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The new mineral era is here, and Chile is at the centre of it

26 October 2023

Although humans have been mining since prehistoric times, we are living through a new era of minerals and metals that few people alive today will have previously experienced.

By Rohitesh Dhawan, CEO and President, ICMM. First published in Spanish for a special edition of El Mercurio, sponsored by Teck Resources, on 26 October 2023.

The choices that society will make to ensure responsible mining will shape the overall health and wellbeing of the people and planet for generations to come. Chile has a central role to play in this.

For instance, we will need to mine over 700 million tonnes of copper in the next approximately 30 years, which is the same amount as humans have ever produced. This is an unprecedented scale and rate of growth which is mirrored in other commodities such as nickel and cobalt. This is driven by the needs of a growing global population and in particular the imperative to decarbonise the global economy, which in turn requires building new energy, industrial and transport systems that rely on these mineral inputs.

While in general there is no shortage of the required metals and materials in the Earth’s crust, the challenge lies in extracting and processing them quickly, safely, and sustainably. Chile’s rich mining history and the actions of leading responsible mining companies shows this is possible if we understand and replicate leading practices in at least three key areas.

First, keeping people and communities safe and healthy. In this regard, we must acknowledge that despite progress in recent years, the mining industry globally and in Chile has a long way to go to achieve our goal of zero harm.

Given this imperative, innovations such as the use of autonomous haul trucks at several Chilean mine sites, the application of the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management (GISTM) by 8 ICMM members operating in Chile, and the highest standards of critical control management are ways in which leading responsible mining companies are working to enhance the safety of workers and communities. Further, the updates to ICMM’s Mining Principles on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in 2022 will help ensure that psychological safety and mental wellbeing receives the priority it deserves on a foundation of physical health.

Second, minimising the impact of mining on nature. Even the most responsible mining practices have a direct negative impact on the natural environment by producing air emissions, using water, and disturbing the soil and plant and animal species. Our primary responsibility lies in minimising these impacts, particularly where they can cause harm to people.

Chile is home to a number of leading practices in this regard. There have been large investments in desalination plants to minimise fresh water use through the actions of several ICMM members. For instance, Teck Resources’ Quebrada Blanca (QB) project is the first mining operation in the Tarapaca Region in Chile to use 100% desalinated water for all its production processes. Teck has also gone beyond its own operational footprint by partnering with the Ollagüe Quechua community to develop a biodiversity conservation area for the Alconcha Salt Flat, a unique and high-value wetland ecosystem near QB; a first of its kind.

Additionally, all of Antofagasta Minerals mining operations are 100% powered by renewable energy to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from electricity. Further, ICMM members are collaborating with the manufacturers of mining equipment to accelerate the development of zero-emission mining trucks, including in Chile.

Third, respecting the rights and interests of people affected by mining. The foundation of responsible mining is respect for rights, interests, and perspectives of affected communities and in particular, Indigenous Peoples. Responsible mining can help communities achieve the future they envisage for themselves; however, it must be recognised that the mining industry has not always operated this way in Chile or globally, resulting in social upheaval, loss of cultural heritage, and physical and psychological harm to people.

Here too, Chile can show the way to a fairer future. For instance, since 2016, Teck Resources has supported UN Women in the empowerment of Indigenous women in the North of Chile. This effort was stepped up in 2022 with an additional investment to support more women to access to tools and training to develop skills, build networks and improve their economic well-being.

Codelco is similarly contributing to the development of local communities through leading practices in buying from local suppliers, investing in community projects, and increasing local employment.

The new mineral era is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for people and the planet to prosper through responsibly produced metals and minerals. It is an opportunity we cannot afford to waste, and Chile can lead the way.