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In March of 2019, the fourth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), part of the United Nations Environmental Programme, passed an unprecedented resolution on Mineral Resource Governance. UNEA is proposing broad, globally coordinated reforms to how mining is done and under what conditions – adopting a new framing which they refer to as the Sustainable Development License to Operate. The mining industry is one of the most polluting, deadly, and destructive industries in the world, and by focusing on mineral resource governance, the UNEA is joining the long list of communities, organizations, investors and governments saying business cannot carry on as usual.

As a first step, UNEA is conducting a series of online regional consultations and welcoming written comments and videos from a diverse range of stakeholders. The consultation focuses on three areas: mineral resource governance (particularly with regards to metals used in low-carbon technologies), tailings, and sand and gravel mining. The first two areas correspond to Earthworks’s Making Clean Energy Clean, Just and Equitable and its Preventing Mine Tailings Disasters campaigns, respectively. 

Mineral Resource Governance for a Just and Equitable Transition

The clean energy transition is an opportunity to reduce our dependence on dirty mining. We are in the midst of an urgent transition to renewable energy–a transition necessary to avert climate catastrophe. Yet renewable energy and electric vehicle production have a fast-growing mineral footprint. UN-coordinated mineral resource governance could accelerate the renewable energy transition and push the mining industry to clean up its act. In order to ensure that our clean energy economy is truly clean–as well as just and sustainable–we must develop a shared commitment to responsible mineral sourcing, recycling, substitution and materials efficiency, coupled with a reduction in overall energy and mineral demand.

Significant Reforms to Make Mine Waste Safer

Including tailings, which are the waste left over after mining, in the UNEA consultation process could be an important step to move towards safer tailings storage. Tailings storage facilities are collapsing with increasing frequency and severity, and the results can be tragic.  Most recently, a tailing dam collapsed in Brazil in January of 2019, killing 270 people and covering miles with toxic sludge.  

Current industry standards, including the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management (GISTM) released in August, do not go far enough to adequately protect communities and ecosystems from tailings failures. Mining companies have been allowed to sacrifice safety to reduce costs, cut-out affected communities from the decisions affecting their lives, and pass the buck on accountability. Because the GISTM does not adequately address these or other critically important issues, a UN resolution on mineral governance that prioritizes safe tailings could play a critical role in changing industry behaviors. 

Earthworks was an author of Safety First: Guidelines for Responsible Mine Tailings Management, which identifies practices and technologies that make tailings storage safer.  These guidelines were the foundation of our submission during the UNEA consultation and will  guide our work as we continue to identify ways to engage with governments, investors and international agencies to advocate for stronger tailings regulations to keep communities safe.  The GISTM release is not the end of our work on tailings; we will continue to push for changes to protect communities and ecosystems.

Looking Ahead

As the world embraces the technologies necessary to move us toward a low-carbon future, mineral governance is critically important in ensuring that this transition occurs in a sustainable, just and equitable manner. Risky and destructive mining practices must be replaced by more responsible ones that greatly reduce the ecological and human footprint of mining. This shift to improved practices, accountability and innovations must be accelerated, and must not come at the expense of community rights, ecosystems and sustainability.

You can read the written submission we prepared here.

Over 50 organizations on the front lines of dangerous mining practices in Argentina, Brazil, Columbia and Peru, lead by Justica Nos Trilhos from Brazil, have started this petition calling for “Water for the People” (use the google.translate option in chrome if you aren’t able to read Portuguese). The petition echoes much of Earthworks’ UNEA submission and asks the UN to create a special rapporteur for mining, create a binding treaty on human rights and transnational corporations and to urge member states to regulate access to water for the benefit of communities. Please add your name if you can!

Banner photo: Bento Rodrigues