Scrutinising the French government’s "Responsible Mining" initiative

26 avril 2016
A white paper for responsible mining ? | Cris Valle · 2014 · cc
SystExt is a French NGO that unites geology, mining and environmental engineers working at the national and international scale. They are all concerned about the mining industry and aim to use their knowledge to tackle its technical issues. On 15th September last year, SystExt and another French NGO, France Nature Environnement (FNE), left together the “Responsible Mining” working group, initiative started in March 2015 by the French Ministry of Economy and Finance [1]. We take a moment here to give details of our participation and stances.

A concept too far from the mining reality

On 4th February 2015, during a Council of Ministers, the French government approved its 2015-2020 National Strategy for Ecological Transition towards Sustainable Development (SNTEDD as abbreviated in French), with the firm intention of “defining a new plainer model of society” [2].

About extractive industries, the SNTEDD states that industrial stakeholders have “already achieved important improvements in order to reduce the environmental impact of their activities” [3]. But for us, it seems hard to agree to such an assertion. The only true progress that was made by the mining industry is forcing the exploiting companies to comply with some minimal regulations that they were ignoring until then. And while this sector is intensifying, mining companies should actually work twice as hard to reduce their impacts, bearing in mind that they have hardly changed their processes since the last century. Indeed, both extraction and mineral treatment processes have remained practically unchanged.

On one hand, constant automatization of processes and a massive use of numerical modelling have improved safety conditions, definition of ore body mineralization and extracted minerals value-creation; but on the other, we still face social conflicts, health and environmental disasters, and they get bigger and bigger, as mining exploitations –now gigantic– do.

This is where the French Ministers agree that “improvements are still achievable, for example using industrial symbiosis and eco-conception, or thanks to the development of the responsible mining concept and its actual implementation” [4]. But the lexical field foretells nothing better than a coat of green paint on one of the most polluting and opaque industrial sectors on earth.

Officers from the Bureau of Mineral Resources of the French Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy soon congratulated themselves [5] for having had this “Responsible Mining” concept written down in the SNTEDD. However, the concept was still to be developed, both from the philosophical and from the practical points of view. To do so, on 1st April 2015, Emmanuel Macron, French Minister of Economy and Finance, kicked off the “Responsible Mining” working group, with a pluralist steering committee, aiming at representing “all the stakeholders: local and national councillors, NGOs, professionals and workers’ representatives [6].

There is no room in “State/Corporations” partnerships for the civil society

Thus, three MPs, the French Association of Mayors, the Regional Nature Reserves Federation, FNE, WWF France, employers’ organizations, trade unions, civil servants and various experts working for public departments (INERIS, BRGM, The French School of Mines) were summoned in order to draft a « white paper describing principles of a mining project, its different development stages, the existing types of techniques implemented, as well as the means of reduction or compensation of its impacts ». [7] The General Engineer of Mines, Alain Liger, was called upon as president of this group, and the coordination was ensured by Rémi Galin, director of the French Bureau of Mineral Resources.

In addition, “a Convention on the Voluntary Commitment of the mining industry is to be drafted, based upon this white paper; agreement to which mining companies will be invited to accede. This Convention shall include the good practices currently implemented in Europe as well as the worldwide initiatives dealing with consultation mechanisms for mining projects”. [8]

The NGO Friends of the Earth France was offered to participate in the working group, but refused to support such an approach [9], pointing out the urgent situation of contaminated old mining sites that are very badly managed, and calling for a rethinking of our consumption and production means, instead of proposing accompanying “a restart of mining activity on the metropolitan territory”; actual objective set in 2012 by the Minister of Production Recovery at that time, Arnaud Montebourg.

On 4th May 2015, Rémi Galin invited SystExt to join the board of experts in charge of the white paper redaction. Despite its members questioning themselves about the very relevance of a white paper (too often being reduced to a simple “catalogue” of ideal technical solutions), and about the schedule (6 working months to cover such a broad topic, all this being done before the publication of a long-awaited reform of the Mining Code), we decided to join the initiative. We were aiming at bringing an objective point of view, and at debating key-issues raised by the mineral industry. The technical meetings were supposedly places where we could defend arguments and make decisions on major issues.

But as explained as soon this initiative was started, the goal is “to define a State/Companies partnership in the service of a new French mining model, more connected to territories” [10]. In this case, what role could really play the civil society? How much could we expect our voice to be heard in meetings where we represent roughly 10% of the participants?

A Sidestep Strategy

We went to the second and the third technical meetings, and were soon disappointed by the methodology, as well as the content of the exchanges. Actually, discussions were mainly focused on very technical issues, and no in-depth thinking was engaged, neither on a national nor an international scale. When NGOs pointed out the urgent situation of post-mine-closure French sites and the way they are managed, as well as the urgent situation of health, social and environmental disasters engendered by the mining sector all around the world, these questions were eluded, and the “thinking heads” turned back deep into the task of writing a kind of “French Mine for Dummies”. Whereas drafted documents were actually complex and hardly understandable for any inexperienced audience.

SystExt, thanks to its genuine onsite experience (both in France and abroad), made comments, raised reservations and expressed its concerns about the lack of clarity. But, out of the 150 comments we added on the draft documents, and out of all the relevant remarks formulated by some other contributors, nothing was retained by the editing team within the intermediate versions we have been able to consult.

Some days before the intermediary steering committee, we sent what would be our first “opinion letter”, tinted with pessimism, but calling for the good will of all the stakeholders. This letter triggered a reaction from the project coordinator, Rémi Galin, who admitted that the very concept of Responsible Mining had yet to be defined. He proposed an extraordinary meeting, to be held in September, in order to reflect on the features of such a concept. This happened in July! It means that the project had started three months earlier and the working groups were supposed to terminate at the end of the month.

But was reflecting on the meaning of this project not the very first thing to do? Why are we talking about “Responsible Mining”? Is it a manner of recognizing past and present mining activities as irresponsible, and that they deserve to be redesigned? Will errors of the past be recognized and the status quo on French post-mine closure management eventually lifted?

But as months went by, our doubts grew: had the civil society been invited only to endorse the initiative? In order to append a good-looking signature at the bottom of a voluminous document deprived of any social or political interest?

The last technical meeting then unfolded in the exact same way as the previous ones. SystExt bitterly noticed the same methodology being applied: fake dialogue, inappropriate way of exchange and unilateral decision-making for writing final drafts.

We then wrote a second “opinion letter” before going to the extraordinary meeting, known as “Responsible Mining concept meeting”. In this letter, our main arguments were set out in five parts, and we agreed that if neither the schedule, nor the methodology, nor the very philosophy of this initiative were reconsidered, SystExt would have no other choice than break away from the working group.

To summarise this extraordinary meeting and the inclusion of a “Responsible Mining concept” chapter within the white paper, Alain Liger only stated that they had “actually felt they had to put something down”.

From then on, SystExt could not stand for a paper devoid of any social, human and environmental ambition. FNE was deploring it too, with roughly the same point of view: the civil society only serves as a guarantee for an aimless project, pretty similar to already existing international initiatives, that is to say driven only by industrial corporations, advocating self-control, self-approval and corporate social responsibility as a magic remedy to all problems. Industrial corporations and State representatives did not really seem to intend to take our claims into consideration. This is why SystExt and FNE then decided to leave the roundtable in the middle of the meeting, de facto leaving the “Responsible Mining” working group.

A loose methodology, reflection of the lack of resources and political will

The “Responsible Mining” initiative transforms a burning political issue into a simple technical review, dull and incomplete. Yes, the mining industry directly participates in the development of our current economic model and has become essential for almost every business sector. But it generates catastrophic and irreparable damages to people’s health, environment and social organisation. We, citizen engineers in direct link with the mining world, witness this, in our daily professional activities, whether it be in France or abroad.

Conceptualising a “responsible Mine”, if any, would imply outlining an industrial project that takes into account minimal requirements for maintaining a coherent social-economic development, as well as preserving well-being of people and quality of the environment. If we want to efficiently avoid grave consequences of the mining industry, it is necessary to start thinking about its impacts and to understand why they happen; and only then, based upon this comprehension, could we design a “responsible Mine”.

But this State/Corporations approach goes the opposite way: only mining exploitation and technical constraints were studied, and this cannot lead to fundamental “solutions”. A real progress-making approach in order to identify “solutions” can only be based upon acceptation of the serious consequences of the mining industry at all levels: health, environmental, social and economic.

So, what appears in the revised version of the white paper? A lot of poorly-structured technical jargon, based on the evidence of revised drafts we consulted. And as in current regulations, proposed means of external and really independent control are weak or non-existent. The majority of the programme rests upon corporations’ good-will to protect their image.

But “soft law” has already demonstrated its limits, massive industrial scandals and State/Corporations/Experts conflicts of interest are now generalised (they even seem to have become something common). They use only corporations’ point of view to understand the civil society, that is to say as a constraint which it would be necessary to free from. And which requires being convinced of the benefits of their project to obtain the notorious “social license to operate”. If the pressure from corporations, investment funds and raw material European policies is too high for the State to handle, the civil society won’t serve as a “green showcase”. The double-dealing game played by the government won’t trick anybody.

“While the State announces its will to put French mining revival on a long-term footing with a strong territorial relationship, it grants exploration permits in total opacity. Let us start from the beginning: a restrictive regulatory framework”, this is how Solène Demonet, Industrial Risks and Impacts project manager at FNE, summarises the current situation.

The State must take a strong and clear stand. Either it keeps adapting to the mining industry demands, as it is currently doing by granting exploration permits (see our interactive map panoramine), ignoring all concerns and claims from affected communities and local councillors. Or it positions itself as a genuine agent of change for corporations’ accountability, listening to communities and to the civil society.

SystExt wants to participate in transforming the existing extractive industries, as well as in rethinking our relationship with mineral and energetic raw materials, aiming at models that respect all women and all men, as well as the environment. But the « Responsible Mining » initiative, defended by the French Minister of Finance, clearly does not strive towards the same objectives.


► References

[1] Press Release from the French Ministry of Economy and Finance: “Emmanuel MACRON engage la démarche « Mine responsable »”, 24/03/2015.
[2] Presentation of the National Strategy for Ecological Transition towards Sustainable Development (SNTEDD) 2015-2020 available on the French Ministry of Ecology, Sustain. Development and Energy website.
[3] Ibid., p.44.
[4] Idem.
[5] Such as during the conference on French mining revival “Renouveau Minier en France Métropolitaine: potentialités et acteurs” organised by SIM (Society of the Mineral Industry), 03/2015.
[6] Press Release from the French Ministry of Economy and Finance: “Emmanuel MACRON préside l’installation du groupe de travail chargé de définir la « Mine responsable » du XXIème siècle”, 01/04/2015.
[7] Idem.
[8] Idem.
[9] Press Release from Friends of the Earth France: “« Mine responsable » : Les Amis de la Terre déclinent l’invitation du gouvernement”, 01/04/2015.
[10] Presentation by Alain LIGER: “Mine Responsable – Réunion d’installation. Présentation de l’action Mine Responsable”, 01/04/2015.