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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6 Responses to “The Quest for Responsible Mining Policies: Countries to Watch”

  1. […] TripleCrisis This entry was posted in Survive Food Crisis and tagged Countries, Mining, Policies, Quest, responsible, Watch. Bookmark the permalink. ← Climate Policy as Wealth Creation, Part 2 […]

  2. […] 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 …read more […]

  3. Eric Jackson says:

    Martinelli was forced to sign those agreements — people died to defend indigenous communities from dispossession to make way for strip mines and hydroelectric dams, and in support of those struggles on the ground international efforts to get foreign banks to cancel funding and persuasive if not entirely successful campaigns to block carbon bond credits imprudently granted for dam projects pressured Martinelli from another side. But then as soon as he made agreements he started to break them.

    Martinelli and his entourage are on their way out — he leaves office on July 1 — and we shall see if the new president deals in better faith.

    We have corporate secrecy laws here, but from several unofficial sources we are told that the Martinelli family is a major owner in the environmental and securities scofflaw Petaquilla gold mine, which is in financial trouble. There is a huge Canadian-run (First Quantum, if they haven’t merged with or been taken over by someone else in the last few days) copper mining project tearing a big hole in the Meso-American Biological Corridor on our Caribbean slope. But although there are a few indigenous people affected in each case, these projects are not on collectively owned indigenous lands.

    As a Panagringo dual citizen, born in Panama to American parents and having lived half of my life here and half in the Rust Belt of the USA, the mining situation in Latin America that interests me the most is Bolivia’s attempt to develop its lithium deposits. As in, Evo Morales is not very interested in exporting raw lithium for the battery makers of the world, but rather building advanced battery factories in Bolivia and exporting lithium batteries instead of unprocessed lithium. It’s the difference between a few jobs and many opportunities for public corruption purely extractive economy and extraction to build a manufacturing economy that creates jobs and a greater correlation between wealth and labor. Were Panama’s plan to be making things with copper that is mined and exporting wire or sheets of copper instead of semi-processed copper ore, I might have a less skeptical attitude about mining here.

  4. Robin Broad / author says:

    Eric, Thank you for the detailed and useful information about Panama . You are of course correct that my brief summary did not do justice to the power of – and sacrifices made by — indigenous communities there. I do hope we can continue to be in touch. (I note that I am writing on July 1, the day that Martinelli’s administration ends.)

  5. Thanks for this, very interesting presentation of contemporary responses to mineral development in various countries. I come from the Philippines, and we are, as a society, exploring various approaches and options to reckon with the impact of both metallic and non-metallic mining, large-scale or small-scale (that is not really small) or artisanal.

    As you said, national is focused on the appropriate revenues government should be getting and looking at monetizing the values of ecological services. Local governments have various interests at stake, many on the economic, and increasingly the environmental and social.

    Water for domestic and agriculture needs that are threatened by mining and where and how the mining wastes will be managed are major concerns that remain vaguely answered by the industry.

    How do you do mining in a tropical country that is so wet? The recent mining incident in Padcal and that in Rapu-rapu more than five years ago occurred after heavy rainfall, and the inability of engineering structures to contain the volume of water that accumulated.

    Landslides in artisanal and small scale mining areas after heavy rains continue to exact a heavy death toll, year in, year out. Geohazard warnings are not deterring poor people who are willing to risk their lives for a gram of gold, because the need to secure their food and lives today is more important than thinking about tomorrow.

  6. […] is currently no industrial gold-mining occurring in El Salvador. None,” wrote Robin Broad, a professor of International Development at American University who studies development and […]