Transparently managing the environmental and social risks of mining

6 July 2020

Transparently managing the environmental and social risks of mining

July 6, 2020 I By Lisa Caripis, Research and Policy Manager for Transparency International’s Accountable Mining Programme

There’s a new resource for governments looking to reduce risks of environmental and social impacts from mining.

We, at Transparency International’s Accountable Mining Programme, have been poring over the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF)’s Improving Legal Frameworks for Environmental and Social Impact Assessments (ESIAs), and we were excited to be part of their webinar introducing the new guidance for governments. Harriet Wachira, Program Coordinator for Transparency International Kenya spoke on the panel.

This detailed resource on best practices also provides valuable guidance for civil society organisations working to make natural resource governance more accountable and responsible.

ESIAs are a critical part of decision-making about new mining projects. Typically, companies proposing mining projects are required to identify and assess the potential adverse impacts of their projects on the environment (including water, air quality, endangered species, etc) and on nearby communities (including on employment, gender inequality, cultural traditions). The assessment forms part of government decision-making about whether the project should be approved and under what conditions.

The Accountable Mining Programme is focused on improving transparency and accountability in the way decisions are made to grant mining licences and permits. For us, researching the corruption risks and taking actions to strengthen the ESIA process and community engagement and public engagement in the process is a top priority. Loopholes and weaknesses in the ESIA process create a real risk that decisions to approve mining projects will not be made in the public interest, leaving communities and the environment exposed to untold risk of harm.

Transparency must underpin the ESIA framework

For the ESIA process to effectively identify, reduce and manage risks of environmental and social harm from mining, it needs to be transparent and prioritise stakeholder access to information.

We need to think about transparency and access to information in two ways:

  • Access to information about the steps and requirements of the process
  • Access to information produced as part of the ESIA process – ESIA reports, Environmental and Social Management Plans (ESMP)


Access to information about the process

Let’s start with the first type of ‘procedural information’ and why transparency about that information is important for different stakeholder groups.

Companies need to know what’s required of them, the scope of the assessment; and the criteria by which the government will make a decision, by when and by which specific government authority. Without this information to hold both government decision-makers and companies accountable, the process is left open to abuse.

When there is ambiguity in the process or decision-makers have broad discretion, there are high chances that companies will offer, or government officials will solicit, bribes or other corrupt payments to get a favourable outcome as there is no due process or regulatory integrity. A clear, objective and transparent process is fundamental for good governance and the integrity of the ESIA legal framework.

Women and men in communities need to know their rights to participate in the process and when consultation will take place, what information will be provided to them, by when and by whom (the company or government). If they are left in the dark about the process, they cannot meaningfully participate in decisions that will have profound impacts on their livelihoods, wellbeing and human rights. (See this blog by on why this is important in Kenya)

Governments need to ensure the process is clear and transparent for all stakeholders. To help overcome the information barriers about the process, TI colleagues in Australia and South Africa have developed a simplified mapthat sets out the steps in the ESIA process in their country, including the timing of community consultations.

“In the communities – they have a right to participate, because it is their community, it is their land that will be affected, so they need to know they have a right to participate, when to participate, who will be doing what consultations, at what point will governments come in (…) this information needs to be very clear.” – Harriet Wachira, Program Coordinator, Transparency International Kenya

Access to information produced in the process

Once a project is given the green light, communities and civil society groups need access to meaningful information about the obligations or conditions imposed on the company and its environmental and social management plans (ESMPs) in order to monitor compliance and hold the company accountable for its conduct. All too often, communities are left in the dark about what is happening right on their doorstep. This is not responsible governance.

But before that, during the ESIA process, communities need to know about the potential risks and impacts so that they can be informed and participate meaningfully in community and public consultations. In Zambia, copies of the ESIA reports are stored in government offices far away from communities. The information is literally, physically inaccessible. But it’s not enough just to provide communities copies of the often “encylopaedic” ESIA reports full of dense, technical information.


Meaningful community consultations rely on meaningful information

To avoid “zombie transparency”, governments must ensure that information provided by the government or by companies is in a form that is meaningful to women and men in communities; it must be easy to understand.

That means accounting for low levels of education and language preferences. One particularly challenge that TI colleagues in Zambia have found is that the ESIAs are produced in English, but that is not the primary language for communities in mining zones. To improve access to information, TI Zambia is developing translated simplified summaries of the ESIAs in local languages for community members.

The ESIA framework needs to guarantee women’s informed and active participation in consultations on ESIAs because the social impacts of mining will be different on women and so women’s voices need to be heard and accounted for. This means that governments must require that companies account for differences in the level of literacy of women compared to men, and ensure that information provided is meaningful for both women and men; transparency must be gender-inclusive in order to be meaningful. If not, new projects risk perpetuating existing gender inequality.

“Some of this information is truly technical and almost always it’s in the English language – and most of the communities where mining operations take place have varying levels of literacy and language preferences. So just making sure the report is out there is not enough, it needs to be simplified, it needs to be at the level that communities understand.” – Harriet Wachira

Going beyond transparency: environmental regulators must be properly resourced

Beyond transparency and access to information, our research has found that environmental regulators in several countries are not properly resourced and lack the funding and technical capacity to properly perform their critical role of reviewing and verifying and ultimately approving or rejecting ESIA reports.

This has enabled questionable conduct by companies, including cases where companies have made fraudulent statements that downplay or omit the potential environmental and social damage of the project, as well as where they submit ‘copy/paste’ ESIAs that they have used for other projects that again do not allow the government or the public to make an informed decision about the project. Companies can get away with this because they know the environmental regulator does not have skills or resources to thoroughly review their ESIAs.

The same goes for the Environmental and Social Management Plans. If the relevant government authority does not have the resources to monitor the company’s compliance with the plan, companies can make all kinds of commitments and take on obligations that they have no intention of fulfilling, because there is no or low risk of enforcement.

So, for a responsibly managed mining sector that is consistent with the sustainable development goals, governments must provide adequate resources to the environmental authorities so that they can do their job.


Transparency, access to information and participation in the time of covid

Covid-19 threatens the good practice principles underlying the ESIA processes in many countries. Governments in Colombia and Peru are allowing companies to conduct consultations online. There is a real risk that this will not increase access to information or make the process more transparent or participatory. In fact, it could make things worse and lead to poorer decision-making.

In many indigenous and remote communities where mines are planned, the level of internet connectivity, digital literacy and access to technology is low. Going virtual is likely only to exacerbate community members’ inability to access meaningful information and to participate in consultations about projects that will affect their lives.

The coming months and years will be a real test of the effectiveness of ESIA frameworks to promote decisions that benefit the public and mitigate the negative effects of mining. As resource-rich countries seek to attract new investment and start new mining projects as part of their economic recovery, they must pay close attention to making sure their ESIA processes are robust, transparent and participatory.

Read more:

IGF (2020) Improving Legal Frameworks for Environmental and Social Impact Assessments (ESIAs)

Transparency international (2017) Combatting Corruption in Mining Approvals, Chapter 4 ‘Environmental and Social Impact Assessments’

Photo by Bart van Dijk on Unsplash