Can the Mining Industry Really Become ‘Responsible’?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because mining is not going away, so best to clean it up.
Minerals and metals are in everything we use. From the gold connectors inside smartphones and the aluminum in refrigerators to the fluoride in toothpaste, we depend on mining companies’ extractive operations far more than we might realize.
Behind such operations is a sector with a bad track record and a reputation to go with it. Mining companies have been accused of exploitation, neglect and brutal repression of workers. While accidental deaths have declined worldwide, dozens die on the job each year. Then come the environmental hazards and displacement of rural peoples when a mine moves in.
It doesn’t have to be this way, says Mónica Cantú, a 45-year-old psychologist spearheading a groundbreaking effort to raise the standard for mining companies in her native Mexico. Along with her business partner, Vivian Heredia, Cantú is inches away from certifying the first “responsible mine” in the Western Hemisphere — an unprecedented move meant to disrupt mining across the world by forcing companies to enact environmental and humanitarian protections.
Cantú’s winding path to the mining sector started at age 17, when she traveled with a group of classmates to a mountain region in the state of Chihuahua to spend time with an indigenous community. “My life changed radically,” Cantú recalls. “I started asking myself: How can this be? How can I live this way and have so much compared to how they live and how little they have?” she says, holding a warm coffee mug in both hands, her pixie haircut neatly in place.
After several more such trips, Cantú moved to an autonomous indigenous town in the southern state of Chiapas, where she lived for four years and learned to speak two of Mexico’s 68 indigenous languages. “I understood that they didn’t have as much as I did on a material level, but at an emotional level, and in terms of worldview, they are much more developed than us,” she says. “And I also understood that these communities have no voice, and often when they do speak out, no one listens.”
This is an industry that we can’t live without, so the aim is not to end mining.
After finishing postgraduate studies on social policy and development at the London School of Economics, Cantú came back to Mexico with a vision: She would bridge the gap between local communities and private companies.
Two years ago, she persuaded the Mexican company Carrizal Mining to make a medium-sized underground zinc, lead and copper mine the first in the Western Hemisphere to complete an audit in a global certification program by the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA).
For this, Cantú found a perfect partner in Vivian Heredia, a 40-year-old engineer who gave up her corporate job at a concrete maker to study environmental management. Heredia joined Cantú’s small consultancy, Minería Responsable, after six years working at nongovernmental organizations that tackled pollution and sustainability. “This is an industry that we can’t live without, so the aim is not to end mining,” Heredia says. “It’s to make it as safe and responsible as possible.”
IRMA, an international group made up of citizens, miners and buyers, includes in its certification not just environmental responsibility, but also social responsibility, business integrity and the commitment by the mine to leave behind a “positive legacy” once the mine is closed. That includes a plan to leave benefits for the residents who agreed to let the mine come in and exploit the land.
Mines reviewed by IRMA will likely have had the most thorough audit review of any mines globally, including the perspective of mine workers and the communities most affected by the mine, says Aimee Boulanger, the organization’s executive director. The IRMA board of directors includes leaders from Tiffany & Co. jewelers, Microsoft and BMW.
To get Carrizal through all the hoops, Cantú and Heredia embraced their positions as outsiders challenging the old order — sometimes facing resistance. “We had to convince employees that they had to change the way they were doing things even though, as far as they were concerned, their way worked well,” Cantú says.
From posting a human rights policy for all workers to read, to changing the way the company was measuring, and lowering, its greenhouse gas emissions, the two women spent months working to raise the bar at the mine in Zimapán. This took weeklong visits to the mining town 70 miles northeast of Mexico City each month, surveying both mine employees and the surrounding communities.
While there are other mines in the U.S., Canada and Brazil currently engaged in a certification, none is as far along in the process for independent review as Carrizal, says Boulanger.
“Over the past 15 years or so, there’s been a huge shift,” says Jan Boon, an academic in Canada who co-authored a white paper on responsible mining. “Environementalist NGOs started to put pressure on the mining industry and their corporate social responsibility.” Boon says more and more people are demanding to know where the metals and minerals in their goods come from, whether they were ethically mined and if the company they are buying from is behaving in a responsible manner.
But behind one consumer good, such as a smartphone, there is a long and complex global supply chain. To think of a certified finished product, as a whole, is a long way away.
“A question for the future is: As people try and deliver that assurance up the value chain to their next customer, is it an advantage to have a certification of this nature? I should imagine so,” says Gus Macfarlane, a vice president at risk management firm Verisk Maplecroft in the U.K. who focuses on extractive industries.
As these certifications grow, companies that use minerals or metals will likely seek out suppliers who have them — but only if customers demand it.
“The next step is to make consumers aware of this,” Heredia says, “because at the end of the day, they will be the ones to push the sector.”