Cultivating responsible mining in Canada and abroad

26 March 2018 (Last Updated March 26th, 2018 10:29)

The Mining Association of Canada’s ‘Towards Sustainable Mining’ standard, which requires members to annually assess their performance in several key areas, has now been adopted in four different countries – most recently the Philippines. Heidi Vella finds out how the initiative is helping raise standards at mines both in Canada and abroad.

Cultivating responsible mining in Canada and abroad
MAC’s membership has grown by a third in the last five years, according to Gratton, so the initiative is now being followed by more Canadian miners that ever. Credit: Courtesy of Joshua Duggan

In 2004 the Mining Association of Canada (MAC) launched the ‘Towards Sustainable Mining’ standard (TSM) in Canada to improve the practices and the image of the Canadian mining sector.

“At that time, we were concerned about the reputation of the industry,” CEO of MAC, Pierre Gratton explains. “We were facing growing NGO opposition towards mining in Canada and stronger regulatory oversight, and the industry felt itself that it wasn’t performing as well as it should be.”

The industry needed to, quite simply, “up its game”, says Gratton.

TSM provides a set of tools and indicators to improve performance in three key areas: community engagement, the environment and health and safety, and to ultimately increase accountability, transparency, credibility and performance of its members.

Furthermore, MAC hoped it would help the industry better connect with stakeholders, instead of taking an out of sight, out of mind approach. To help them do this it created a national advisory panel, comprising various groups, including indigenous representatives, intended to challenge the industry.

In December, the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (COMP) became the latest mining association, and the first in South East Asia, to adopt the standard.

The move is likely be in response to similar ongoing challenges faced by miners in the Philippines.

President Rodrigo Duterte, elected in 2013, has been highly critical of the industry, accusing miners of ‘considerably neglecting’ their duty to protect the environment. His administration has also imposed a moratorium on new mining contracts and a 2% tax increase.

Upon announcing the adoption of TSM, COMP chairman, Gerard H Brimo, said mineral development could be done responsibly and he hoped the standard would help members ‘institutionalise practices that secure these contributions for the long term’.

Finland, Argentina and Botswana: making changes

Through TSM, MAC member companies have to self-assess their facilities against a set of protocols or measuring sticks and independently grade their performance. The results are published by MAC and every three years companies undergo external valuation by qualified verifiers who validate their results. MAC claims to be the first industry association in the world to do this.

TSM’s last report, covering 2016, noted several improvements, including 98% of companies reporting publicly on their engagement and dialogue activities, compared with 94% in 2015.

Seventy-two percent of companies reported publicly on biodiversity conservation activities and performance, compared with 66% in 2015, and 56% have established and met energy and greenhouse gas emissions performance targets, compared with 44% in 2015.

“We have shown significant improvements in our practises and I think it has also helped reduce the friction that has existed,” says Gratton. “It is now rare that mines face opposition in Canada, and when it does happen, it tends to be against projects that are by their very nature more sensitive.”

MAC’s membership has grown by a third in the last five years, according to Gratton, so the initiative is now being followed by more Canadian miners that ever.

Before the Philippines, other countries’ mining associations adopted TSM when facing issues similar to those in Canada, and the standard is now used in Finland, Argentina and Botswana.

“The Finnish mining sector faced a lot of the problems we did at that time and so [the trade body] started looking around the world for something positive to build from and they discovered our programme,” says Gratton.

MAC helps adoption by training the mining chamber and miners. In new jurisdictions that adopts TSM there is usually a MAC member company operating that has experience with the initiative in Canada and made a point of encouraging the industry in those countries to consider adopting it.

“Hopefully this is a trend that will continue,” he adds, “I think, if the pressure starts to come from the customer base that will provide much more impetus for it.”

And the pressure is coming. Gratton says one issue hitting the industry pretty hard now is that of manufacturers, such as Apple starting to demand assurances that the minerals used in their products are mined responsibly.

“In this context TSM is emerging as the standard that the global industry can turn to for assurance, which is raising its profile even further,” he adds. “The initiative creates reassurance that you are mining responsibility, that you are treating your workers well and that is the kind of assurance companies are looking for.”

Continuing challenges

However, TSM is only mandatory for MAC members’ Canadian operations, as “we are not in a position to dictate what mining industries in other countries do”, says Gratton.

Canadian companies operating abroad have faced staunch criticism for extremely serious issues arising at their mine sites, including human rights abuses and environmental degradation. Several cases have even come to Canadian courts and the government says it is ready to appoint an ombudsman to help resolve issues as they arise.

TSM doesn’t address these issues, but Gratton says some members choose to apply TSM everywhere they operate, such as IAMGOLD, which operates in Suriname, Burkina Faso, Mali and Canada.

“IAMGOLD in Indaba is really seen as a tremendous leader and I think that is because they have taken TSM and applied in Burkina Faso, Suriname and not just in Canada,” says Gratton.

Furthermore, early last year, MAC also made it mandatory for members to implement the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, which are the only human rights guidelines designed specifically for extractive sector companies.

Starting this year, through the TSM report, member companies will be reporting on how they will adhere to those principles.

“This is not just a Canadian commitment, but most [members] are subscribed to the principles anyway, so it wasn’t a stretch to make this commitment,” says Gratton.

“It is not a site level initiative as such, but more about using risk-based plans if you are operating in an area with high risk and you are using security personnel; for example, you will need to take steps to train these personnel in human rights and how to appropriately use force.”

This is to try and address issues that have arisen with security personnel used at mine sites outside Canada, including accusations of excessive force, rape and murder.

More work to be done

Gratton says the initiative has some work to do in new areas MAC has identified, such as conservation.

“It is a relatively new concept and some companies have environmental policy and systems in place specifically addressing biodiversity, but still, if you look at our results you will see we have improved in this area also,” says Gratton.

Adding that MAC is committed to help the sector learn from one another to continually improve.

“I think TSM has helped the Canadian mining industry start to talk about themselves I have seen a huge change in how the industry is willing to open up and share what they are doing.”

Undoubtedly, TSM has driven positive change in the Canadian mining, though for some it shouldn’t take the place of government regulation.

“TSM is a good management tool, it’s good for companies that want to implement good practises and is a useful framework for monitoring and measuring progress towards that,” says Jamie Kneen, communications and outreach coordinator, at Mining Watch Canada, a Canadian-based NGO.

“It is most useful, however, in-conjunction with a strong regulatory framework so there are actual legal requirements. When we say TSM is being adopted it is being adopted by industry but not by governments. Both are necessary.”