Why IRMA’s Standard for Responsible Mining is a Big Deal
By Payal Sampat
July 19, 2016
The diverse organizations and sectors—labor unions, indigenous communities, NGOs, mining companies and downstream purchasers of minerals—that form the Steering Committee for the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) often get asked why we sit at this table across from other stakeholders with whom we don’t always see eye to eye. Given that we frequently see issues from very different perspectives, why do we choose to engage in this challenging, time-consuming work?
Earthworks is a non-profit organization with an almost 30-year history of working to protect communities and ecosystems from the adverse impacts of mineral development. Our history and commitment to reducing the ecological and human footprint of mining first brought us to the IRMA table back in 2006, when the initiative first formed. But IRMA’s unique composition, commitments, comprehensiveness – and potential to be really game-changing – are what have kept us here.
Despite their differences, IRMA participants share a strong commitment to respectful dialogue; to equitable, multi-stakeholder governance; and to the importance of third-party, independent oversight. IRMA’s participants have consistently agreed on the need for establishing a high bar Standard for environmental and social responsibility—one that would have meaningful benefits for workers and communities on the ground, and one that would be implementable and measurable. Indeed, the diversity of viewpoints around the table has helped to strengthen the IRMA process and the Standard for Responsible Mining.
Many in the NGO sector are uncomfortable with voluntary initiatives—and understandably so, given our less-than-satisfactory experience with some of these efforts to date. IRMA is not meant to be a substitute for regulations or legally enforceable requirements. One of IRMA’s fundamental premises is that mining operations must comply with legal requirements wherever they operate—and must meet the more stringent set of criteria, whether those required by local jurisdictions or by IRMA. Ideally, such requirements would be legally mandated and uniformly applied around the world. Given that this is lacking, we see the benefits of companies making voluntary commitments to—and implementing—criteria such as responsible mine tailings disposal, and to respecting the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities.
IRMA has developed what is arguably the most comprehensive set of auditable, independently verifiable criteria for assessing the social and environmental performance of mining operations. The second version of the draft Standard for Responsible Mining was published in early April 2016. While it’s a landmark document, the draft Standard is by no means perfect. For instance, Earthworks feels strongly that the water quality sections need to be more rigorous, and that perpetual water treatment is an unacceptable practice. We applaud IRMA’s commitment to free, prior and informed consent and ensuring that natural water bodies are not dumping grounds for mine waste. IRMA needs your input on the draft Standard—whether you’re a mining engineer, indigenous community representative, mine worker, academic or downstream purchaser of minerals, and whether you agree or disagree with the content of the chapters. The official comment period just closed but comments are still welcome on a rolling basis. Please weigh in!
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