Sustainable exploration - mining in unknown territory

Materials World magazine
3 Mar 2012
Local labour preparing exploration trench

Michael Forrest talks to Andries Wilke about the considerations for mining companies when starting work in relatively unfamiliar countries.

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Exploration often takes place in the most remote regions, and it is the arrival of geologists that often triggers interest within the local community about mining and what it might mean for them. In most cases, the exploration company is not local and may indeed be from the other side of the globe, and although many geologists have wide geographic experience, they are from a different culture to the local population.

From the exploration company’s perspective, there are many guidelines and regulations governing behaviour and actions during exploration and mining. A number are concerned with the environmental impact of mining operations and are covered by requirements embodied in the Equator Principles, drawn up by the financial sector a decade ago and adopted worldwide. Other requirements are listed in the mining codes of the individual country, for example water and air discharges and the stability and location of tailings dams.

In addition to environmental controls, there is a human aspect to exploration and mining. These include the ownership of the land by aboriginal groups, which has been well established in mining legislation in Canada and Australia. But it also includes those who work the land for subsistence agriculture, and even artisanal mining. In order to gain acceptance from these groups, the company has to interact in a way that promotes understanding and mutual benefit. There have been recent cases where local communities objected to a mine development due to lack of consultation and interaction from the company, resulting in the loss of the project and shareholders’ capital. This highlights just how important it is to ensure adequate resources are in place to start environmental and social programmes during exploration.

This is the view of Andries Wilke, Business Development Manager with Digby Wells Environmental, a South African-based consultancy. He explains, ‘Environmental and social activity should start at the beginning of prospecting where costs in collecting and analysing environmental data necessary for compliance can be kept low. People are key, for without a social licence for operations the project will be delayed and may be impossible to fund.’ It is particularly challenging for junior exploration companies where the objective is to prove a viable resource that would be attractive to investors or a major mining company looking for acquisitions. Such companies must ensure an environmental legal register is in place and that a fatal flaw assessment is undertaken as soon as the deposit is proven, including the environmental and social aspects. The African continent has 55 countries, resulting in a great diversity of legal requirements, many of which require specific environmental or social reporting to authorities in order to retain the mineral rights. Failure to fully understand these obligations could lead to a company losing its licence after spending substantial amounts on exploration. A legal register is an invaluable tool for the board to ensure that even at this early stage the company’s interests are protected.

A social license can be defined as an adequate level of trust between the potential operator and the affected parties. The notice of appeals or legal challenges to mining projects are indicative that the social licence has not been obtained. Junior miners are starting to appreciate that tier 1 mining companies will not consider acquiring projects that are stigmatised by poor relations.

Local residents are likely to have a different view of the project from the exploring company, and one facet of this is perception of the scale. Initially this will be the visibility of limited personnel, an exploration camp and a few vehicles. There may also be limited employment in sampling, trenching and ground clearing together with logistic support. Exploration, depending on spend and company finances, may develop quickly to the next stage or may extend over many years, making it difficult to describe the scale and size of a mining operation to those used to subsistence agriculture. It is not just those people in the immediate vicinity who must be considered, but often those 10–20 kilometres distant, as the offer of alternative employment, logistical corridors and water supply will affect communities.

All communities are different, each with divergent expectations of what a mine on their doorstep will bring. It will be obvious to those watching development that the amount of money brought to the area in wages and local costs will change their lives, but pre-existing tensions within a community may result in unequal distribution. Furthermore, this investment will change their lives even if the amount spent in their communities does not meet their expectations. Social relationships are a matter of building trust, and despite many goodwill gestures a single incident of a threatening nature will destroy months of hard work. Apart from the above, the arrival of the mining company will start to irreversibly change the community and its members. In some cases the younger generation are for the first time able to earn an income independently, which can lead to major social conflict with the older people in a community. It is essential that the social status within the local community are understood as early as possible before changes occur. The sooner communication channels and a forum are established, the better.

There is a time scale for each aspect of developing a mine, from 8–10 years for exploration, 1–3 years construction, 10–30 years for operation, 1–2 years for closure and 4–5 years for post-closure monitoring. Within this schedule, adequate time for the collection of data in the surrounding biosphere must be allowed for in order to provide an acceptable environmental and social impact assessment. Early data collection during the exploration phase is invaluable in shortening the duration of baseline studies.

Rainy days

Most important is that of rainfall levels, as these will effect mining operations, discharges, stability of tailings and flooding events. It is relatively inexpensive to collect rainfall over the life of the exploration programme – an automated rainfall monitor is around US$2,500 – and during mining it will fulfill many needs if it is collected in manner with the end user in mind, preferably in a digital database. Accurate records collected during the exploration phase will assist to define a hydrological regime for the mine. Exploration drilling will also help access the water table and monitoring levels, and it should be included in the contractors scope of work to note water strikes and to report any drill hole water losses.

Non-governmental organisations, whose diverse agendas require special consideration, are also interested. It is important that the company chairman or investor relations manager does not promise an optimistic time frame for mine construction and employment to appease investors and the far-away market which is not delivered to expectant local communities. With mobile phone networks now covering most of Africa, news is quickly disseminated, as is the reporting of on-site problems. ‘The sooner two-way communication channels are established, the better,’ notes Wilke.

All the environmental and social factors come together to identify the sustainability of the project. One definition Wilke suggests is ‘meeting the needs of the current generation without preventing future generations from meeting their needs’.  

Further information

Andries Wilke, Director, Business Development. Email: Tel: +27 11 789 94945