Interview with Dr Tamara Litvinenko

A short interview with Dr Tamara Litvinenko, Senior Researcher at the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Dr Tamara LitvinenkoHow has your research contributed to improving the social and environmental performance of mining?

My research investigating the negative socioecological consequences of mineral resource development in Siberia and the Russian Extreme North in the 1990s (Litvinenko 2010, 2011, 2013) highlighted the importance of rehabilitating and restoring mine sites to their former use and protecting the surrounding environment after a mine closure. Given international experience, there is a need for Russia has to establish mechanisms that mitigate the negative social and ecological consequences of natural resource development. At the initial stages of mineral resource development, there needs to be consideration of the future of a mining site after its closure (Litvinenko, Murota 2009; Byambajav, Litvinenko, Oishi, Shiotani, Takacha, 2018).

Studies in Russia and Japan have shown two different geographical outcomes from the suspension of mining operations. In the Russian Extreme North, it has led to a complete migration outflow and the elimination of settlements due to the inexistence of other types of economic activity for non-indigenous people, poorly developed infrastructure and transport isolation. One example of this is Chukotka, where the suspension of gold, tin, and tungsten mining in the 1990s eliminated half of the urban settlements.

On the other hand, the Japanese experience shows that after the mining has stopped, there are opportunities for other economic activities which make use of the existing tangible and intangible assets of the mining company and the former mining sites. A good example is Kamaishi (Byambajav, Litvinenko, Oishi, Shiotani, Takakiga, 2018) where, following the end of mining in 1993, the Kamaishi Kozan Co., Ltd continues to preserve and maintain former underground mining sites as assets for the future. Sites are now used for educational tourism and underground water extraction, while local communities in the town of Kamaishi have preserved a significant amount of the mining company’s diverse material resources. These are currently used as local museum exhibits.


How has the idea of social and environmental performance in mining evolved in recent years? Are there particularly interesting case studies or examples of best practice that you can point to?

In Russia we have certainly seen the evolution of social and environmental performance  in mining and its practical implementation in the last two decades. While the negative social and environmental consequences of mining were largely ignored in the 1990s, since 2000 the social and environmental responsibility felt by the industry and individual companies has grown. This is due to three factors: (1) stronger environmental legislation (2) the increased responsibility of mining companies and (3) greater public concern.

From my field observations in Siberia and the Russian Extreme North, I can point to a number of examples of  good practice and  social responsibility from big mining companies such as Kinross Gold, Sakhalin Energy and ALROSA. This includes financial  assistance for the reindeer protection program; the allocation of grants to support the traditional natural resources used by indigenous people, such as fishing and domesticated reindeer herding; and contributing to local indigenous communities through employment opportunities.


What are the most urgent areas of research needed to improve social and environmental performance in mineral resource development? And how should we priorities research funding in this area?

To improve the social and environmental performance of mineral resource development in the Arctic and the Russian Extreme North, we need to develop a deeper understanding of the interaction between extractive industry and traditional natural resource use by the indigenous populations in very vulnerable socioecological environments. This can guide us towards the harmonious co-evolution of mineral resources development and traditional natural resources use.

Priority research funding should be given to multidisciplinary and multi-scale  investigations, which use not only scientific data, but also knowledge of local populations.


What are the biggest misconceptions in society about minerals? What should be done to address them?

Society and the way that people think change more slowly than the rapid advancements in mineral resources development. Most people are not fully aware of the unpredictability, cyclicity, and variability of mineral resources development, with a belief that the need for mineral resources in the future will be the same as it is now.

Unfortunately, many developing countries do not have an in depth understanding of the negative consequences of suspending mining operations, and do not plan for the future of mining sites after their closure at the initial stages of mineral resource development.

Dissemination of scientific research may contribute to a greater awareness and better understanding of mineral resources development.


What do you see as the greatest or most urgent challenges facing our planet?

The greatest challenges facing the Arctic  and Subarctic are unprecedented climatic changes along with rapid  socioeconomic changes, due mainly to intensive mineral resources development. These changes are evidenced not only by science but also by local populations which regrettably cannot always adapt successfully to such rapid shifts.


What choices does society have to make about our future?

Generally speaking, society has to make a choice to prioritise ecologically and socially responsible economic activities.

However, I am a human geographer, and I appreciate the diversity of societies and their specific features. Every society has to make its own choice based on local environment, local traditions and local knowledge.