• Share

What 400 years of history can teach us about sustainability for the future

5 September 2023
By Rohitesh Dhawan, President & CEO, ICMM. First published on his LinkedIn account on 5 September 2023.

When planning for the next 40 years, it’s helpful to have 400 years of experience to lean on. That’s the enviable position of ICMM member Sumitomo Metal Mining Corporation that I recently visited in Japan.

Like other Japanese conglomerates, the Sumitomo has a wide variety of interests ranging from real estate to banking. Yet, it is distinguished by its roots in mining and metals. It originated out of a business called ‘Izumiya’, founded in 1590, to refine and craft copper. Having learnt the basics of copper refining from Europeans in Japan, the founding family invented the “nanban-buki” process of separating silver from copper ore which represented a major technological breakthrough at the time.

Guiding this work and everything else the Sumitomo family did, was “Monjuin Shiigaki”; a document written by Founder Masatomo Sumitomo, which described the principles for doing business honourably. Over 400 years later, this still serves as the source of the Sumitomo corporate philosophy.

We can learn much from this centuries-old approach to responsible business. For instance, many of the mountainous slopes that held the Besshi copper mine – which produced 30 million tons of copper ore over its nearly 300 year life – were restored to natural habitats through an unprecedented afforestation and reforestation programme that was far ahead of its time. Tellingly, the leaders of Sumitomo saw it as “repayment for what has been reaped from the land”; reflecting an appreciation for mining’s impact on nature and the obligation to restore what has been disturbed.

It also serves as a useful reference for how to build thriving post-mining communities. At its peak, over 10,000 people lived around the mine. The operation closed in 1973 and the area today is a vibrant centre of industrial, tourism and agricultural activity with many former mineworkers and their families absorbed into other industries that had developed in the region off the back of the mine and its infrastructure.

This is not to suggest that the mine and its practices aren’t without blemish. The original smelters polluted the air and affected the health and livelihood of local communities, requiring the smelters to be relocated to a group of uninhabited islands offshore in 1905. There may well be other impacts over the 300 year period that the mine was in operation that are either undocumented or did not come to our attention.

The commitment of the current leadership of Sumitomo Metal Mining to responsibly supplying the world with critical minerals was palpable. The company operates Japan’s only, and one of the world’s few, refinery in Niihama capable of producing high-quality electrolytic nickel and cobalt which are essential for electric vehicle batteries amongst other applications. Rather than seeing this highly strategic position as a license to produce at all costs, the company appears committed to the highest standards of responsible production throughout their value chain from the refining of the ore in Philippines through to shipping the final product to customers.

Yet, despite the long history of Sumitomo in Japan and its commitment to responsible practices, the perception of the mining and metals industry in Japan is far from universally positive. This is a familiar challenge around the world, and as I have said before, mistrust in mining should worry us all.

Building broad-based trust in mining is the defining challenge of our time, for nothing short of the planet’s future depends on growing mining at an unprecedented rate and scale to meet the world’s growing demand for critical minerals. As we search for solutions to build a different future, let’s not forget to look back for possible answers and inspiration.