Like many human activities, those related to mining and minerals have entered a time of change, the breadth and pace of which are without precedent.
Through this transition, those concerned with mining face a broad array of interrelated technical, environmental, social, cultural and economic concerns. Legal and financial implications have multiplied as investors, communities, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders bring growing scrutiny to mining operations. With the immediacy of worldwide communications, local incidents become global news overnight. Not surprisingly, across the world, regulatory systems - legal, financial, environmental, social - are also in a state of flux. Most importantly, the nature of the relationships that exist between various implicated players is also changing. Management of these relationships is the key to success whether it be for community, company, non-government organization or government.
The mining industry and the communities of interest with which it interacts have been far from idle. Companies have introduced progressively more sophisticated technical solutions that integrate social, environmental, and economic implications across a planning cycle that extends from early exploration through to post-closure, often a time horizon of hundreds of years or more.
One manifestation of this has been the development in the past year, of a robust, dynamic assessment framework that came to be called The Seven Questions to Sustainability. It is fully described in the report Seven Questions to Sustainability - How to Assess the Contribution of Mining and Mineral Activities (MMSD - North America, 2002) (available on-line at www.iisd.org/mmsd).
The framework emerged in response to the realization that if ideas of sustainability cannot be brought to bear in a way that is meaningful for people working on the ground in real projects, they will be of little use. It is the result of a year-long effort of a multi-interest group involving companies (small to large), government regulators, First Nations/Native Americans, community representatives, organized labour, non-government organizations, teachers and students. The Work Group was charged with developing a set of practical principles, criteria and/or indicators that could be used to guide or test mining/minerals activities in terms of their compatibility with concepts of sustainability.
The task began with a review of 10 recent initiatives from government, the mining industry, non-government organizations, indigenous people and the financial services sector. After significant deliberation, seven topics were identified that were deemed essential for consideration. For each of these, a question was crafted to be posed of any given project or operation.
From the Seven Questions falls a hierarchy of objectives, indicators and specific metrics. Simultaneously, the starting point for assessing the degree of progress is provided by an "ideal answer" to the initial question. In this way a single, initial motivating question - is the net contribution to sustainability positive or negative over the long term? - cascades into progressively more detailed elements which can be tailored to the project or operation being assessed. An example comprehensive matrix is provided in the full report.
The interrogative approach that emerged is based on the experience of auditors and evaluators. It has the capacity to provide clear, practical guidelines on applying sustainability at the project or operational level, and in the process: (1) establish consistency across applications, reduce confusion and achieve efficiencies; and (2) clarify the case for sustainability.
The framework is intended for application along the full mining/minerals life-cycle from exploration through detailed site investigation, design and construction, operation, closure (temporary, final), and post closure. It has the potential to aid in a range of practical decision making applications including:
- Early appraisal: can/should a project or operation be acquired or implemented?
- Planning: what do we do and who do we involve?
- Financing and insuring: does the overall risk reflected in the project or operation lie within an acceptable range?
- Licensing and approvals: does the project pass or fail?
- Internal corporate reviews: how are we doing, what's missing and how do we do things better?
- Corporate reporting: how and what do we communicate?
- External review: from the perspective of an external interest, how is the project or operation doing?
In practice, the details of indicators, specific metrics, and the criteria for their interpretation will be dependent on the phase of the life-cycle under consideration as well as the specific site conditions.
In applying the framework, values come into play and there isn't necessarily a unique or "right" answer to the seven questions. Furthermore, in acting on the results of any assessment, a company, community, or government will inevitably have to weigh certain trade-offs. In doing so, the rules governing such tradeoffs along with fair processes for their application need to be established. However, the starting point for all of this is the identification of the considerations that are fed into the decision-making process. It is this starting point that is offered by the Seven Questions Framework, not the decision-making process itself. That process depends on application.