Oil and water: inside indigenous support for mining projects
Donlin Gold’s new Alaskan mine has received the support of local indigenous groups, a rarity in the mining sector. Dominic Hale asks if this could set a precedent for the future of mining.
ew mine proposals go hand in hand with environmental concerns. In fact, one would be hard pushed to invoke an example of any project that has enjoyed universal support from all stakeholders.
It is commonly held that such concerns are often professed most profoundly by indigenous groups subsisting on the resources set to be impacted by development on land earmarked for mining. Further, received wisdom to date suggests those projects that do go ahead are marked by - at best - an uneasy alliance between mining company and local community.
However, there are an increasing number of projects out there that see local and indigenous groups working in harmony with mining companies as shared stakeholders, raising the prospect of mutually-beneficial mineral development.
Not only are mining strategy and operations increasingly marked by transparency, accountability and responsibility, but there is a growing recognition from those communities most profoundly impacted on the ground that many of the challenges they face are best served by working in concert with corporations to respectfully develop projects.
Such environmental oversight affords the opportunity to positively influence decision-making to ensure best possible outcomes.
Here, the land-owning indigenous group has actively offered the mining company the opportunity to explore.
The proposed Donlin Gold mine in Alaska is one such example, where the project is located on private land specifically designated for mining activities through the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Here, the land-owning indigenous group has actively offered the mining company the opportunity to explore.
While the unusual ownership model could oblige the miner to achieve community buy-in in a way they may not have to across other assets, the by-product has been to show that such engagement pays back in spades in terms of achieving the desired outcome; in this case, to soothe concerns and ameliorate negative impacts sufficient to be able to mine gold at scale.
Setting a precedent
In the case of Donlin Gold, equal partners Novagold and Barrick Gold remain in consultation with the Calista and Kuskokwim corporations, owners of the mineral and surface rights respectively. In Calista’s case, its entire board is composed of tribal members from the Yukon Kuskokwim region where the mine would be located, and its support for the mining companies’ efforts in the region is born out of a desire not to move away from its subsistence lifestyle, but rather, to preserve it.
This potentially sets a precedent for miners and indigenous groups across the sector, whereby indigenous groups are able to protect the resources that underpin their way of life through wholescale economic reinvigoration, courtesy of a significant share in mining revenues. As Andrew Guy, president and CEO of Calista, notes, “they are interdependent now: subsistence activities and the cash economy".
This potentially sets a precedent for miners and indigenous groups across the sector, whereby indigenous groups are able to protect the resources that underpin their way of life.
This has already been evidenced in the Donlin Gold project exploration phase, with Calista shareholders having benefited from job opportunities, earnings from which have enabled them to purchase new boats and nets.
Meanwhile, with latest capital cost estimates of $7.4bn and life of mine production numbers assessed to be 1.1 million ounces per annum over 27 years, this potential project represents a huge undertaking, and so presents similarly significant scope for new transport, power and IT infrastructure. This equates to accessibility, affordable energy and opportunity for indigenous communities in what is a cold and remote part of the world.
It is also the case that partnering with local communities and responsible sustainable development simply makes for good business. If the business model does not allow for reconciling financial value for shareholders with environmental protection and broader benefits for host governments and communities, then it’s a non-starter.
In actively partnering with local interests and indigenous groups rather than being a legally protected ‘occupier’, mining companies can apply fit-for-purpose social and economic assessment tools to understand the priorities of the communities in which they operate.
[Miners] are able to gain a better understanding of the various risks and opportunities to ensure all stakeholder voices are heard and represented.
In this way, they are able to gain a better understanding of the various risks and opportunities to ensure all stakeholder voices are heard and represented, thereby removing obstacles to project progress across its life cycle.
Of course, the fact that mining has the capacity to be a bridge to a better future means little if the miners themselves fail to act on these principles.
Changing the narrative
There is, of course, a question to be answered: which interests are responsible for the anti-mining narrative that purports to speak for disenfranchised indigenous communities everywhere? By scratching beneath the surface, it becomes apparent that it is not always those on the ground set to be directly impacted whose views are being represented.
Moreover, meaningful sustainable development goes hand in hand with the right to self-determination, meaning local voices should and must be heard and acknowledged, even when they don’t align with the popular narrative. Extrapolating from this example across the sector, we see that, cumulatively, the potential benefits in terms of truly sustainable development for affected regions are diverse and profound.
There are entrenched interests who believe mining companies to be unstoppable, unconquerable demon Behemoths of the land.
This is not to say there is universal support from all quarters for such projects, and indeed, there are entrenched interests who believe mining companies to be unstoppable, unconquerable demon Behemoths of the land. In the case of the Donlin mine, the support of two indigenous companies does not invalidate the opposition of 10 local tribes, and more broadly, high-profile incidents such as Rio Tinto’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge are stark reminders that not every company acts in the best interest of indigenous groups.
However, there is a reality in which mining interests are not inherently exploitative and exclusively self-serving in the way many understand it, especially when those same hosts enjoy the status of partners and direct beneficiaries.
These days, whether major, mid-tier or junior, any mining company will describe it as a priority to leave host communities with a firm foundation for a sustainable future, and this will be reflected in their stated strategy and values. Of course, it’s one thing to say, quite another to do.
// Main image: Statue in Skagway, Alaska. Credit: Steve Heap via Shutterstock