Please explain the concept of social licence to operate in the extractives industries and how the idea has evolved in recent years. Are there particularly interesting case studies or examples of best practice?
Social Licence to Operate (SLO) has been identified as one of the main risks for the mining business and is a growing issue in academic publications. Research published by Ernest and Young (2020) identified SLO as the main risk facing mining and metal industries.
SLO can be defined as social acceptance and continuous approval of mining projects by local communities and other stakeholders, which can affect their profitability. In pursuing the objective of ensuring the legitimacy of mining projects concerning multiple stakeholders, several pieces of academic research on SLO focus more intensely on developing an instrumental approach to measuring the level of the acceptance of local communities related to the mining project. Although it is possible to find several examples in literature of companies successfully managing their SLO to guarantee community support for extractive projects, a growing number of publications question the limits of that strategy.
Samarco’s dam burst, in 2015, in Brazil is a good example of this argument. Controlled by two of the most important companies in the mining sector, the Samarco case illustrates the limits of using traditional SLO models in contexts of vulnerability. Samarco presented SLO as a central element of its sustainability strategy. Besides that, the company has a leading role regarding transparency and social-environmental practices within the mining sector in Brazil and Latin America. When the dam collapsed, causing one of the worst mining tragedies the world has seen, it was clear that the company covered-up risks not only for the community but also for the business itself.
What are the most urgent areas of research needed to improve social and environmental performance in mining? And how should we prioritise research funding in this area?
I suggest three areas of research that should be advanced to improve social and environmental performance.
First, integrate social impact assessments throughout the project cycle to understand the broad range of impacts related to the extractive industry, including economic, environmental, social, and cultural aspects. This comprehensive understanding of the impacts may help to develop compensations and mitigation projects that can increase benefits and mitigate impacts to communities.
Secondly, integrate technical-scientific, constructivist, and participatory approaches in the identification of social impacts. This would facilitate better recognition of the impacts of extractive projects and how they are felt cognitively by each individual directly affected by changes in the region. By giving the impacted community a voice, it is possible to deal more effectively with the negative and positive impacts of a particular mining project.
Thirdly, although studies in the mining sector have advanced in qualifying the influence of gender, few studies focus on this issue regarding SLO. A recent study published by Meashan and Zhang, (2019) shows that women tend to develop a more critical attitude towards the process of acceptance of mining projects. Therefore, future research could focus on how to improve female engagement in SLO processes.
How has your research contributed to improving the social and environmental performance of mining?
In 2014, we launched the first Research Group on Social License to Operate in the mining sector in Brazil. The group was set up to discuss the challenges and perspectives of the SLO processes in the context of vulnerability. In 2017, our research group was awarded a grant from Vale´s Research and Innovation Fund to implement a project titled Key drivers for Social License to operate and for the development of metrics to assess the level of social acceptance by local community stakeholders.
Among the objectives of that project, I would like to highlight the following: 1) a systematic literature review on SLO, 2) application of Social Impact Assessment in the mine life cycle of projects in two Vale operations, and 3) development and application of social acceptance metrics in mineral projects that consider the local context and situations of vulnerability.
We also expect to contribute to the creation of an international research network to promote academic collaboration with experts by working and researching on topics related to the above-mentioned themes.
What are the biggest misconceptions in society about minerals? And who should be responsible for dispelling them?
I am afraid I don’t agree with the idea of misconceptions in society about minerals. The idea of misconceptions about minerals reminds me a lot of the position of the chemical sectors back in the 1980s when opposition to the negatives impacts of chemical companies were treated as a complot of some sectors of civil society. At that time, the chemical companies argued there was a need to increase public relations initiatives to properly inform society about the benefits of chemicals to economic and social development.
Only after industrial tragedies like Bhopal, the chemical industries understood that there was a need for a global change in the sector. The answer was the launch of the global program Responsible Care, which resulted in a change in the way companies collaborated with the public sector, academic organizations, and local communities. I see a similar perspective for minerals to sustain mining activities and achieve a better balance between economic, environmental, and social needs.
What do you see as the greatest or most urgent challenges facing our planet?
I think a core problem for our planet is the priority of a system that depends on the permanent growth of production and consumption and puts even more pressure on natural resources. Such a system threatens biodiversity, contributes to climate change, generates an increasing amount of toxic waste, and fails at the same time to solve the challenges of regional inequalities.
These are challenges, that need urgent answers in several fields, including public policies, business actions, and educational and technological development processes effectively committed to these changes.