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Building peace for people and planet through mining

Carly Leonida and Dr Bridget Storrie muse on the humanity-orebody relationship and the potential that mining offers to instil peace in a future riddled with social and environmental challenges

Late last year, I was introduced to Dr Bridget Storrie, a trained mediator and postdoctoral teaching fellow at the Institute for Global Prosperity at UCL London.

A self-proclaimed wearer of multiple hats (something I identify deeply with) Storrie has lived and worked in Russia, Chechnya, Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Namibia, Australia, Alaska, Mongolia and northern Canada, in roles ranging from foreign news reporter to communications and conflict consultant at Rio Tinto’s Oyu Tolgoi mine, and chairing discussions at events such as the UN COP24 Climate Change Conference.

Aside from wanting to quiz her on this exciting and varied CV, I was keen to learn about Storrie’s area of special interest: the human relationship with geological resources, post-human security, peacebuilding and reconciliation.

I’m fascinated by the concept of mining as a vehicle for value of all types. I strongly believe that there is much more than economic benefit to be extracted from the ground. Storrie graciously agreed to carve out some time for me while navigating a trans-Atlantic house move, and this is how our interview went…

Dr Bridget Storrie is a trained mediator and postdoctoral teaching fellow at the Institute for Global Prosperity at UCL London

Carly Leonida: How complex are the links between human beings and orebodies? Can we call it a relationship?

Bridget Storrie: They are infinitely complex! There’s the connection that exists between the miners and the in-situ body of rock they work in, in Kosovo, for example. There’s my relationship with the ex-situ rock in the batteries of the car I’d like to buy, or the laptop I’m using now.

Then there are the geological entities that humanity has sent into space – the satellites that mediate how we are communicating, that observe our world and feed information about it back to us. Like the orebody itself, the relationship between humans and geology is as boundless as it is grounded in the mines I was researching. Once you start thinking about it like this it’s hard to stop.

The commonality I see is that the mineworkers and I – and pretty much everybody else on the planet – want this rock to make life ‘right’ for us in some way. And that’s a very complex endeavour. It’s connected to our human dreams, anxieties, aspirations and how we think we want the world to be. And that’s not the same, for any of us.

The second part of your question – can we call it a relationship? – is an interesting one. Can we have a relationship with a geological entity that seems oblivious to our presence and has no opinion about who we are, how we act, or what we want?

I would answer yes. Orebodies are more powerful than we think they are, influencing not just how people live, think and act in places like northern Kosovo, but how they live, think and act together.

The Albanian mineworkers at the Stan Terg mine, for example, talked about the days before the war when Serbs worked there with them. They told me that as they descended at the start of each shift, the differences that existed between them on the surface would disappear and a deep trust and friendliness would emerge between them underground that didn’t re-surface with them at the end of the day.

The further they travelled vertically into the orebody, in other words, the more it mediated the relationship between them, changing what they thought and felt about each other, and how they acted as a result.

Then there are those geological bodies in our smart phones, or the satellites I was talking about earlier. They might be oblivious to us, but they mediate our lives together almost entirely.

I think that if an inert-seeming entity can change what we think and feel and how we act, then we can say we have a relationship with it. That’s interesting, because we pay a lot of attention to how we should manage our geological resources.

But perhaps we should also think about how they might be managing us? And what might change in terms of how we relate to them if we did.

Tell us about your research and what interests you most about the way in which humans and subterranean resources interact

I’m interested in the intersection between natural resources, conflict, and peace. I’ve been exploring the argument made by the UNEP that mining can contribute to building peace in places emerging from violent conflict, because it can bring prosperity.

“Mineworkers at the Stan Terg mine… told me that as they descended at the start of each shift, the differences that existed between them on the surface would disappear” Image: Bridget Storrie

The peacebuilding challenge is how to improve mining practices so that it’s a force for good, or at least avoids exacerbating more violence. The peace prescriptions on offer are technical ones and include being more consultative and transparent, minimising environmental harm, and making sure the benefits of mining are shared more equally.

All of that is essential, of course, but I wondered if there was another way of understanding the problem of mining, prosperity, and peace, particularly in the context of climate change. I spent some time at mines in northern Kosovo and Bosnia Herzegovina talking to the people who worked there. I discovered the mineworkers were attached to the orebody in a way that surprised me.

It wasn’t just important for their economic wellbeing (I expected that), but it was also central to how their world made sense in the post-conflict, post-socialist state of impasse that currently exists, particularly in northern Kosovo, with all the difficulties, division, and hardship associated with that.

Their attachment to the orebody was a mechanism for surviving precariousness in an existential sense; it’s how they stay attached to a world that, in many ways, has let them down.

This aspect of attachment is what really interests me about this work.

That’s partly because I have enormous empathy and respect for the miners, but it’s also because it has something to say to all of us about our attachment to geological resources, the sort of worlds we want them to make ‘true’ for us, and the precariousness we are hoping to survive or avoid as a result.

Can you give some examples of the opportunities or value these resources offer humans beside economic gain?

As a mediator, I’m trained to look for the ‘third space’ or the issue that needs resolving, that isn’t one of the parties to a conflict, or their behaviour. It’s something neutral, in other words, that can be worked on collaboratively.

I think an orebody could be a ‘third space’ in this way. Different people want it to create different worlds for them, and that’s a problem.

International mining executives, Albanian mineworkers, Serbs living in northern Kosovo, environmental activists, politicians in Belgrade and Pristina, EU officials, radiologists, those working on the zero-carbon transition, and myriads of others all have conflicting ideas about the sort of the world the lead and zinc-rich rock beneath northern Kosovo (for example) can create for them, either by staying in the ground or being extracted.

Any orebody offers the potential for economic gain. But it also offers something potentially more transformative which is the opportunity to wonder where our difficult, conflictual relationship with it might be taking us, and what alternatives exist.

What potential do you see for natural resources, such as ores, to bring peace to humanity?

I think we must be clear about what we are doing with these resources; we are building worlds with them.

The question is, who (and what) will suffer and who (and what) will flourish as a result? That’s a more interesting question to ask, in terms of bringing peace to humanity, than how we improve mining practices.

Peacebuilding is often framed as a process of dealing with the past, but it must deal with the future too. Image: Bridget Storrie

So, I think that’s the potential I see for natural resource-related peacebuilding. These orebodies invite us to ask a different question from the one we usually ascribe to them. It’s not (just) ‘how should we extract?’ but ‘how should we live?’ Human bodies and geological bodies together. Not just now, but far into the future.

What could the mining industry learn from the geology upon which it depends if it cared to explore this relationship more deeply?

That’s a great question! I think the first thing the mining industry could learn from geology is a sense of time. What mining companies bring to the surface isn’t just rock. It is also the deep, geological past and we should all respect that. What sort of deep, geosocial future will we create with it?

For the mining industry specifically, I think this means taking a much more futures-focused approach to corporate social responsibility (CSR), particularly in places affected by conflict. This means paying attention to mine closure and how the impact of a particular operation will be felt in a community long after it has shut down.

Perhaps the two questions the industry should ask are: what sort of future can people collectively imagine? And how (if at all) can a mining company help them achieve it?

Peacebuilding is often framed as a process of dealing with the past, but it must deal with the future too. Mining companies might have a role to play there, contributing to wider efforts to bring a sustainable, long-term future into view, that people emerging from conflict can have faith in.

Finally, I’ve talked a lot about the links between human beings and geological bodies, but that’s a bit hubristic, in a way. It reduces the geological realm to its relationship with us, when it is so much larger and longer than that.

But our demands on it are unsustainable, and that’s the more profound peacebuilding challenge it presents us with. Perhaps it’s not natural resources that need managing, but our irrational attachment to what we think they promise us?

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