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How to Ban Mining in World Heritage Sites

25 May 2018

This blog first appeared on the Global Mining Observer website on 25 May 2018

Tom Butler

Despite scepticism, mining groups have worked together to block mining in sites valuable for wildlife, writes ICMM's chief executive Tom Butler

In 2003, a bold policy was announced to ban mining and exploring for minerals in World Heritage Sites.

What made this policy so important, and also so effective, was not so much its text or far-sighted ambition, but who introduced it. It was not proposed or adopted by the United Nations or a civil society body but by the International Council on Mining and Metals, a CEO-led organisation whose member companies produce 40 per cent of all metals and minerals with a collective market capitalisation that is currently half a trillion dollars.

At the time, ICMM had only recently been formed, after a two-year long consultation of 5,000 groups and individuals. The industry’s reputation had been challenged in the 1990s and its access to resources, capital and markets was quite literally at stake. ICMM was set up to improve the environmental and social performance of the industry in an effort to build trust with the NGOs, local communities and host governments who ultimately decide on the fate of operations.

There was understandable scepticism about whether the industry was really serious about mending its ways, but the World Heritage Site announcement had teeth, and it was commercially risky. There was nothing to stop non-members picking up assets that ICMM's members had just relinquished. It showed a commitment to lead by example and enabled ICMM to engage with stakeholders with credibility on other issues of mutual concern.

Since then, ICMM’s members have gone on to make leading commitments on other key topics, such as tailings management and water stewardship, often following a process of dialogue with the industry’s sternest critics.

The need to safeguard World Heritage Sites is even more important now than it was 15 years ago. WWF and the Zoological Society of London estimate that wildlife populations have halved since 1970. World Heritage Sites are the last home to many of the world’s most endangered species.

Very few countries have implemented protective legislation, although progress is being made. ICMM’s policy has been adopted by other leading players in finance, and WWF continue to campaign to ensure that all banks implement clear policies that prohibit loans to clients that have the potential to damage World Heritage Sites. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, they cited ICMM’s position in their successful campaign to dissuade an oil company from venturing into Virunga National Park, one of the most biologically diverse areas, home to critically endangered species including mountain gorillas.

This reflects a broader trend that we see of the private sector developing its own social purpose, and often setting higher standards than required by legislation. It would be a brave Board indeed that would today endorse pursuing a project in a World Heritage Site.