Can Mining Certification Benefit Communities, Workers and the Environment?

Last week, the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) released its new Standard for Responsible Mining — an effort by civil society and industry to collectively define best practices for mining operations. If well-implemented, the IRMA standard can provide us with tools for greater transparency and real improvements in mining practices.

IRMA aims to emulate for industrial-scale mining what the Forest Stewardship Council has done for forestry: multi-stakeholder created, multi-stakeholder governed, independently verified standards that credibly and substantially improve the decision-making process for where mines are located, how they are operated, and how they are closed at the end of their lives.

IRMA has developed what is arguably the most comprehensive set of auditable, independently-verifiable criteria for assessing the social and environmental performance of mining operations. It will not certify new mining operations in key protected areas, mines that do not have the free, prior, informed consent of indigenous communities, or those that dispose of mine wastes in rivers or marine waters.

In response to concerns raised by workers and communities, there’s been a gravitation by some mining companies and purchasers to first-party certification initiatives: those that are controlled and governed by the mining industry or other businesses, without an equal seat at the table for civil society groups.  Civil society groups – including Earthworks – have pointed out the flaws of such approaches that aren’t equally created by representatives of workers, communities and NGOs. These frequently lack the credibility or strength of multi-stakeholder processes like IRMA.  

The diverse organizations and sectors—labor unions, indigenous communities, NGOs, mining companies and downstream purchasers of minerals—that form IRMA often get asked why we sit at this table across from other stakeholders with whom we don’t always see eye to eye.

Despite our differences, IRMA participants share a strong commitment to respectful dialogue; to equitable, multi-stakeholder governance; and to the importance of third-party, independent oversight. IRMA’s participants have consistently agreed on the need to establish a high bar Standard for environmental and social responsibility—one that would have meaningful benefits for workers and communities on the ground, and one that would be implementable and measurable. Indeed, the diversity of viewpoints around the table has helped to strengthen the IRMA process and the Standard.

Many remain skeptical of the very term “responsible mining,” given the track record of industrial mining as a whole: disasters such as the Mount Polley tailings dam failure, allegations of corruption and lack of transparency, and negative impacts on indigenous communities. At Earthworks, we spend much of our time working to change irresponsible mining practices and to oppose new mining operations in places where mining doesn’t belong.

It’s worth noting that IRMA is not meant to be a substitute for regulations or legally enforceable requirements. One of IRMA’s fundamental premises is that mining operations must comply with legal requirements wherever they operate—and must meet the more stringent set of criteria, whether those required by local jurisdictions or by IRMA. Ideally, such requirements would be legally mandated and uniformly applied around the world. Given that this is lacking, Earthworks sees the benefits of companies making voluntary commitments to—and implementing—criteria such as responsible mine tailings disposal, and to respecting the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities.

We are under no illusion that any industrial-scale mine can be truly “sustainable” given that open-pit mines are forever, both in terms of landscape destruction and often in terms of water pollution. But mines that obtain IRMA certification certainly would be operating far more responsibly than any existing mining jurisdiction’s requirements, and be far more transparent about their impacts and performance. As an organization working to protect communities and the environment from mining, oil and gas, we think that’s worth doing.