The mining industry is often described in the media as «controversial». There are ways to reverse that image and educate the general public about the indispensable role of mining. The industry is holding the solution in its own hands. 

There are professionals who are in their 50’s and older, and then those like him, who are in their 40’s and younger.  Young talent is scarce. He attributes this to a lack of interest in studying the mining profession. He is clear about the cause of the problem «It’s easy to paint the mining industry as a sinister corporation that extracts non-renewable resources from the earth. I think that the lack of understanding regarding mining and what we do is the result of overall decisions by young engineering students, who have to decide between working at Tesla making electric cars, or at Codelco.”

Obviously, there’s a big fault in this logic, as Tesla’s electric cars are impossible without Codelco’s mining. But most people have a hard time understanding that association, which is so clear to geologists and mining professionals, but so vague to the general public.

A simple experiment

Look around you.

Everything around you right now, the concrete, the glass, the plastic, the structural steel in the building, the wood for the furniture, the paper for the books, everything is produced by only two processes. Either it was extracted from the earth through mining and converted into computers and domestic appliances, or it was cultivated and harvested, then processed into timber and paper.

The simple conclusion is that wanting to abolish mining is as absurd as wanting to abolish agriculture.

This means that a challenge facing mining is how to explain to society the importance of its role.

The mining industry’s duty to itself

Where do society’s prejudices against mining come from? Ms. Lucy Crane is the Chief Geologist at Cornish Lithium and is also an environmentalist. She offers us an answer “I think that distrust partially arises from secrecy within the industry. People have a negative view of mining, so the industry is suspicious of opening up to them, because it believes there will be negative consequences. The media only report disasters rather than progress, which creates a vicious circle. It can only be broken through communication.”

She believes that the industry must break that wall of silence that often separates mining from other businesses. She said “I believe that every level within the industry shares this responsibility. Although industry leaders have a greater responsibility. My workplace stimulates dialogs with schools, visits to universities and contact with communities. Industry leaders need to create environments where people take pride in their work, and want to spread the good news about how the industry operates.”

Dr. Kevin Heather is Chief Geological Officer at Regulus Resources and acknowledges that geologists in general are frequently introverts who shy away from media attention, which results in communication problems. But he reflects that «we need communicators like Mr. Robert Friedland, who is very successful within the industry, but also a speaker who can dazzle his audience. That’s the kind of personality we need to demonstrate to the world the benefits of mining. Mining needs social acceptance.”

Industry’s duty to society

Dr. Heather is radical about the social role of mining «This is not about mining alone, but about the whole of society, and its understanding of the importance of mining, beyond the issues of climate change and decarbonizing the economy. Dr. Heather said “Society is profoundly ignorant about the mining industry.» He remembers a phrase that he first saw as a child in British Columbia, Canada, on bumper stickers, and which is commonplace today If you can’t grow it, you have to mine it. Much of his teaching at universities focuses on explaining the importance of mining «Although here in Chile it’s a little different from the rest of the world, because there is an awareness of the importance of mining. However, there is always a certain lack of understanding. Of course there are aspects that the industry can do better, and we are progressing with those improvements, but we have done a very poor job as an industry and as human beings in explaining to the general public the importance of responsible and sustainable mining.”

Dr. Kevin Heather arrived in Chile in 1997 and remembers that at that time Chilean society was generally very supportive of mining. But he acknowledges that times have changed since then «In the last five years I’ve seen growing anti-mining sentiment among young people and I don’t quite understand where it comes from. Our very existence as human beings on this planet depends on mining.”

Ms. Lucy Crane remarked «There is also an attitude that says – not in my back yard.” She added «Most people in Europe are very excited about new technology, but if a mine is going to open near their house, they are absolutely dead against it. I think that the industry lacks people who defend their work and get involved in education. Even the companies that do things well have a hard time getting people interested in what they do.»

 

Mining as a transformative tool

Dr. Heather enthusiastically said «The recent social unrest has been driven by the great divide between the haves and the have-nots. Whereas, mining is part of the solution to that problem. For people to achieve the social change they desire, such as better distribution of wealth and better quality of life, that wealth must come from somewhere. Scandinavian countries understand that to finance a welfare state requires private businesses. Mining is important as a source of wealth and development.» Effectively, mining has the power to transform a country through its capacity to generate wealth. It represents about 15% of Chilean GDP. 

Its relationship with local communities and the environment is very important.

Ms. Crane is emphatic about the environmental impact of mining «There is already pressure from investors for projects to become responsible and sustainable with a low carbon footprint, and they should impact the biodiversity around the mine as little as possible. These days it is very difficult to obtain finance if your project is not well planned, which drives mining companies to achieve high standards. The problem is that such news doesn’t make the papers. We need more positive stories.”

 

The challenges for the future

International trade has been transformed by the pandemic. How will mining be transformed in the post-pandemic world?

Ms. Crane believes that metal and mineral distribution chains were already undergoing a transformation prior to Covid-19 “Responsible and transparent supply chains have become more important in recent years. For example, the European Battery Alliance seeks sustainable sources for the raw materials required for batteries and also assesses whether Europe can produce those raw materials.”

She sees an opportunity in this change “This could be an opportunity for the industry to relate to other important businesses in the supply chain. The UK and Europe have seen a greater push towards local supply chains. Battery processing mostly takes place in China at the moment, which has emphasized how much we depend on China for much of our technology, and to process battery materials, even if the concentrate is produced in Chile or Australia.”

Dr. Heather suggested «Market demands are going to require the industry to be more innovative, to find cleaner and more efficient ways of extracting metals. Companies will have to become electrified using renewable energy and find alternatives to using fossil fuels to power their mines. Here in Chile it’s not so difficult, considering the huge amount of sunlight received by its main mining districts. We need to transform our business into the leading edge of the 21st century. The mining industry is slow to progress, and that has to change. New technologies are going to be key to increasing yields in a scenario where new discoveries are increasingly scarce, so we must invest in research and development.”

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