Select Committee on International Development Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Further memorandum submitted by the British Geological Survey


Is it possible to develop minerals in a sustainable manner?

  At first sight it may appear that it is somewhat incongruous to discuss sustainability and finite resources such as minerals in the same sentence. However, crises in the world's natural resources at the present time are much more acute with theoretically "infinite" or "renewable" living resources when compared to mineral resources. For example depletions in North Sea fish stocks and the world's tropical rainforests are much more significant than equivalent depletions of any mineral resource: in fact in the two examples mentioned the situation is almost becoming critical and irreversible reflecting a human inability to manage living resources in a truly sustainable manner.

  In contrast there appears, at present, to be few supply-side problems with respect to mineral commodities. Most countries and industries are being reasonably well serviced in terms of being able to obtain the raw materials they require for their industrial needs. It is true that many key strategic raw materials are being produced by a small number of countries (eg South Africa, China, Russia, Chile) and that this increases their theoretical vulnerability especially if political tensions become a major problem, but raw material shortages have not been a major problem in modern historical times.

  How can we mine in a sustainable manner? There are a number of key principles which include: involving local stakeholder communities in all aspects of a mining project; maximising natural resources usage; minimising negative environmental impacts; encouraging recycling of waste and secondary materials; strategically planning mineral extraction; remediating old mine sites and maximising the potential of these sites for increasing local social amenities and biodiversity; and attempting to resist the "not in my backyard" syndrome and exporting problems elsewhere. These principles add up to "best international practice" in mineral exploration and mining. These principles are indeed being followed, where possible, by most responsible mining companies in most countries. Most mining companies recognise these principles as "essential business practice" and companies are painfully aware that there are examples (eg Panguna, Bougainville) where mines have closed down as a result of ignoring some key principles. There have been many historical examples and sadly, modern examples exist, of poor mining practices, but it would be fair to say that the majority of the world's mining industry is far more aware of sustainability and corporate citizenship responsibilities than ever before (eg the Global Mining Initiative,

Negative perception and wealth generation

  Mining and minerals has had a negative image with a large proportion of the general public for some time. This is partly due to irresponsible and environmentally unfriendly mining practices of the past, but these negative perceptions have also been fostered by "Green" lobby groups and some economic modellers who equate the mining industry with "old fashioned technology—the technology of the 20th, not the 21st century". This changed image contrasts with the image of mining a few decades ago where mining was equated with wealth generation and job creation.

  Mining still does generate wealth and create jobs both directly and indirectly. For example, the 45 million/year ball clay extraction industry in the south of England underpins a c.9 billion/year ceramics industry in Europe. Mining can generate very significant wealth for developing countries in the form of hard currency which increases self-reliance and economic independence. Examples of countries who have benefited from mineral related wealth generation include South Africa, Zambia, Chile, China, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea (not forgetting so-called "mature economies" such as Canada, Australia, the USA and, particularly historically, the UK). Mining can sustain a whole range of commodity processing and manufacturing industry which in turn can stimulate the service and financial sectors. Wealth generated from mining can develop local and national economies and infrastructure: examples where this has not been the case can usually be explained in terms of corruption and low quality governance.

The demand for minerals—remember the real drivers

  We often forget that the ultimate driver for mining is the insatiable demand of the consumer. Western lifestyles in particular are mineral-greedy. Many people aspire to owning high quality houses, working in high quality offices, driving cars on fast roads and going on foreign holidays. These aspirations require minerals every step of the way: from the sand, gravel and crushed rock required to build our houses, offices and roads, to the steel and plastic for our cars, to the high value strategic minerals required for aircraft . . . not to mention the energy requirements for all the facilities most "Westerners" use. Every American baby born today will use: a quarter of a million litres of petroleum, 600,000kg of stone and sand and gravel, 400kg of zinc, 20,000kg of steel, and 3,000kg of Aluminium: or a total of 1.6 million kg of minerals, metals and fuels in her/his lifetime (source: Mineral Information Institute, Golden, California).

  The mining industry is responding to the demands of consumers and the high quality lifestyle much of the rich world enjoys. If future societies become less "greedy" with respect to minerals and energy usage then there will be less of a requirement for mining. However, until this future material-frugal society is developed there is likely to be an increasing, not a decreasing demand for many raw materials.

Environmental Degradation

  There is a legacy of environmental degradation and inefficient energy use by the mining industry (eg Nauru, south Pacific), but there are currently many positive signs which indicate that the mining industry knows it must respond to increasing environmental and climate change awareness of the general public and decision makers.

  Mining related environmental degradation includes phenomena such as contaminated land, creation of mineral waste-heaps, contaminated water supplies, atmospheric and soil pollution, land subsidence, etc. There exist at the present time a spectrum of innovative technical solutions to most mining-related environmental problems (eg de-toxifying contaminated land, recycling or landscaping mineral spoil heaps, etc). There is also a highly developed consciousness backed by legislation which act to encourage all mine operators to follow best-practice mining and adopt state of the art environmental monitoring procedures. Further pressure on industry is required to ensure that all mine operators adopt "best international practice" wherever they operate in the world.

Mineral lifecycle modelling: prioritisation of land use

  International best practice mining methodologies include mineral lifecycle modelling. This involves a holistic analysis of mineral exploration and practice from grass-roots exploration to mineral extraction to after-mine land care. All mining planning applications must include a detailed analysis of the impact of mining with respect to the land which contains the mineral, the environment, the local communities, transport pressures . . . etc.

  Local planning authorities then assess mining applications and attempt to judge the merits of mining activities in comparison to other competing suggestions for land usage (eg agriculture, house building, etc). It should be emphasised that mining is not a permanent utilisation of the land and, providing after-mining land care is undertaken, it should be possible in most cases to use the mine land productively once mining operations have ceased. The British Geological Survey are currently assisting mineral planners by developing holistic mineral information GIS systems which document all relevant data required to make decisions on mining applications. These GIS systems include data on minerals and geology, transport infrastructure, planning constraints, etc and can be intelligently interrogated to provide specific answers to specific questions. These types of modern decision support tools assist planners in prioritising the best land-usage and appropriate land, water and natural resource management of their administrative regions taking a whole range of factors into account.

The importance of minerals to developing economies

  Minerals are of vital importance to developing economies. In some cases they may provide a poor country with its only realistic opportunity to generate hard currency-based wealth and increase economic independence. It is also important to note that (1) minerals are not uniformly located throughout the world and can only be developed where they exist; and (2) minerals can only be turned into money when there is a market for them: for example the stone age didn't end because the world ran out of stone, and Saudi Arabia understands that it must realise its enormous oil wealth before the world demand for oil declines significantly. For many developing countries with relatively small economies it is fair to say that minerals can form a large proportion of the country's GNP (eg Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, Nauru, Chile, etc). Many if not most industrialised economies have used their own mineral wealth as a means of developing their general economy and national infrastructure. For a significant proportion of the developing world, the realisation of potential mineral wealth remains a viable option for economic development.

  However, in order to develop mineral resources a country must attract inward investment from mining companies. A country can only do this if: (1) it has a reasonably well developed geological information base (e.g. geological maps and reports—if these are in a modern digital format it is a real bonus); (2) stable government; and (3) a fiscal regime which attracts inward investment.

  DFID (or formerly ODA) has historically made an enormous contribution through the BGS to geological knowledge development in many parts of the developing world (Africa, Asia, South America and the Pacific). At the present time however DFID only makes a very modest contribution to geological and minerals-focused institutions in developing countries. This change resulted from policy shifts in the early 1990s partly in response to the negative perceptions of the mining industry as an "environment destroyer". This withdrawal of funding, particularly for residential support and the filling of government line positions within recipient countries, has resulted in a serious weakening of governmental geological survey organisations and related departments and an erosion of their skills, expertise, knowledge, and information base. This very significant deterioration has had a real negative impact on inward investment with respect to mineral exploration and mining. Assistance to the minerals related sector by DFID, particularly the reintroduction of appropriately trained residential teams could quickly and significantly reinvigorate these institutions and introduce modern technology and methodologies. These residential teams would be tasked with governmental policy development, institutional strengthening, skills training, attraction of inward investment, and the encouragement of the adoption of best international practices.

Small Scale Artisanal Mining

  It should be noted that mining is not the preserve of large scale multi-national organisations (although this is true for large scale mines which require huge capital investments and take many years to realise profits). Mining of a whole range of commodities from phosphate to sulphur to salt to lime to gold and diamonds is also undertaken by individuals, families and groups on a very basic and simple technological level basis. Large numbers of people in developing countries rely on small scale mining for their livelihood. BGS has traditionally offered a range of support services including geological consultancy and advice on improving mining and environmental practices. These services have been warmly welcomed by the miners and their families and tangible benefits and technology transfer (eg increasing individuals annual salaries) has resulted from the amalgam of BGS project work. In spite of these successes it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract funding from DFID to continue, develop, and make even more relevant these highly socially-focused projects.

Global change and mining

  Mining must take its fair share of the blame for generating greenhouse gases. Mining and mineral processing operations, manufacture of products which use mined raw materials, and transport of raw materials all require energy. Aluminium and steel production are highly energy-intensive activities for example. However world market forces encourage the mining industry to concentrate production and transport of large volumes of material at minimum cost: profit margins are small for many mining operators and individual mines. Many bulk minerals attract a low price/unit volume and require to be transported cheaply and efficiently mainly by water (e.g. coal). Technical innovations within the mining industry are tending to lower energy requirements.

  One specific case is worthy of mention in this connection. Mining in fragile ecosystems such as low lying ocean islands is something which should be undertaken with the greatest of care. Mining in these environments can lower the land surface of an already low-lying island, and inappropriate offshore mining may upset the local recharge of sediment to beaches and offshore sediment accummulation zones, and increase water turbidity and fine-sediment concentrations which can have a negative impact on the local ecosystem. However low lying islands still require minerals to sustain and develop their industry and infrastructure and environmentally sensitive solutions must be sought for their specific needs.


  It is time that the negative perception of mining as "an environmental destroyer" is revisited. Mining can be undertaken using sustainable principles. The modern mining industry is aware of its environmental and social obligations and will provide an increasingly environmentally-friendly and energy-efficient service, especially if pressures for the adoption of international best practices are maintained at a high level. Mining and mineral exploration can generate significant revenues for many developing world countries, and this wealth can be used to develop national economies, infrastructure, social welfare systems, and further industrial development. Traditionally DFID has been a generous sponsor of minerals-oriented projects in developing countries but has largely ceased funding this type of work. A revival in particularly residentially-focused minerals projects would be a cost-effective way of providing lasting economic support to many developing countries and attracting inward private company investment. Mining has a climate cost as with all primary and manufacturing industry, but this is not, on the whole, a disproportionate energy burden relative to other industries.

British Geological Survey

January 2002

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