The Quest for Responsible Mining Policies: Countries to Watch

Robin Broad

Industrial mining continues to generate horror stories that fill front pages. Among the most recent, in May 2014, more than 300 miners were confirmed dead after an explosion in a coal mine in Soma, Turkey.

To the extent the mainstream is touting solutions, the spotlight is on “transparency”—such as under the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. But these efforts focus mostly on ensuring that the gains from mining are more equitably distributed between company and host country. That does not directly address whether mining is being done in an environmentally and socially responsible way.

As I have written elsewhere, we need to make mining policy environmentally, socially, and economically responsible—not just transparent, or even transparent with accountability, regarding who gets what share of the revenues.

So this blog post is sharing the good news about six countries trying to move towards responsible mining policies. Some are more successful, significant, and meaningful than others, but all are worth following.

Let’s start with the top two achievers:

1. El Salvador: In 2009, the president of El Salvador declared a moratorium on metals mining. This came about thanks largely to a sophisticated, organized civil-society opposition to mining based on its environmental and social costs, but also thanks to a deep understanding of these realities by some key government officials. As a result, there is currently no industrial gold-mining occurring in El Salvador. None. This is phenomenal, given the country’s relative economic poverty and the high price of gold. On June 1, 2014, El Salvador ushered in a new presidential administration committed to continuing the executive branch moratorium.

2. Costa Rica: Largely off the world’s radar screen, the government of Costa Rica first initiated an executive ban on new open-pit mining in 2002. This is perhaps less surprising than that of El Salvador, given Costa Rica’s large foreign-exchange earnings from ecotourism and the health and wealth of its ecosystems. (See articles here and here on the history and ongoing struggles around mining.) The ban has weathered different presidents and parties—with the shocking exception of President Oscar Arias (2006-2010). Beginning as executive-branch decisions, the ban was passed into law (unanimously) by Costa Rica’s Congress in 2010 and supported by various Supreme Court decisions, the last appeal of which was decided last year.

Moving on to the next four countries on my list, in alphabetical order:

3. Argentina: In 2010, Argentina adopted a national law calling for protection of glaciers. This translated into a national ban on mining on glaciers and “periglacial” areas.

4. Guyana: In July 2012, a ban was placed on the granting of new mining licenses for gold and diamond mining in rivers due to environmental and regulatory concerns, pending further study of the environmental impacts.

5. Panama: In March 2012, a national law signed by Panama’s President Ricardo Martinelli, “prohibits mining on indigenous lands and requires that local native authorities be consulted before work can begin on new hydroelectric plants.” While debate continues on implementation and questions remain on whether indigenous communities such as Ngabe Bugle have effective control over the resources on their land, the law is, at a minimum, a step in a positive direction.

6. Zimbabwe: In 2013, the Zimbabwean government banned “alluvial” gold mining (that is, along rivers, creeks and streams) due to environmental concerns. While questions on its implementation have surfaced, as of mid-2014, the ban on alluvial mining was still in place with a Russian mining company lobbying for the “resuscitation of alluvial gold mining in the country.”

While I am researching and writing this, let me add a two more countries that I hope will join the above list: In Chile, a proposed glacier protection act would ban mining on glaciers, much like Argentina’s law. But local activists are not waiting for national government action on this law; environmentalists established Republica Glaciar in the Patagonia mountains. Republica Glaciar issues “passports” and solicits online support as a protest against Chile’s failure to move more quickly on the pro-glacier legislation. Part of the focus is to keep mining out. As the Republica’s documents explain: “Although Chile has the largest area of glaciers in the region, the country lacks a legal framework for the protection of glaciers, therefore many of them are currently being destroyed by mining companies.”

And, a country to demonstrate the potential of local government initiatives: In the Philippines, the federal government’s proposals to revise the Mining Act of 1995 have focused mainly on increasing its share of the revenue from mining. But mining moratoria by provincial and town governments are widespread, showing a broad understanding of the destructive effects of mining. In the mineral-rich southern island of Mindanao, for example, the provincial government of South Cotabato has banned new open-pit mining under its provincial Environmental Code, thus far stalling the permitting of what could be the Philippines’ largest copper mine.

Let’s consider these countries the half-dozen-plus-hopeful countries. Governments such as El Salvador’s and Costa Rica’s need our support as they try to stand firm in the wake of challenges by powerful, global mining corporations. We should likewise support the fledgling initiatives of the other governments detailed above, taking our lead from local environmentalists and other local activists.

And, lest we need a case study of what happens if we are not vigilant, take note of the distressing case of Honduras. Honduras would have been on my list less than a decade ago. As MiningWatch Canada documented, in 2006, President Manuel Zelaya declared a presidential moratorium on new mining permits. In May 2009, Zelaya sent a bill to Congress for a new mining law that would have (among other things) banned open-pit mining, required community consent for any mining licenses or concessions, and banned cyanide and mercury. The following month’s coup ensured that the bill was not on the August 2009 legislative docket as scheduled. Instead, the coup government proceeded to put mining center stage, ushering in an era of “business-as-usual” gold-rush plunder.

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