Minerals, mining and biodiversity are they sitting comfortably?

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Managed well extraction processes can create biodiversity benefits, but how can this be assured?
Rio Tinto Coal Australia’s Blair Athol Mine in central Queensland. © Rio Tinto

As suppliers of metal and mineral resources for the burgeoning demands of society, the prospecting and extractive activities of mining companies can impact in remote, relatively pristine environments with the potentially to cause significant environmental damage depending on the site management and processing techniques employed. In 1992 at the time of the Rio Earth Summit there was limited dialogue between the industry and the governments who gave licences to operate and other stakeholders, with both local communities and environmental and humanitarian NGOs often feeling excluded. The UN Convention of Biological Diversity was established after Rio but by 2010 it’s stated target of reversing the rate of biodiversity loss had not been met by any of its signatory countries. Nonetheless the intervening years did see significant responses to the increased awareness of human impacts on biodiversity and the minerals and mining industry in particular was a sector where the the issue was becoming better recognised with approaches emerging to help address the  risks.

Poorly managed extraction operations with damaging consequences to the environment were not only difficult to hide, as the underlying issues became more apparent poor environmental management was becoming proportionately more unacceptable to many company boards and their shareholders. Not only had  they become increasing convinced that much of the potential damage was avoidable, but they recognised that failing to address the issues has direct impacts on reputation, shareholder value and increasingly would risk their licence to operate as governments around the world  tightened their requirements for reductions in environmental impact.

By 2000 the concern was at its most intense in relationship to potentially commercially significant deposits of ores located by or in areas of outstanding natural beauty and high biodiversity.  At its meeting in 1999 in Morocco the World Heritage Committee, which had grappled with extraction proposals close to World Heritage Sites including Yellowstone National Park in the US and Kakadu in Australia, proposed a meeting of technical stakeholders to explore ways forward. An important factor behind this was that many environmental NGOs realised that while there was the potential for environmental damage from poor extractive practices the lack of development for communities close to these sites could be equally damaging.

The technical meeting took place in 2000 in Gland, Switzerland. Among the parties who came together were members of the mining industry companies and sector representatives, UN bodies including UNESCO and UNEP and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)). The technical report looked at a number of early best practice case studies and made recommendations for future improvements in practice, which were accepted by the World Heritage Committee later that year. This increased momentum within the industry to establish better, industry-wide standards for environmental management, and within this better management of impacts on biodiversity. Perhaps most significantly the meeting also established a greater willingness and trust by the stakeholders to try and work more closely together to seek better solutions for people and the environment.

In 2003 the International Council for Mining and Minerals (ICMM), which represents several major mining conglomerates announced a No Go policy, that non of its member organisations would mine in world heritage sites. ICMM was also focusing more specifically on threats to biodiversity. It published its first report based on a number of case studies from its member organisations. The report, also endorsed by the IUCN, had followed meetings in 2002 and 2003 which had bought biodiversity focused NGOs together to look at how the industry might improve its biodiversity management performance.  The case studies explored lessons learned on; how to assess biodiversity issues early on in the prospecting and exploration stages; how to get baseline biodiversity assessments and establish continuous monitoring; how assessing biodiversity risks and mitigation strategies needed to be incorporated within a site wide Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA); and how to integrate biodiversity monitoring into environmental management systems. The report looked at the different  impacts across the lifetime of an extraction site, which in some cases might be over decades, looking at mitigation strategies throughout the operational life and over plans for eventual rehabilitation and restoration.

In 2005 ICMM published a short advisory to the mineral and mining industry on the use of biodiversity offsets. Off-setting was a mechanism which had been developing in a number of countries and which was increasingly being incorporated in statuary requirements to address biodiversity disturbance. Biodiversity offsets are a mechanism to mitigate unavoidable damage to biodiversity by doing compensatory measures. It was predicated on the concept of Net Positive Impact (NPI) for biodiversity or, as it became abbreviated Net Gain.  The principals of NPI and of  identifying Biodiversity offsets required an analysis of the impacts on biodiversity and the establishment of a mitigation hierarchy where actions could be taken to minimise or remove the impact via a number of defined steps. Where there remained a net biodiversity impact on the actual site, this would be addressed through a biodiversity offset – a programme of improvement or protection to equivalent sites, preferably local to the site of disturbance. The approach required a high level of understanding of local biodiversity and ecological processes and a need for standardised ways of assessing biodiversity loss or gain so that targets for NPI and appropriate compensatory offset measures could be identifed where biodiversity impacts remained.

mitigation heirarchy

Establishing a mitigation hierarchy to inform measures in avoid, minimise or offset biodiversity disturbance and loss © Rio Tinto

In 2006 ICMM published a substantial 140 page Good practice guide for mining and biodiversity, drawing on the experience of the studies sites. By this time the guide was also beginning to align to the ecosystem service approach emerging at that time, increasing the argument for the local benefits to the environment and communities in the surrounding area through securing ecosystems services.

One of the most proactive industry participants was Rio Tinto which in 2007 published its Corporate biodiversity strategy. This set out  biodiversity goals and described how they would be implemented across the organisation a group level. This included, setting out the process by which the company would develop its site specific Biodiversity Action Plans (BAPS) for each of its sites and what these would constitute. It also incorporated the concepts of  NPI, set out mechanisms to identify risk and develop a mitigation hierarchy by which the site management would take defined steps to minimise its biodiversity impacts and address net biodiversity impacts through a biodiversity offset programme .

By 2010 ICMM had released an updated collection of case studies which were trying to extend the use of the guidelines and incorporate the new approaches as standards for industry practice, the revised case studies were published to align with the meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya Japan. Here in the UK, CEMEX in collaboration with the RSPB, released a 2010-20 vision document highlight the value of biodiversity and commitments by the company to support biodiversity management within their operational framework  – setting out a mitigation hierarchy and steps it planned to include in the management of its sites.

Internationally individual companies are also increasingly responsive to biodiversity issues while the regulatory frameworks in countries are becoming more rigorous. Cases on sites managed by BHP Billiton in Australia serve to demonstrate the point.  In 2011 its Worsley Alumina sites presented a detailed technical biodiversity and forest management plan to mitigate their impact in the Darling Mountain Range. This plan was not just limited to the direct impacts on the site but also considered wider ecosystem implications; in this case the granularity includes responding to the risk of the mining operations spreading disease threats to local forest. The overall rehabilitation strategy recognised residual losses and sets out both biodiversity offset activities and the establishment of a conservation bond to ensure net gain. The detailed biodiversity management and rehabilitation plan for its operations to extract coal in the McArther range (2012) is again broadly consistent with the ICMM guidelines it also clearly reflects, as articulated in the document, that these measure were prerequisite to getting a licence to operate from the Government of New South Wales which was demonstrably tightening its regulatory requirements. In 2012 ICMM issues a revised ‘Independent report on biodiversity offsets’ report, bringing their earlier work up to date, and particularly elaborating on the strategic options for biodiversity offset to respond to unavoidable biodiversity disturbance after all on-site measures to mitigate and minimise loss were employed. The report issued information on the legislative approaches increasingly being put in place by governments and also by financial loan institutions for meeting environmental requirements. For example International Finance Corporation (IFC) performance Standard 6 (PS6. IFC PF6 requires a net gain for impacts on critical habitat and No Net Loss for impacts on any natural habitat, ICMM recommended that the IFC PF6, which are being taken up by many international banks, be regarded by mining corporations as the best-practice benchmark. The updated report also looked more closely at how offsetting might relate to the effective maintenance of ecosystem services. Finally it proposed a series of actions that ICMM would continue to develop with its partners to progress biodiversity protection, to learn lessons from what had been attempted and to importer practice in the future.

The awareness of biodiversity impacts from extractive processes is not limited to land-based operations. In 2011 the British Marine Aggregate Producers Association, which represents a number of companies that dredge sand and gravels from sea-bed deposits had worked with local biodiversity organisations, including Natural England and the Wildlife Trusts, to produce its Biodiversity Action Plan to reduce the impacts of its dredging activities on the sea-bed around the UK.

It is a fair comment to ask how far the guidelines are being taken up across the industry, indeed it is difficult to see an industry with interests in many different nations acting coherently, so now is not the time to say great, job-done, there remain significant issues though increasing the industry sees this less as an optional ethical issue and much more as a sensible economic case for long-term business security. It is fair to say that industry leaders have made significant steps. Over the past decade they have begun to come to terms with a major issue which was barely acknowledged in the previous decade. Even as they have set about improving their response the issue of biodiversity lose has been growing in significance as its true relationship to wider environmental resilience and sustainable development have emerged. The glass is half full, hopefully the good work to date will increasingly reflect well on those who have championed it, and pressure will increase on those who have been slow to respond. The years ahead need to see both the approaches become better refined and understood, and their implementation seen as business as usual.

[All documents referred to in this article are locates in the resources section of this site]

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