and ecosystems
  • offset – conservation outcomes applied to areas not impacted by a project to compensate for significant and adverse impacts of a mining project that cannot be avoided or restored.

Several old mining companies have additionally signed on to the International Cyanide Code, which is a certification system to ensure safe containment of cyanide which is widely used in gold leaching operations. The motivation for this code has been concerns of ecosystem impacts from cyanide spills, although its full impact on wildlife conservation is still contested (Donato et al, 2017).

The implementation of these various voluntary standards is monitored by civil society groups, and there are procedures whereby grievances can be brought to the attention of the membership organizations. There are also ombudsman offices at national and multinational levels which can provide further recourse such as the World Bank Group’s Compliance Advisor and Ombudsman’s office. Despite such assurance mechanisms, some countries such as El Salvador have decided to not allow mining at all on their lands for environmental concerns raised by communities (Broad and  Fischer-Mackey, 2016). However, such moratoriums can easily be changed by legislative action and hence changes in national government policies need to be monitored for most current information on such matters.

The recent advent of mining under water, either on continental shelves (such as the existing diamond mining along Namibia’s coast and gold mining in the Pacific rim) as well as projected deep sea mining deserve regulatory consideration. Concerns about ecosystem damage has led New Zealand to enact a moratorium on offshore mining. However, there are continuing legal and technical mechanisms which are being developed to mitigate ecological risks which might allow for such mining to be more mainstream in the future.  The Law of the Sea Convention has provisions through the Deep Seabed Authority to also regulate such mining in international waters wherein biodiversity and ecosystem impacts are to be considered in any licenses being granted (Le et al, 2017).

2.      Effectiveness review

The effectiveness of mining regulations per se has been poorly studied in terms of environmental performance since most of the biodiversity mitigation issues are captured by broader environmental impact assessment regulations regulations (Wood, 2014).

The efficacy of voluntary mechanisms around mining is now an area of active research by scholars of corporate governance (Mori et al, 2016). However, the specific biodiversity and ecosystem impacts of these initiatives is still sparsely studied. The only recent study in this arena has focused on an evaluation of the Equator Principles which focus on the environmental performance of investments by major banking institutions. Eshet (2017) evaluated projects that were following the principles and those which were not and did not find any marked difference in terms of environmental performance. Further longitudinal studies to monitor improvement in performance will be needed to add further clarity on effectiveness of these voluntary mechanisms.

The extent to which mining activity globally overlaps with areas of environmental sensitivity has been studied in some detail in recent years. Much of the analysis has focused on protected areas and hence biodiversity is assumed to correlate with the protected areas that are studied. Kobayashi et al (2014) studied the prevalence of base metals mining using various industry databases of around 700 projects worldwide and developed an index of mining and biodiversity overlap (MiBiD) which could be used by regulatory authorities as well as companies for new geological exploration planning.

Duran and Gaston (2013) had earlier done a study using data from the Raw Materials Group of base metals as well and found that 6.7% of worldwide recorded mines were located within protected area boundaries. An additional 27% lie within 10 km of a protected area boundary. Such analysis, however, cannot account for artisanal and small-scale mining which can also have serious biodiversity impacts in terms of deforestation and chemical pollution.

Formalization of the artisanal and small-scale mining sector remains a challenge as well, and there are numerous programs underway to consider environmental monitoring of such sites, particularly in Africa (Bryceson  et al eds, 2014).

3.      Identify key stakeholders involved and impacted

Mining generally occurs in rural settings and hence key stakeholders are non-urban communities who rely on the land and water for their livelihoods.  Mining activity can also require resettlement of populations and for subsistence oriented communities this can lead to potential impacts on livelihoods but also on ecosystem sustainability.   Indigenous populations who have a close connection to ecosystems for biophysical and cultural needs are also disproportionately impacted by mining. Hence, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples has undertaken a specific program of work around mining and indigenous peoples (Sawyer and Gomes ed., 2012).

4.      Lessons learned

The regulation of mining activity with reference to biodiversity and ecosystem services requires a broader international governance mechanism, which is also a need identified in general by geoscientists to plan for future mineral scarcity (Ali et al, 2017). This is particularly the case where mines are near political borders and where pollution impacts can transcend borders due to air and watershed mobility. Existing international environmental treaties could have more specific programs of work or even protocols which focus on mining activity. Thus far, only the World Heritage convention has attracted the attention of major mining companies as an impact mitigation planning mechanism. Voluntary mechanisms for improving performance of the mining industry have managed to raise awareness and are providing civil society important benchmarking indicators to hold industry accountable.  An outgrowth of this approach has been the development of biodiversity offset processes, particularly designed for mining operations (Virah-Sawmy et al, 2014). Such mechanisms deserve greater attention in synch with the mitigation hierarchy that has been developed by the extractive industries in partnership with the Equator Principles on sustainable financing.

5.      Conclusion and summary

  • Ecological impact of mining is largely regulated at the national level and there is vast variation in the extent of coverage that is offered by national regulations. A detailed comparative evaluation of mining regulations with reference to biodiversity protection stringency has not been carried out thus far.
  • Various international standards and compliance assurance mechanisms are increasingly effective in monitoring the performance of mining in sensitive ecosystems.
  • About a quarter of base metals mining projects occur within a 10 km radius of a protected area. Major mining companies have agreed through their commitment to international standards that World Heritage sites will be excluded from future mining operations as well as mineral exploration.
  • Indigenous peoples are major stakeholders in mining operations and are particularly sensitive to biodiversity impacts. The continued involvement of the United Nations Permanent forum on Indigenous Peoples is thus encouraged.
  • Global governance mechanisms for mineral resources are currently being considered and debated and biodiversity and ecosystem impacts may be an important motivator for moving this agenda forward

6.      Evaluating confidence/uncertainty of evidence

Overall the regulatory oversight of mining and biodiversity impact could be categorized as “established but incomplete,” for all the various aspects considered. The regulations are highly varied across national jurisdictions but there are overarching voluntary guidelines and standards which are being monitored industry associations and civil society alike.


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Meet the Author

Author Photo Saleem Ali
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.