Holistic solutions that consider closure, social, environmental and technical best practices will be important for the sustainability and longevity of the African mining industry, say independent consulting engineers and scientists SRK Consulting.
SRK senior social scientist Jessica Edwards says many mines in Africa continue to neglect the importance of meaningful engaging with communities, adding that, while there is often a one-way flow of information from the mine, there is not enough collaboration.
“Social transition – assessing and addressing the social impacts of mine closure – is also not sufficiently recognised as a priority area that has its own best-practice standards,” says Edwards.
Further, she notes that, while the new International Council on Mining and Metals guidelines include a more integrated approach to mine closure, “much remains to be done and it is an area of development”.
Edwards adds that, in the African context, where unemployment and poverty are common, “social transition is particularly vital as a strategy to promote sustainable livelihoods and resilient communities”.
She tells Mining Weekly that many mine project developers are realising that the sheer cost of physical resettlement can present a strategic risk to a project and may even render it unviable. The resettlement of communities causes particular challenges for mining projects and poses considerable cost and planning implications.
“A holistic approach based on well-conducted technical studies will enable a developer to reach a decision on key issues, such as resettlement, sooner rather than later.
“Similarly, mine closure is also often viewed too narrowly by mining companies – they frequently factor in the environmental rehabilitation of the mined area, but seldom the social cost.”
Edwards says social transition includes the longer-term cost of building community resilience for self-reliance in the post-mining phase. Practitioners argue that post-closure liability for most mines is at least 25 years and encompasses activities as diverse as running a water purification plant to community capacity-building initiatives.
Further, SRK principal consultant and social scientist Lisl Fair states that technology can be successfully leveraged in stakeholder engagement in Africa’s mining sector, especially through mobile and digital communications.
She notes that mobile applications are being developed and harnessed for many different uses – from community grievances to citizens’ environmental monitoring.
These platforms can also be scaled up or down to suit the existing digital infrastructure, which is not always optimal, especially near remote mining sites, says Fair.
“The integration of the various mining- related disciplines – from mine planning and geotechnical to environmental and social – is key to ensuring best practice on any project. This communication imperative extends further to include communities, government and other stakeholders. These links must not only be strong, but they must also be built from the outset of the project,” she stresses.
While the integrated solutions approach is not new, SRK brings new technologies and expertise to these challenges, says SRK partner and principal consultant Andrew van Zyl.
“The parameters of best practice are generally well known. The problem is that they are not always implemented, as a result of either inadequate planning or a misguided attempt to cut costs from a budget, particularly during the study phase,” he tells Mining Weekly.
It is vital, however, to take a holistic approach for any project from the conceptual or scoping stage, says SRK partner and principal mining engineer Marcin Wertz, adding that such an approach must include an assessment of all impacts, as well as a social screening assessment.
He highlights that, when significant impacts such as resettlement are identified, the costs should be estimated upfront as this can assist project developers in accurately determining the viability of the project.
“A common pitfall is committing project resources in an unbalanced way such as pursuing more detailed planning on a metallurgical plant before all the fundamental risks to the project have been identified.
“It all comes back to the modifying factors that must be accounted for before a resource can be converted to a reserve.”
All of these factors, Wertz believes, demand a set of technically competent studies, applied and considered by an integrated team of professionals like SRK.