By Nigel Wight and Francisca Rivero, social researchers at SMI-ICE-Chile
Mine closure is an inevitable process, yet the complex changes related to closure can have significant and lasting impacts on an operation’s surrounding communities. A company’s conceptualisation of mine closure is not the same as how an impacted community views closure. For communities, “closure” means a long and often difficult transition, away from an entrenched dependency on the mine’s benefits that can take years, or even generations. At the same time, the negative consequences of a mine’s operations, such as the mine pit, waste rock dumps, and altered water courses, can often continue to impact communities for life.
The majority of the world’s mining companies are not prepared for the social requirements of closure. Mining companies, when making the decision to close a mine, assemble multidisciplinary teams of experts, specialising in diverse technical aspects of mine closure, such as the dismantling of mine infrastructure, ensuring the chemical and physical stability of the mine site, post-closure, and rehabilitation activities. Many of the technical aspects for closure have been identified by the company years prior. Mining companies rarely identify with such foresight the issues relating to social transitions that take place when a mine closes. Moreover, the social knowledge base to inform mine closure is built on the logic of operational continuity. Company indicators related to social performance tend to be associated with ensuring a mine remains open and functioning. Key social performance areas such as local employment quotas and local supplier initiatives seek to transfer mining benefits to local communities.
Yet these benefits cease immediately upon closure. Mining companies should approach closure planning around extending a mine’s benefits to communities, and reducing social risks, in the same way they approach the risk of acid mine drainage, for example. Social aspects of closure processes must be integrated early in mine closure planning, with the same or more time and resources assigned to carry out this task.
Internal company capacities however, rather than reinforced for the social challenges of closure are often reduced or phased out, and operations usually decrease their “social” budgets, instead of maintaining or increasing them. Promises of wellbeing do not consider closure and post-closure stages.
Much of the mining industry’s own evidence base to support claims of mining-driven sustainable territorial development is –in reality– strongly contingent on the continuous operation of operations. Collective efforts by the industry, government, academia, and non-government organisations to understand the future implications and expectations of impacted communities have been limited. Arguments around the sustainability claims of mining become polarised, defended by mining industry public relations on the one hand, and attacked by activist positions on the other. The sustainable development arguments for mining are most critically tested when a mine closes. It is imperative that the impacts on communities through closure transitions are effectively researched.
The research data on the social impacts of closure are necessary across many aspects of closure planning. Data to inform mining social investment programs that avoid or limit communities’ economic dependence. Data to inform how community visions or interests are included in closure planning decisions. Or to identify the necessary skills to strengthen company and community capacities for a successful transition to a post-mining reality.
Timely evaluation of social impacts
Mining companies cannot leave the identification of the potential social impacts of closure to the end. Companies must offer hard evidence of the positive benefits and the sustainability of local communities after they leave the territory. Moreover, closure plans must effectively address the social risks to communities of closure through directed investment aimed at optimising closure resources for maximum long-term benefits to communities.
For the mining industry, closure presents as a paradox. On the one hand, the mining operation must conceptualise, plan and implement actions for the inevitable closure. On the other, the industry is increasingly examined for its contribution to the sustainable development of society, particularly of the communities in the local territories. Social actors that are, or will be, affected by mining are increasingly informed of the responsibilities of the industry for the direct and indirect impacts to communities, as well as their rights and how they can influence decisions related to their territory. The mining industry has the opportunity to address these external pressures by demonstrating positive and prolonged impacts of a mine’s operation in the territory, supporting the development through closure towards a sustainable post-mining future.
In this regard, there is a clear role for academic researchers and NGOs operating in impacted territories. First, to effectively identify the social closure risks, for communities as well as for the company. Second, to contribute to building an adequate social knowledge base to inform decisions regarding closure planning and to fill the capacity void among all parties, the State and the communities throughout the social transition to a post-mining legacy. And finally, to inform possible changes to mine closure legislation.
Scope of social performance in a closure scenario
The social challenges the closure of a mine generates are numerous, and social risks to communities can be immense. A company’s social performance functions are oriented around the operational phase of a mine’s life cycle. How well-equipped are a mine’s social performance functions to adapt to the demands of closure? What social knowledge base and capacities does a company have, not only to track the impacts of closure and inform mitigation measures accordingly, but to address the concerns of local stakeholders during a period of extreme change in a territory? We observe an effective limitation in the capacities required to face this challenge in the industry.
The demands by impacted communities, and regional and national governments, around how mining companies address the social transitions generated by mine closure, will continue to increase. The social performance function will become increasingly important within an operation’s closure planning team. Not only in terms of engaging with stakeholders around closure, but in ensuring that the social impacts of closure are well-identified, and that the closure mitigation plans are prepared with the participation of communities, addressing the long-term developmental aims and visions of those who will remain in the territory long after the company has left.