Mining has been one of the most important and contentious industries since the age of exploration. The advent of Industrialization greatly increased its importance to all developing nations, both as a source of employment and as a source of energy. Mining remains contentious today despite its continuing importance to both areas.
Various forms of mining have resulted in major environmental degradation over the years, degradation multiplied by the practice for many years of depositing waste associated with mining in rivers and lakes. Coal mining has been a target of the Obama Administration because of the direct links between the use of coal and the build-up of so-called greenhouses gases that contribute to global climate change. The impact on employment in coal-producing regions like West Virginia and Pennsylvania would be enormous, as would the ramifications for the costs of alternative energy sources, as coal’s main benefit is its plentiful supply and relatively inexpensive production.
Besides the mining that occurs that in the United States, mining is a huge economic factor in countries like Russia and China, as well as in less-developed nations like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where brutal fighting involving regional governments and guerrilla armies is financed by the diamonds and other precious jewels mined there.
Over time, national governments, international forums like the United Nations, and nongovernmental organizations like Global Witness have succeeded in having laws passed intended to minimize the environmental degradation associated with mining and to address human rights problems that often accompany mining activities. The most important series of laws pertaining to mining in the United States is the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) of 1977. SMCRA requires coal mining operations to devise less destructive methods of mining, and to renovate or “reclaim” the land once mining activities have ceased.
Internationally, the most important resolution was the so-called “Kimberly Process,” which compelled governments and businesses to discontinue the trade in diamonds that originated in conflict areas, like the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In advising a mining company on its social and environmental responsibilities, one could first ensure that the company is complying with both the letter and the spirit of existing laws and regulations. Beyond that, the company could be advised that history has demonstrated that acting with a conscience and adopting environmentally friendly practices while treating employees fairly has proven profitable. Once pressured by special interest groups, who influence elected officials, many companies have changed their practices to be more socially conscious. A good example was the commercial fishing industry’s practice-- -- at least in some countries -- of changing the way they catch fish like tuna so that other species, mainly dolphins and sharks, are not sacrificed in the interest of corporate profits. Similarly, as mentioned, the Kimberly Process has enabled diamond companies to boast of their environmental and human rights practices while continuing to remain profitable. Mining companies understand that they under increasing scrutiny, but they also understand that they remain extremely important to the countries in which they operate. Finding a way to convince them of the profitability of acting with a sense of social responsibility is the answer.