The United Nations Environmental Assembly has opened a consultation period on the governance of mineral resources
in June 2020.
This consultation is an opportunity to develop an international treaty requiring all countries to better manage mineral resources in a way that respects human rights and the environment. The development of telecommunications, technology, transport, industry and the economy is largely due to the current relevance of minerals, which in most cases have become a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, mineral resources are a source of economic income for (developing) countries rich in mineral resources. But on the other hand, the ease of obtaining money from the export of mineral resources has created an economic dependency for these countries, preventing them from diversifying their economy. In general, mineral resources have not been a blessing for developing countries but have become the now famous the natural resources curse, causing bad governance marked by environmental crimes and human rights violations.
Minerals are undoubtedly necessary for economic development. Good management of these mineral resources can contribute positively to the achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provided that their extraction is carried out in compliance with environmental standards, assessing the risks caused by their extraction and implementing the necessary measures to repair the damage caused. Likewise, the minerals will help to achieve the SDGs if their use is put at the service of a clean technology that does not generate CO2 emissions into the atmosphere and that is put at the service of the integral development of people.
Firstly, the good governance of mining resources must primarily include standards relating to respect for the environment and ensure the implementation of measures that protect people’s health throughout the process of extracting, washing, smelting, refining and processing the minerals.The standards for good governance must require rigorous environmental and human health impact assessments and demand the use of the least polluting extraction techniques. It is the responsibility of governments to establish binding legislation requiring appropriate measures, but it is the obligation of mining companies to carry out measures that counteract the environmental impact during the extraction process, such as the treatment of waste water, control of air quality and the management of waste generated by the exploitation.
Second, in addition to environmental rights, governance of mineral resources requires due diligence that underlines respect for human rights throughout the supply chain. There are a number of repeated conflicts in mineral resource extraction that require efforts to ensure the human rights of workers and affected communities. These rights include labour rights, fair wages, social and health rights, compensatory measures for affected local communities and the fight against child exploitation. In many cases, communities are abandoned by local authorities and companies forget their compensation obligations when mining activity causes the displacement of communities. In addition, the economic commitment of extractive companies must be proportional to the benefits obtained annually. We cannot lose sight of the fact that local communities are the legitimate owners of the land and therefore of the mineral wealth found in the subsoil, especially in Africa.
Thirdly, due diligence requires progress in the accountability of companies so that they assume their responsibility for the transparency of the economic transactions carried out. Accountability is not enough in the countries where the mineral companies have their headquarters; transparency requires comparing payments made throughout the supply chain: contracts, public procurements, prospecting, extraction, smelters, taxes, commissions, intermediaries, etc. In this way, it will be possible to have a better picture of the company’s real expenses. In addition, this transparency will allow the fight against corruption as well as promote the fair payment of taxes following the model presented by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative that seeks the global standard for the good governance of oil, gas and mineral resources.
What we are missing.
The current rate of economic growth and demand for mineral resources is unsustainable. And therefore, it is necessary to change the paradigm of how we understand a green and circular economy in developed societies. There is a need for binding legislation on the governance of mineral resources that is more restrictive, that helps to make extractive policies more sustainable and that supports the circularity of the economy. Voluntary policies and guidelines advising good practice in the extractive industry, especially in the formal mining sector, are not enough, forgetting about the artisanal mining on which millions of people live in mining areas. Good governance of mineral resources is inclusive all sectors of both formal and artisanal mining as well as encouraging the shift from an energy transition economy to a green and circular economy.
The transformation of the economy requires the commitment of governments, investors, extractive industry and civil society to achieve sustainable management of mineral resources. International legislation must ensure environmental control of mining operations by the governments all over the world. No mine should be abandoned because of poor profitability or the depletion of mineral resources. All mines require an environmental restoration plan with the obligation to rehabilitate contaminated sites and working groups must be set up to determine the least polluting extraction mechanisms with the least impact on human health.
Developed countries cannot simply consume responsibly, live in green economies and abandon resource-rich countries to their environmental fate. The circularity of the economy requires the effort of all to behave in an environmentally responsible way.
The economically developed countries are responsible for what happens in the Global South and must provide the human and material means to enable a governance of natural resources that helps to create a green and circular economy at the service of people, respectful of human rights and the environment. An economy that benefits everyone and not just investors and companies.
José Luis Gutiérrez Aranda,
Trade Policy Officer,
Africa Europe Faith and Justice Network (AEFJN)