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Land stewardship – the next big environmental issue?

Land stewardship is not a well-known term; however, for the mining industry it is becoming increasingly critical.

The concept of land stewardship is intended to address what has been described as the next big environmental issue – how to maximise the efficient use of the same land by competing stakeholders, and how to minimise the degradation of natural capital and damage to ‘ecosystem services’.

Ecosystem services such as fresh water, climate regulation and erosion control, are provided free by nature. They are essential to humanity as well as the mining industry and, given the extended timescales over which a mine operates, they need to be protected – or replacing them could prove expensive or impossible.

Yet according to Cambridge University, 60% of global ecosystem services are being degraded or used unsustainably by mankind. The UN has estimated that in 2008, the economic cost of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation was US$2-4.5 trillion – or 3.3-7.5% of global GDP. Assuming ‘business as usual’, global environmental costs were projected to reach US$28.6 trillion by 2050, equivalent to 18% of GDP.

Our industry is not blameless and it can play an important role. We irrevocably change the land we use; mines require large quantities of water; and a mine is temporary and will eventually close. Unfortunately, the mining industry does not have a good track record of successful or responsible mine closures, and our reputation has suffered accordingly.

The metals and minerals that mining produces make modern life possible. The challenge is to produce them in a way which minimises the impact on the environment and creates a lasting positive legacy. A mine can be a catalyst for all sorts of development opportunities within a community. It can bring jobs and prosperity, schools, healthcare and infrastructure such as roads, running water, electricity and telecommunications.

In order to ensure their own sustainability, mining companies rely on access to new resource deposits. Yet different stakeholders – and especially local communities – often value different services coming from the same ecosystem. The miner therefore must demonstrate that the benefits they bring outweigh the potential impact to the ecosystem – in both the short and the long term.

This is where progressive land stewardship and the implementation of systems and processes that look at the life and closure of a mine in an integrated way, become an imperative.

Anglo American has been working on this concept for some while. We have a rich history of operating in developing countries and we developed a Mine Closure Toolbox between 2005 and 2008 to help our operations with their long-term mine closure planning. The focus is on planning for sustainability beyond mine closure, supporting sustainable development and leaving behind a positive environmental and social legacy.

The latest version of the Toolbox – which we have made available to the industry as a whole – increases our focus on community engagement and on the importance of designing, planning and operating a mine with closure in mind, right from the outset.

Anglo American’s approach insists that all closure plans are site-specific, include plans for land and water management, and are developed in consultation with the stakeholders. Every community and region has its own needs and these may well change over time. Our plans must adapt accordingly. One size does not fit all.

It is not always possible to put the land back to how it was, and that isn’t always the best option anyway. Sometimes it is better to make the most of the new infrastructure and use the land differently, in order to support alternative development in the region.

We believe that the decision about what closure should look like – the closure vision – does not belong to mining companies. Rather, it belongs to the people that will remain in the area after the mine closes.

The objective should be to leave behind self-sufficient and self-sustaining communities, whose future is brighter for the mine having been there than if it had never been there at all.

Samantha Hoe-Richardson, head of sustainable development and energy, Anglo American

Anglo American | Global | Environment


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