By Nigel Wight and Francisca Rivero, social researchers at SMI-ICE-Chile
Mine closure is an inevitable part of the mine cycle. Mining operations are temporary and, once their activities are no longer viable, be it for structural, economic, or political reasons, the operation must close. Mining companies have multiple internal uncertainties, environmental mitigation measures and external variables which determine how closure is planned, financed, and operationalised.
Laws that regulate and guide the social performance of mining companies in mine closure are scarce and limited. This is true both in Chile and throughout the world. Mining companies depend greatly on their own standards and social performance actions to identify and mitigate social risks related to the closure of operations.
We consider that the knowledge, capacities and resources available during the operation’s lifespan are not sufficient for the closure and post-closure stages. Closure comes with unique challenges in terms of impacts and social risks, and requires specialised knowledge, capacities and resources to successfully carry out such a profound process as closure. In the midst of this complexity, academia has begun to contribute meaningfully to generate knowledge, disassociated somewhat from the industry pressures of the mining cycle, and with resources that allow us to learn from closure process experiences, and promote changes in the way mining companies organise for closure.
Social challenges and the law for closure of mine operations
The closure of a mine operations is a highly complex process, presenting multiple challenges. In 2012 in Chile law number 20 551 which regulates the closure of mine operations and facilities came into effect. International experiences on mine closure were references for the Chilean legislation, as well as existing closure practices from the primary foreign mining companies in Chile. The law’s objective is to plan and implement actions “progressively, during the different operational stages of a mine site, throughout its lifecycle”. The law compels companies to make a closure plan early, which must be approved by Sernageomin, which allows for the identification and mitigation of environmental impacts which remain as legacy in the territory.
However, Chilean regulation is yet to adequately consider how to guide the industry through the demands of social aspects of mine closure. This aspect of closure remains invisible compared to the challenge of achieving physical-chemical stability of the site. It is not enough merely to inform and disseminate the closure plan among impacted communities, although this is a key aspect. A good communications plan does not guarantee a transition focused on ensuring sustained wellbeing of impacted communities. In this sense, Chile is equivalent to other mining contexts. A study carried out by Kung et al (2020) for the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining identifies that the great majority of mining contexts, among them jurisdictions within Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Peru, do not require social impact evaluations for closure.
In Chile there are few mining companies that have undergone site closures. However, every operation currently active, as well as projects under development, must have an approved closure plan. Few companies have elaborated their own standards to explicitly undertake social challenges generated during closure: social transition, new land uses, and social impacts related to environmental impacts. Since current regulations do not address social impacts of closure on communities, they restrict mining companies from effectively designing and implementing their social performance activities in order to reduce the future risks associated with mine closure. There is an opportunity to enrich and improve the regulatory instrument so that it may address, appropriately and accurately, the challenges of closure from a social perspective.
The role of the State is crucial
Generally, the State has not actively participated in the development of the territory where mines operate. Their actions are circumscribed to activities carried out by municipalities and regional governments but restricted by the limited public resources these entities administer. Public investment in mining territories, from the respective governmental agencies, does not always complement private investment and, on occasion the absence of the State is evident in these areas, where mining companies finance basic services in order to guarantee a minimum wellbeing for communities, through Corporate Social Responsibility programs.
As a mine reaches closure, the historical absence of the State in a territory becomes relevant. The State must reassume its role, firstly to safeguard the compliance of the law, but also to fill the void left in the territory and collaboratively support the social transition process that communities will undergo towards a post-closure scenario.
The social and political context of Chile increasingly demands addressing the requirements of key social stakeholders in the territories in a timely and responsible manner. The State, alongside industry and the communities, must have conversations and reach the necessary agreements to design future scenarios for a transition from mining that promotes territorial development while supporting a sustainable legacy considering the wellbeing of communities.
The role of academia
Australian, Canadian and European academia are distinguished by the longevity and breadth of their research and experience in the social complexities of mining, including mine closure. Academia, through its experience based on evidence, can positively affect a fairer distribution of risks and benefits as it relates to mine closure processes. We believe that our vision and knowledge from academia and applied research, examining industry process and understandings, allow us to advance and influence the public agenda to propose sustainable regulatory adjustments and enrich mine closure planning processes, from a social perspective.
The Sustainable Minerals Institute (SMI) at The University of Queensland has carried out extensive research on social aspects of mine closure, and is currently part of The Social Aspects of Mine Closure Research Consortium, a collaboration established in 2019 between academia and industry to carry out research that challenges the norms and practices currently accepted by industry, and establishes new standards on mine closure focused on people.
· Kung, A., Everingham, J., and Vivoda, V. (2020) ‘Social aspects of mine closure: governance & regulation’. Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining. The University of Queensland: Brisbane. See HERE.
· Image credit: Codelco, El Salvador Division, Feb 25, 2019.