Mining industry still struggling with social responsibility

Published at Nov 13, 2015, in Features

A key academic has claimed that the mining industry is being held back in ensuring social sustainability with their operations because they are scared to learn from bad practice.

Speaking at the International Mining and Resources Conference in Melbourne yesterday, Professor David Brereton from the Sustainable Minerals Institute out of the University of Queensland claimed that mining companies only wanted to learn from best practice.

“I think in the social domain I think we’ve done a lot of good work in being able to capture good practice,” Brereton said. “It’s easier to capture good practice then to get the industry to learn about bad practice, and that’s a much more sensitive place to go.

“That’s been a harder thing to get the industry to engage with then perhaps telling the positive good stories.”

Providing social sustainability in mining operations has been a hot topic of late, with the industry starting to look at the issue as a business problem rather than a feel-good PR exercise.

With social disruption to mining operations, whether a social or environmental protest, leading to lost days in an industry currently feeling the pinch of depressed commodity prices, mining companies are trying to figure out the best way to leave a sustainable legacy from their operations.

However, executive general manager at MMG Limited Troy Hey said that for the large part, the industry was still “floundering around” on the issue of conducting mining operations with as little disruption to the local population as possible.

“We are floundering around as a mining industry trying to work out how to do that [social] contract, how we get the contribution between communities and mining companies right,” Hey said.

“In the mining industry we tend to be very good at building things and spending money, that’s what we’re good for because we’re engineers.

“But unless we become good at dialogue and become good at engagement, build a direct relationship with those communities in which we live in we’re not going to find out what that social dividend is.

“If we don’t do this, others will do it for us.”

MMG Limited was at the centre of a mine protest at its La Bamba mine earlier this year, with the protest turning violent.

Earlier in the week, MMG CEO Andrew Michelmore said the protests were partially about frustration with the Peruvian government rather than purely about the mine.

MMG has held interfaith dialogues with the local community in Peru and has provided housing for those affected by the mining, but the frustration with government policies was something Ken Green, a senior director at the Fraser Institute, said was rife.

“I think the real challenge in sustainability is how the government manages the income from it. What the government does for example when commodity prices are high, what do they do with the revenues?” Green asked.

“The governments are unsustainably managing the revenue flows from mining and that leads to social dysfunction when commodity prices fall.”

Meanwhile CEO of Oxfam Australia, Dr Helen Szoke, said some mining companies were doing good work to ensure that mining operations left a positive legacy.

However, she said mining companies traditionally sought to throw money at a community rather than equipping them with skills and amenities which would leave a positive impact long after the mining company had left town.

“I would go back to our concern which is about human beings, and sustainability being about what is left for those communities after the 20, 30, or 40 year lifecycle of the mine,” Dr Szoke said.

“We’ve seen lots of evidence where mining companies have felt they’ve done the right thing by building villages, by doing relocations but then what is the durability of those communities unless they also have the capacity to look after it themselves?

“How do we avoid creating a different kind of welfare or dependency?”

Hey also said the mining industry tended to listen to the community on a superficial level.

“Some of the fault we have as a mining industry is that we listen all the time. We do lots of work to listen but we need to very clearly say why we’re doing this project, what we expect it to offer and what we will deliver to the community,” Hey said.

“The license to operate thing is ‘I’ll listen to all your demands, and then meet the minimum’.”

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