Aligning realities towards more sustainable mining practices

by Alain Kilajian

[TL:DR] Mining can have devastating effects on landscapes and communities. It can also lead to positive local development and add value to a region. But, in practice, the effects of mining are not so black and white and sometimes, at least for some parties, the impacts of mining are often misunderstood, misjudged or just completely unknown. This is what my research on the impacts of mining in Thailand taught me as I explored the links between mining companies, local communities, sustainability and access to information.

Chiang Khan District Mine (Photo source: Alain Kilajian)

What do the steam locomotive, the smart phone and the civilization of Teotihuacan have in common? The extraction of natural resources; or in other words, mining. Without coal, cobalt or obsidian, these markers of human history could have potentially never made their mark. From the development of Bronze Age tools to the advent of modern solar panels, mining has, and continues to, play a vital role in human development.


As an environmentalist, I would prefer that this weren’t the case. Extractive industries do not have the best environmental track record and have often left lands and communities in devastating conditions. But, having now grown in maturity and softened my historically unwavering environmental defense, I have come to understand that this is only one side of the picture. Mining initiatives have also brought wealth, infrastructure and employment to local communities and have proved to contribute to the growth of many economies, especially in the context of developing countries. Here, we have a pretty straightforward picture of mining.

On the one hand, we have the destroyer of landscapes and on the other, the emblem of wealth and development.

As we know, nothing is black and white, and sometimes, at least for some parties, the impacts of mining are often misunderstood, misjudged or just completely unknown. This is what I learned during my research on the effects of mining on agricultural communities in Thailand.


IRON MINING IN NORTHEAST THAILAND

From September 2015 to August 2016, I had the pleasure and honor of conducting research with an agricultural community in the heavily mined district of Chiang Khan, located in northeast Thailand. For the purpose of this article, and to respect the anonymity of the villagers, we will call the village Ban Mooban.


Ban Mooban is a small agricultural community of approximately 300 households located southeast of the Mekong River. The village sits between two small mountain chains making the local land extremely fertile and therefore well suited for agriculture. Furthermore, geological maps also reveal that Ban Mooban is situated between two relatively large and rich iron ore deposits. Due to this abundance of minerals, the area surrounding Ban Mooban has become a point of interest for the mining industry, and in 2006, a mining company constructed an open-pit iron mine on the smaller deposit, located about 2 km southeast of the village. More recently, three additional mining companies have been granted concessions for the construction of three more iron mines on the larger deposit, located southwest of the village.


My research aimed to further explore the relationship between Ban Mooban and the local mining industry. To do so, we distributed questionnaires, held focus groups and conducted in-depth interviews. We also collected soil and water samples which I later tested for heavy metal pollution, the primary concern for the villagers.


Chiang Khan District (Photo source: Alain Kilajian)

THE TALE OF TWO REALITIES

The survey results proved to be quite interesting. The villagers were quite knowledgeable about the risks of mining in general but felt uninformed about the mine in their local area. The villagers showed a desire for increased engagement and empowerment in the decision-making and monitoring processes. This was justified by the fact that less than one-fifth of the sample population of Ban Mooban villagers felt that they had a voice during the approval process of the mine while a majority would want to play a more active role. Finally, over two-thirds of the sample population stated having felt negative environmental impacts from the mine, in the form of decreased fish populations and surface water pollution.

Strangely enough, and to my great surprise, both the soil and water sampling results showed that the active iron mine was not directly contaminating the local environment, despite the concerns of the villagers.

This left me confused as the villagers had clearly stated having felt negative environmental impacts from the mine. I found myself asking the following two questions: 1) Why did local residents believe their land was being polluted when, in fact, it was not? and 2) what led them to feel voiceless?


ACCESS TO INFORMATION AND KNOWLEDGE GAPS

The northeast region of Thailand, similar to many other booming mining zones, is an area plagued with conflicts between communities and development projects that are not being resolved smoothly. One of the conflicts involves a controversial gold mine located in the heavily mined district of Wang Saphung, Loei Province. After multiple tailing pond collapses, over 100 community members were diagnosed with cyanide poisoning and many acres of agricultural land left contaminated. Local residents have been fighting the mine since 2006, petitioning for more transparent practices and improved stakeholder engagement from the mining company.


Chiang Khan district neighbors Wang Saphung and in a similar fashion, has been increasingly marked by large-scale mining projects. Though, most of the mines in Chiang Khan are being constructed for the extraction of iron, known to be a much safer process than gold mining. Still, because of the environmental incidents caused by mining in neighboring districts, local residents are afraid and unaware of the potential impacts from the mining activities.


And therein lies the problem. There is an apparent knowledge gap between what is thought to be happening and what is really happening in mining communities.


ALIGNING REALITIES TOWARDS MORE SUSTAINABLE MINING PRACTICES

In the case of Ban Mooban, the issue was quite clear. Poor access to information and a lack of meaningful community engagement left the local residents feeling uninformed, voiceless and unaware of the conditions of their local environment. Indeed, the impacts of the mining practices were unknown to them, and based on that unknown, the effects were misjudged and misunderstood.


Sustainable mining practices often focus on the environmental impacts of mining, looking to improve efficiency, minimize pollution and reduce waste. These efforts are all extremely important as we move towards more sustainable mining practices but cannot alone replace the need for strong community engagement and programs.


Indeed, regulatory requirements alone are often not enough to address the communication gap between mining companies and local communities. Most countries simply require mining companies to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) before granting a concession and moving forward with the project. Yet, EIAs, created to assess the environmental impacts of a project, only minimally address the social and health implications of industrial developments, which, in the EIA framework, are considered as additional concerns, secondary to their environmental counterpart.


In the absence of strong legislative requirements, the most obvious ways mining companies address the communication gap is through effective corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs. Some examples of CSR best practices in mining include monthly community meetings during which community members can voice concerns and monitoring results are shared or the establishment of an onsite community engagement officer (i.e. a representative of the mining company solely responsible for maintaining good community relations). Another way to address the communication gap is extend the scope of the initial project EIA to include social and health impacts. This is known as an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) or an Environmental, Social and Health Impact Assessment (ESHIA). These two types of assessment highlight the importance of local communities and ensure that impacts to their livelihoods are effectively monitored, communicated and mitigated.


The International Council on Mining & Metals (ICMM) stated that “engaging with communities is critically important for mining companies, but can be complex and challenging.” And I couldn’t agree more. We must learn to embrace the complex and challenging as we aim to align realities towards truly sustainable industrial practices.


Note: The research presented in this article was conducted as part of a larger research study on community engagement and post-EIA mining management in Chiang Khan, Thailand. If you would like to know more about the methods, protocols and sampling techniques utilised during this study, you can contact the author directly at alain.kilajian@gmail.com

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