Expert Insight

Mining and NGOs: an evolving relationship

Partnerships have emerged as the most useful model to drive meaningful change

November 3, 2020

Tom Maddox

Expert Insight
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February 21, 2020
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Some would argue mining companies get an unfair rap for their environmental impacts. Taken as a whole, it is true the mining sector is not the sector with the largest environmental footprint.

Agriculture, for example, has far greater impacts in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, or impacts on endangered species. But the impacts mining does have can be spectacular when they occur – causing massive local impacts – so are therefore highly visible and open to criticism.

But one advantage of being more exposed is first-mover advantage to adapt. Pressure is now increasing across all industries to evolve in line with the demands of a low carbon, sustainable and equitable economy, but miners have been responding to such pressures for decades.

The International Council on Mining & Metals (ICMM) is an industry-led initiative that was established to drive better practices in mining, specifically in response to such criticism. Today, many mining companies can rightfully claim to be ahead of many other sectors in various aspects, from disclosure of climate risk to implementation of the mitigation hierarchy to the establishment of multi-stakeholder-defined production standards.

That is not to say there is not still a long way to go – the mining sector is still far from fit-for-purpose for a sustainable future – but it has taken more steps in the right direction than many others.

The long history of relations between mining companies and civil society non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can be seen in this context. Much of the early engagement was more polarised, with some NGOs playing a more aggressive, public watchdog role, whilst others chose a closer – some would argue transactional – relationship, using mining companies as a source of funds to drive priority projects as part of company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) commitments. The former caused great levels of anger on all sides whilst the latter suffered from hazy lines between fundraising and selling out; CSR and greenwash.

Today, mutual understanding by all sides has moved on a great deal. NGO understanding of business has progressed. Most recognise that profit is not the only motivation for business; that most people have a genuine desire to right any wrongs; that many companies are genuinely looking to improve; and that many managers are having to balance multiple challenges.

A decision to work with a company automatically opens an NGO to criticism and scrutiny, particularly if money is involved, as is often a harsh necessity

NGOs are also increasingly recognising the systemic drivers of the problems they are trying to address and that a band-aid approach of saving a species here or a forest there simply won’t cut it – action is required at a far greater scale, including far better engagement with business.

At the same time, companies are increasingly recognising environmental, social (and also governance – ESG) performance is a core business component. Some of the most vocal proponents of environmental and social action are now influential business groups, like the World Economic Forum.

In the mining sector, there is clearly a growing relationship between ‘ESG performance’ and licence to operate, access to investment, compliance with changing regulation and, most topically, company resilience to unforeseen change.

NGOs with expertise, networks and most importantly, credibility, in these fields are increasingly being seen as potential business partners rather than barriers to progress (or a source of pretty photos for the latest CSR report). In response, even the most vociferous watchdog NGOs are starting to form more collaborative relationships with companies who have convinced them they are committed to change.

Few NGOs see a future with no mining, and few mining companies don’t recognise the need to adapt to a rapidly changing world, so converging interests increasingly drive partnership as the most effective model for finding solutions and driving change.

However, while mutual understanding and positive, collaborative relationships are on the rise, tangible examples of change on the ground are still difficult to find.

Most of the major relationships exist at corporate level between the mining majors and big NGOs (BINGOs). Such relationships have led to numerous high-profile commitments, new strategies and approaches, but translating ‘the talk’ into ‘the walk’ has been a challenge for all parties.

Earlier this year the Responsible Mining Index report assessed the ESG performance of 38 large mining companies and nearly 1,000 sites. It showed while progress was being made, it still fell short of what society was expecting and the progress that could be shown was mostly in the form of commitments, with a stark lack of evidence of change at the site level.

Worse, in some cases companies were so poorly joined up that well-meaning action at the site level actively worked against well-meaning commitments at the corporate level. I once worked with a company committed to helping local government to relocate settlers from a nature reserve before they discovered they were also funding the school the settlers had just built in the same reserve. Real change requires relationships to be developed across the company, involving all levels of the company in the process, and bringing in a more diverse range of NGO partners, including local and community groups, to drive change on the ground.

Mutual trust also remains fragile. Unlike environmental consultants, NGOs need to retain a level of independence if they are to retain public credibility. Even the closest relationships need to be able to operate as a critical friend, free to voice concerns when they occur. This is not a situation many companies find easy to deal with.

Similarly, NGOs remain highly wary of mining companies. A decision to work with a company automatically opens an NGO to criticism and scrutiny, particularly if money is involved, as is often a harsh necessity.

High-profile incidents such as the Samarco tailings disaster or Rio Tinto’s destruction of aboriginal caves after 20 years of progressing aboriginal relations have massive impacts on trust. Another factor is transparency, with some companies promoting environmental sustainability in one breath, whilst lobbying against environmental protections or investing in highly damaging new deep-sea mining technology in the next.

As the head of an African government environmental protection agency once said of one of our corporate partners: “There are two companies there – one represented by the environmental staff you deal with and another represented by the legal staff I deal with, and I can assure you they are very different companies.”

Moving forward, there is still a vital role for the more independent watchdog NGOs like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth or Earthworks to play a role in keeping issues in the public eye and holding companies to account. This is the pressure that primes the pump for change.

But there is a limit to how much time can be spent being told you are doing the wrong thing, before it becomes more effective to be told what the right thing looks like. Knowing that might not be obvious and working that out is the role of collaborative partnerships.

But if such relationships are to be effective, they need to be mutually respective, they need to be transparent, they need to percolate throughout the company structure and they need to embrace a range of relationships, from corporate BINGO commitments to site level, community group relations.

Expert Insight
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November 3, 2020

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