Tundra vegetation at Rio Tinto's Diavik mine in Canada. Image: Rio Tinto
Environment People

Mining mainstreams biodiversity

Managing biodiversity has been a key concern for mining companies for some time, so why are we only just beginning to hear about their efforts in this area? Carly asks the ICMM’s biodiversity lead, Hafren Williams

Why should miners care about biodiversity?

There are many reasons, but the statement that drove it home for me came from the World Economic Forum: in its 2019 Global Risks Report, the organisation stated that biodiversity risks have a higher likelihood and potentially a greater detrimental impact on society than failures of national governance, food crises and the spread of infectious diseases.

But, how? Was my knee jerk response.

I was reading an article by the International Council on Mining & Metals’ (ICMM) biodiversity lead, Hafren Williams, when I stumbled across this fact, and so I reached out to her for guidance.

The ICMM's biodiversity lead, Hafren Williams
Hafren Williams, biodiversity lead for the International Council on Mining & Metals

“Biodiversity is important for all of us,” Williams told me. “It’s important for the systems that we depend upon. Natural biodiversity enables a stable climate, provision of water and access to natural resources like timber.

“Mining companies are land dependent, and they are dependent on some of the services that biodiversity offers, particularly around water and resilience to weather including climate change.

“It’s understandable that the mining sector comes under scrutiny, because we are a cause of land use change. Although mining isn’t the biggest land user globally, it is a land user, and the industry must manage its usage responsibly.

“Increasingly, and certainly for the companies that we [the ICMM] work with, mining companies want to deliver good outcomes for societies and for the environment. It’s part of being a responsible business to make sure that you’re respectful of both the local environment and biodiversity.”

Making use of mitigation hierarchy

There are some fundamental things that mining companies can do to preserve biological diversity at their sites, including properly assessing the risks and impacts of mining on the natural environment before operations begin, building an awareness of the importance of biodiversity in the area in question, ensuring they don’t mine in a World Heritage Site, for example, respecting protected areas and implementing good biodiversity management practices once on site.

For ICMM members, that means implementing a decision-making framework known as mitigation hierarchy. This is used to address the impact of extraction activities on biodiversity by working through a series of priorities for land use and commitments.

The first priority is to avoid using sensitive areas of land altogether. However, if that is not possible, then the next priority is to identify measures to minimise impacts on the habitats or species within areas being used. The third priority, for areas that must be mined or built upon, is to restore or rehabilitate them to full biodiversity (or better) after use. And the final stage, if there are residual impacts that cannot be avoided or restored, is to offset – that is allocate an area where the operation can have a positive impact on biodiversity.

This is obviously a simplified description of the mitigation hierarchy, but you get the gist; the framework informs biodiversity management planning throughout the life of each site and helps companies to make ongoing decisions about their land use.

“Our members have an ambition of no net loss, so they would be looking to try and mitigate and compensate in order to balance any biodiversity losses with gains,” Williams said.

This point is important because ICMM’s 27 members represent around 30% of the total global metals market, that includes 46% of copper, 27% of gold and 42% of iron ore. Collectively these companies have clout when it comes to setting expectations and examples around best practices.

Investors are also beginning to take more interest in sustainable mining which means we are likely to see more mid-tier and junior miners looking to join organisations such as these and voluntarily commit to best practices in the future.

Rehabilitation work at Newmont's Batu Hijau-mine in Indonesia. Image: Newmont
Rehabilitation work at Newmont’s Batu Hijau-mine in Indonesia. Image: Newmont

Engaging with investors

Engagement with development banks and the Equator Principles Association banks has been key to raising the visibility of biodiversity within mining businesses.

“The performance standards set by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) have been a big driver in terms of defining what best practice looks like for biodiversity, and it remains a benchmark for the industry,” explained Williams. “It’s Performance Standard 6, which is specific to biodiversity in mining.

“Agencies and investors have been including biodiversity in their questionnaires and scores for some time, as one input to develop a picture of a company and how well it’s managing risk generally. And we’re starting to see more sophisticated approaches to investigating biodiversity risk.”

However, there are many who would like to see biodiversity elevated from one data point in an environmental, social and governance (ESG) score, to a concern for financial risk in its own right, in the same way that the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) and the adoption of its recommendations by mining companies in their reporting activities has made climate change mitigation a day-to-day part of the mining business.

Williams hopes that heightened investor engagement will help to make biodiversity a more mainstream issue.

“There are also other things which have the potential to make biodiversity more mainstream,” she explained. “Including the growing awareness amongst customers and countries that import minerals of their necessity in the transition to a low-carbon economy… There’s a lot more focus on mineral supply chains broadly and how minerals are being produced.

“We’re also seeing more voluntary standards. ICMM’s Mining Principles are being implemented at around 650 sites across the world and potentially beyond, because we’re encouraging others to use them as well. Other groups are also helping to establish good practice – the World Gold Council has also developed principles for its membership for instance.”

Changing public perception

The biggest driver of course, is public awareness.

When I began researching this feature I, like many, was under the mis-illusion that biodiversity hadn’t been a priority for mining companies until relatively recently.

However, I now realise that this was likely due to a failure of communication, both on the part of mining companies and the media; biodiversity and its value to the industry simply hasn’t been talked about as widely as some other topics, because it wasn’t a traditional indicator in financial reporting.

Workers examine caju and jatoba fruits as part of biodiversity studies at Anglo American's Barro Alto operation. Image: Anglo American
Workers examine caju and jatoba fruits as part of biodiversity studies at Anglo American’s Barro Alto operation. Image: Anglo American

The public therefore has a skewed perception of the industry’s priorities. And elevating awareness of this issue could have a much greater impact than just securing new investment – it could radically change the way that the public views our industry.

“We’re starting to see biodiversity being talked about more in mainstream media and in popular nonfiction, and people are starting to have a more sophisticated understanding of biodiversity,” Williams said. “Not only are tigers and pandas and rainforests critically important, but so is the diversity and interconnectedness of all life… if we can see that continue, then all of those other pieces of influence will also continue forth to promote biodiversity.

“The mining industry has actually got a lot of solid good practice to share, but people just don’t associate it with biodiversity in the same way that they do with industries like agriculture. In many ways mining companies have been pioneers in terms of approaches that are still deemed to be best practice, including applying the mitigation hierarchy.”

Measuring performance

So how do we measure and report performance in an area as complex as biodiversity?

“Measuring biodiversity, assessing operational impacts on it and establishing a baseline understanding of biodiversity in a region are standard practice for mining companies. It’s part of their licence to operate and is vital information for planning and management activities,” Williams told me.

“That happens at the operational level. It’s really important when talking about performance, to define whether we’re talking about performance at a mine site, the performance of a company or across the industry, because once you get to corporate level, it can be hard to talk about biodiversity out of context and to do so in an aggregated way.”

Williams hit the nail on the head; the main challenge with biodiversity is that reported data needs context for it to make sense and be of value to operations, to management and to investors. And it can be very difficult to compare the performance of operational sites without both qualitative and quantitative data.

GRI reporting standards are the main ones used in the mining sector. These include a set of mandatory disclosures about management systems and how companies identify material risk as well as specific indicators for reporting on biodiversity.

Using this information, external stakeholders can get a sense of potential biodiversity risk, what impacts a company has identified, and areas that are affected, restored and/or protected within the impact zone among other things.

“It’s an ICMM membership requirement to report against the GRI standards and for members to have their reports independently assured as well,” said Williams. “It’s very helpful to have alignment among stakeholders on what the reporting indicators are, so that companies can invest in good quality systems to report against those indicators.”

Leading the way for industry

So often I hear people complain that the mining industry is slow to adopt new methods and techniques, so it was refreshing to hear that this stereotype is not applicable when talking about biodiversity; in this area, we are in fact one of the front runners.

“In 2003, ICMM members made a commitment to protect World Heritage Sites, and to my knowledge remain the only industry to have done so,” said Williams. “And I don’t believe that other industries have made sector-wide commitments like the one we have to no net-loss of biodiversity.”

Crew leader Craig Wone and community relations advisor Lucy Warren inspecting rehabilitation at Rio Tinto's Weipa operations. Image: Rio Tinto
Crew leader Craig Wone and community relations advisor Lucy Warren inspecting rehabilitation at Rio Tinto’s Weipa operations. Image: Rio Tinto

While some mining companies lag behind in their efforts to protect biodiversity at their sites, at the other end of the scale, there are some that had no-net-loss commitments before it even became an ICMM requirement.

For example, both Anglo American and Teck have committed to having net positive impacts in terms of biodiversity at all their operations by 2030, and Rio Tinto and Newmont were also among the first to make no-net-loss or net-positive impact pledges.

The more pressing challenge going forward is how we go about levelling the playing field and improving the standard of practice across the industry rather than at individual organisations.

Williams pointed to collaboration.

“Some of the more pioneering companies are also looking to work collaboratively so that they can contribute beyond managing their own impact,” she said.

“For instance, Anglo American has done some interesting work on regional development, looking holistically at entire regions and using spatial mapping to understand the ecosystems and land uses, and what the different economic opportunities are within a region.

“Newmont and Barrick have done some collaborative work in Nevada. They’re working with the government on what we call ‘aggregated offsets’. If you’re protecting or enhancing biodiversity in an area, that effort is much more effective if it’s joined-up with other areas nearby.”

Another example is BHP which is investing in forest-related climate change offsetting as well. They’re investing in offsetting their carbon footprint, but more interestingly they are piloting an innovative financial mechanism to expand the market for nature-based offsets.

Working for the greater good

Williams hopes to attend the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) conference which has been postponed due to Coronavirus; it was scheduled to be held in Kunming, China, in October.

The ICMM has been engaging with the CBD team since 2018 to feed into the new framework that is being developed to inform and guide governments and businesses on collective biodiversity targets for the next 10 years.

“There will be an element of mainstreaming this issue, making biodiversity front-and-centre for industry and emphasising the role all sectors have to play in terms of meeting biodiversity targets and halting loss,” she said.

“We’re extremely supportive of that because our members would like to see the practices, they have in place being mainstreamed across industry, and they would also like to see more opportunities for positive collaborations with government going forward.

“We’d really like to see the post-2020 framework be something that is accessible, and which helps to support the momentum around public awareness and engagement in achieving these goals, a bit like we see in climate change with the two-degree target.”

As with so many environmental issues, the biggest and the most sustainable benefits in biodiversity will be created in association with other actors in this landscape.

And I, for one, am glad that the mining industry, through the ICMM, has a seat at the table and, more importantly, a voice to contribute to this important agenda.


3 comments on “Mining mainstreams biodiversity

  1. Sean I Hovorka

    You said something in your article that I think is far more pervasive in the mining community than we give it credit for. “The public therefore has a skewed perception of the industries priorities.” I think this mindset applies to far more than just biodiversity. Safety, reclamation, community stakeholder involvement, etc. are all subject to a skewed perception due to a lack of communication. I am of the opinion that the mining industry has considered itself “essential” and not entirely without reason. However, just because we are essential doesn’t mean that we get to rest on our laurels and assume that the world will have the same opinion. The sooner the mining community starts being more vocal about why we are essential and how we are taking extra steps to be a responsible industry the better.

    I think this sentiment is being shared by many individuals in the industry. I’m currently undertaking a Masters program from Colorado School of Mines which focuses on the various facets of mining, and ties each one of those facets back to financial, social, and environmental considerations. Learning to balance these three aspects of mining in all of our endeavors is a critical factor in how successful mining will be in the future. I thoroughly enjoy your articles and look forward to your next! Thank you.

  2. Very interesting and well written article, Carly.

    As a professional mining photographer (predominately in Australia), over the past 18Mths / 2 years, I have markeded change from tier-1 (some tier-2) mine operators with what they are now committing in doing in the area of Biodiversity and Land stewardship as a whole, visually. Generally speaking, these two areas are often part of an overall shoot-brief’s I am typically commissioned to capture by the mine-operator.

    In essence, if we’re going to positively change outdated perceptions of the mining, one way of doing so with necessary stakeholder and board commitment buy-in, is to visually represent a number of the wonderful non-mining specific initiatives that a lot of mining operators carry out that are not typically made public other than a line item in an annual report.

    These include and most certainly not limited too, new approaches in biodiversity, but also working towards closer ties with communities and localised government – social licence. I have also photographed some wonderful mining projects around rehab/reclamation, water mgt, animal welfare, breeding capture programs, just to name a few in isolation.

    Thankfully, I can see the “old-thinking” and processes of yesteryear are changing for the better, albeit slowly. There is certainly a lot more work to do and I feel privileged to be in a fairly unique “on-the-ground” position across numerous types of commodities to visually help operators (and mining service providers) better market & represent themselves in an effort to alter the outdated perceptions of mining. It also help’s when you have good policy assisting to create the necessary change too.

    Geoff Hunter
    Mining Photographer. Queensland, Australia

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