Geoscientists should play a more active role in crafting public discourse, policy 

26th October 2022 By: Nadine James - Features Deputy Editor

Geoscientists should play a more active role in crafting public discourse, policy 

Sheila Khama

Geoscientists could have a hand in shaping the geopolitical future of African countries, said Tullow Oil and The Metals Company nonexecutive director Sheila Khama, who is also a former CEO of De Beers Botswana, and a former policy extractives adviser at the World Bank.

During her keynote address on Day 2 of the 2022 Council for Geoscience Summit, she noted that “the geopolitics of decarbonisation is on the centre stage”, and those in the field of geosciences will play a pivotal role in advancing the extraction of the minerals needed for the energy transition.

“When I think of the role of geoscience in sustainable development, one of the things I think we very rarely [consider] as countries is why we want to exploit certain minerals and at what pace. This is often left to private companies who are looking at return on investment, not at the intergenerational value, or intergenerational access. 

“I sense that much more can be done to help government engage with the private sector and reach some kind of consensus on the rate of extraction, the timing of extraction, and the volume of [minerals] extracted, to ensure that the resources can serve intergenerational economic development. And I think no one is better placed than geoscientists to be able to assist with that kind of information.”

She explained that those in geoscience disciplines must set themselves in the public discourse and empower the public by providing knowledge and influencing progressive thinking. 

“At the moment, there are numerous discussions on the notion of critical minerals. I sense that most people don’t have a clue what critical minerals are and why a mineral becomes critical. A lot of people do not understand that the criticality of minerals is very time specific; it's very technology specific; it's very demand specific; and it can change.”

She suggested that helping the public understand the terminology popping up in the mainstream could be very important in framing conversations around mineral extraction, the circular economy, emerging decarbonisation technologies and mining’s economic significance.

“Many people think that we can decarbonise without using minerals. [They] don't appreciate the volume of minerals that must still be extracted before we can meet our current demand, let alone future demand. Most people talk about the circular economy and don't have a clue what that means. [They] speak about recycling, not realising that there aren’t enough minerals today that can be recycled to meet existing demand. 

“The result of this failure to understand is tension in the public discourse, wherein people think mining is the enemy.”

Khama said that it behoves the geoscientific community to be part of “a groundswell of information” that will hopefully lead to the right policies.

“Policies are made by politicians who thrive on positive public [opinion].” She stressed that geoscientists should, therefore, try to steer public opinion by actively engaging with and informing the public.

Further, she noted that it seems self-defeating, that one of the critical strengths of the region is its mineral potential, and yet, “when African government representatives go into negotiations, you don't see that they're surrounded by scientific expertise, they simply speak off the cuff.”

She requested that more research be done on critical minerals, rare earths, and other minerals that are integral to the digital economy, adding that, “we need to move from the general to the specific,” by prioritising activities that advance specific outcomes rather than hoping to attract broad exploration spend.

She suggested that geoscientists could also help governments understand that not all deposits speak to large mining companies and could help champion legislation that is specific to juniors and small-scale miners.

“Most of the mining laws on the African continent are drafted to regulate large mining companies. This is a flaw. There are countries, for instance, in the Lake District, like Rwanda, but also countries like Kenya and Malawi, that have numerous minerals, but in quantities that are not going to attract large players.” 

Further, she suggested that the geoscientific community had neglected artisanal mining, adding that the community could be crucial in helping to bring “orderliness” to artisanal and small-scale miners. 

“I sense that there are certain deposits that lend themselves to safe exploitation by artisanal miners. Some deposits lend themselves to artisanal mining, economically. Your profession could help countries map these deposits safely.” 

She said that the challenge with geoscientists avoiding the topic of artisanal mining is that it becomes a free-for-all. The current situation ensures that “the exploitation of those resources in both the physical and economic sense, is not optimal”. 

“There's no proof of claim. Nobody has any sense of the [size of the] deposit or the grade. It's just people swimming in the dark. I think as we go forward, it is worth thinking about what contribution can you make, to a better understanding of the geological profile of certain high-grade minerals and try to enable governments to zone these resources such that they can be properly allocated.”

She stated her belief that the geoscientific community could fundamentally “save the outcome of the world trade”. 

“You could shape the outcome of the geopolitics. You could shape the balance of power between Africa, the US, China, and Europe, but your voice, it seems to me, is very absent.”