A Global Mining Ethics Code: Why It Matters

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by Erick A. Fabian

There is no international law governing mining projects, according to environmental ethics expert Shefa Siegel. The Philippine Society of Mining Engineers (PSEM) has a Code of Ethics, but a quick look at their website copy of the code reveals that it needs improvement in the environmental aspect.  At the moment, there are only individual ethical codes and behavioral standards, but these are mostly voluntary and no government strictly enforces them. Included in this long list of ethical codes are the International Cyanide Management Code, the Equator Principles, the Global Reporting Initiative, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the Natural Resource Charter, and the United Nations’ “Ruggie Principles”. These are seen more as guidelines rather than authoritative.

On a recent visit to Japan, geologist and researcher Dr. Victor Maglambayan found out that there is a growing demand for “ethical jewelry.” He noticed that discussions about fair trade and related ethics in the jewelry business have been gaining ground in other countries. “In one of my early visits to Japan, I realized that the green trend has already taken hold even for gold, especially for gold produced by small-scale miners,” says Maglambayan in an interview with mainstream broadsheet Philippine Daily Inquirer some years back. The respected geologist also works as division manager for exploration at Philex Mining Exploration.

“The traditionally wealthier countries in the world have shown concern for problems associated with small-scale mining by preferring jewelry that is untainted by issues normally associated with small-scale miners like child labor, use of toxic substances and other environmentally hazardous practices,” he remarked. According to Maglambayan, this trend is not much different from the phenomenon of ‘blood diamonds’ in some African countries in the past. ‘Blood diamonds’ are those mined using slave labor, often done using kidnappings and other illegal methods. He mentions examples of jewelry companies that are exemplary when it comes to ethical business practices, such as Cartier and Fifi Bijoux in France, and Hasuna jewelry in Japan.

A sane mining code of ethics, Siegel believes, is one that would limit prolonged extraction once it reaches an unsustainable level in an area, instead of expanding as if the resource is unlimited. The enforcement of mining ethics will require interfering with existing mining policies. Such interference, says Siegel, was unheard of in the past decades but is very much necessary in the time of climate change and ecologically-sustainable business practices. Failure of enforcing an international mining ethics code will result to the stubborn persistence of extraction practices, which will prove to be fatal to communities around the world, not to mention the environment.

The country of Mongolia has the Sustainable Artisanal Mining (SAM) project, done in partnership with the Swiss government. It has produced a mercury-free gold processing plant in Bornuur province after its small-scale miners formed a cooperative. The advocacy for ethically-produced mining products is now being jump-started in Latin American countries as well. In Colombia, there is an organization of small-scale miners called Asociacion por la Mineria Responsable (ARM). ARM advocates for a ‘standard zero’,a process to certify gold, silver and platinum that conforms with the following ethical requirements: Gold and gemstones should be from socially and environmentally responsible mines. These should be fairly traded, ensuring that miners get a fair price for the goods, and the employees are paid more than the local minimum wage.

ARM emphasizes that no child and forced labor or exploitative practices will be used in the mining, refining or trading of gold and gemstones. Another remarkable thing about this movement is that the gold mines follow an eco-sustainability program, meaning no chemicals were used (for example, cyanide, mercury or arsenic). As a way to make up for the extraction, ARM members make sure that the topsoil dug off during mining is replaced.

It is uncertain if mining companies in the country are catching on the trend to promote “green jewelry” and fairly traded mineral. Research efforts in finding ways to produce and promote “ethical gold” to benefit small-scale miners are apparently not in place. The Philippines is still in the “fact-finding” stage, while foreign researchers are now in the “problem-solving” stage. Maglambayan mentions research work by Dr. Peter Appel of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, who documented the extent of mercury use in the small-scale mine sites in Zamboanga del Norte and Camarines Norte.

“Aside from helping clean up the process of small-scale miners, this may have economic benefits. Consider how much gold can be recovered from the mercury that can be recovered from the tailings. If it becomes successful, maybe large mining companies may show more interest in small-scale miners’ activities finally,”said Maglambayan. He believes that international agencies with interest in social development should see artisanal, or small-scale mining, as a way to help rural folk rise from poverty.

In the Philippines, the Environmental Management Bureau has estimated 300,000 small-scale miners in 2011. In Benguet alone, at least around 16,000 people work in small-scale mining industries. Maglambayan says small-scale mining “should be engaged constructively as the problems in this sector impact largely on mining companies.” “Small-scale mining is a reality in the Philippines because it is driven by poverty and the lack of opportunities,” he says.



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