Sustainable development. These two words have the ability to strike fear into most hearts in the mining sector.
Why? Is it because of its sheer ambiguity or the absence of a definitive definition that can be used across countries, sectors and cultures?
Is it possibly the fear that building close relationships with stakeholders, through transparent engagement, will bring harsh scrutiny?
Regardless of the reason, it seems the mining sector’s tainted past will indefinitely shape public view negatively, despite efforts made to prove otherwise.
This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 8 2018
One might question why I am qualified to be posing these questions and more importantly why I am capable of answering them.
On my journey from green student activist fueled by anti-mining sentiments in popular media to a social scientist specialising in how mining activities impact rural communities in Africa, I’ve learned that saying the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘mining’ in the same sentence inevitably evoke emotions.
My psychology background has further contributed immensely in the management of these emotions as they occur.
My years at a consultancy involved in projects across the African continent allowed me to experience rural community life in countries including Burkina Faso, Liberia, Tanzania and of course South Africa.
As part of a team I spent months on end in these communities executing relocation action plans and social impact studies. The majority of my time was spent conducting surveys and community interviews.
These were not only surveys and interviews they were months of building relationships with entire villages in an effort to ensure the information they conveyed was an accurate representation of the members’ views, needs and concerns.
This shaped my view of how the mining sector approaches community development projects.
It became clear to me that the approach we were taking to community development projects at the time was startlingly one sided.
I started to question the importance of these lengthy reports that we were churning out. Were they simply box ticking exercises?
Were the voices of communities held within the pages ever heard?
Would the people that trusted me with the information they conveyed spend their days deeply disappointed?
I could not bear the thought. There had to be some way for me to make a difference to an outdated system that was serving few while costing the mining sector millions.
I suspected that at least part of the solution was contained in the elusive concept of sustainable development.
Fortunately, Cape Town University was running a Masters of Philosophy course, specialising in Sustainable Mineral Resource Development in Africa.
I was barely into the first year of my degree when I decided that to truly assist the mining sector in creating sustainable community development projects I would have to do so on my own.
After four years as a social scientist I took a leap of faith and started my own consultancy; Susmin. Bright eyed and bushy tailed, I was ready to save the mining world from its self by offering a suite of services aimed at fulfilling this growing need.
I started my new chapter on a project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Having the ability to use information provided by the very people, who are affected by mining development projects, can be used to directly affect the success rate of these projects.
Three years into this journey, realisation set in that this sector’s needs stretch much farther and wider than just needing assistance on how to choose the perfect community development projects.
It requires support with complying to necessary policies, the ability to effectively build and maintain relationships with affected stakeholders and learning how to navigate processes like Social and Labour Plans (SLPs).
I understand now why these seemingly simple two words – sustainable development - can be frustrating, infuriating and confusing. The reason is that the definition changes depending on who you ask.
Within the South African legislation context, we come across “sustainable development” in over 40 statutes.
It is our National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) which provides us with one definition; “sustainable development means the integration of social, economic and environmental factors into planning, implementation and decision-making so as to ensure that development serves present and future generations”.
Seemingly straight forward enough to carry out.
But it starts becoming complicated when a mining company is required to select sustainable community development projects for their SLP, as so legislated by the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA).
This they have to do from a list of projects informed by the local governmental authorities from their most recent Integrated Development Plan (IDP).
These projects are rarely supported by the communities they affect.
This in turn makes it exceedingly difficult for the company to comply to the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) legislation as well as keeping affected communities happy.
In all fairness, can one truly expect a sector for whom the development and operation of a mine is their core business, to develop sustainable community projects?
This is a sector that is not sustainable in its essence for the simple fact that when a mineral is removed from the earth it cannot be replenished.
As a result, they require expert guidance to create innovative sustainable community development projects while complying to legislation.
The final obstacle is that the need must be there to want to do things differently to how they have been done for decades.
As the definition of sustainable development changes constantly, here is what sustainable development, in the context of community projects, means to me:
‘Developing a project with active input and full support from all stakeholders involved. Identification of a suitable project should be based on the community’s long-term needs, available skills, drive to manage the project unassisted, resources available in the community itself, trainability and finally company, local authority and local government support. It is only when the present generation takes ownership and full responsibility that development will be of advantage to future generations.’
About the author
Mouton completed her Bachelor’s degree in psychology through the University of Johannesburg, which to this day plays a big role in empathising deeply with those she works with. She is enrolled at the University of Cape Town in their Masters of Philosophy degree specialising in sustainable development in mining within Africa, set for completion at the end 2018. Her experience in Africa spans the majority of the continent as she has worked in southern, central, eastern as well as western Africa. Realising early in her life that entrepreneurship was made for her she started her first company at the age of 26.