Anglo American: mining must become sustainable

Effective partnerships and a clear social purpose are essential if mining is to have a positive impact on local communities and society more broadly

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Anglo American aims to reimagine the mining industry and improve people's lives through its ambitious Sustainable Mining Plan

I have dedicated more than 40 years of my life to a wonderful industry that has helped lift countries out of poverty, providing the raw materials that make modern life possible and playing a significant role in the world’s economic activity. But as society’s expectations of business rightly grow, mining sits at a crossroads.

For us in the industry, we must never think the status quo is enough. We must strive for step changes in how we mine, how we maximise the benefits that can be derived from such an activity and how we engage with society as a whole. Put simply, we are the custodians of many of the world’s precious resources, and it is with great responsibility that we must lead our industry with the expectation that mining will become a trailblazer in social and community developments. In our industry, sustainability is not merely a luxury – it is a business imperative.

At Anglo American, we have recently set out an ambitious Sustainable Mining Plan to transform how our stakeholders experience our business, both locally and globally. Our approach goes far beyond compliance with mining legislation and regulatory requirements: it’s about making a more strategic, holistic, positive and lasting impact. In other words, it’s about sustainable business in its full and proper sense, and it is a strategy led by our clear purpose: to reimagine mining to improve people’s lives.

Time for change
Partnerships and engagement are critical to this transformative approach. Our efforts to realise long-term sustainable development opportunities are centred on what we call ‘collaborative regional development’. This approach is focused on partnership in two ways: first, by identifying the socioeconomic development opportunities of greatest potential in a region, and second, by delivering them.

In the mining industry, sustainability is not merely a luxury – it is a business imperative

Our understanding of these opportunities is enabled by spatial planning – an approach that allows issues to be addressed in terms of space and context. By gathering, cleaning, collating and then accurately analysing information, we are able to tell the compelling story of what a region can become when its potential is better realised.

This work, which is undertaken in partnership with local governments and other key stakeholders, is the catalyst for partnerships with a broader range of entities, from businesses to governmental bodies, researchers to practitioners, and community representatives to faith groups.

As with any new and innovative approach, we have learned a great deal. First, we have recognised that focusing solely on the development work closest to a given mine is not a recipe for success – there is a much wider area of impact that we have a responsibility to consider, which also has a bearing on the local infrastructure, as well as our own infrastructure.

Second, as collaboration evolves, our partners are discovering that the time frames of different parties can be restrictive. For many organisations, it is tempting to think in short-term cycles; in reality, we cannot be particularly strategic or deliver the most effective outcomes when we think in short time spans. Essentially, we need to look at socioeconomic development in a different way – a way in which we try to lead developments over a much longer time frame.

Partnering up
We started taking this approach in 2016 at the Mogalakwena mine, our largest platinum operation in the Limpopo province of South Africa. The approach makes sense for us and, just this year, has been extended to other areas where we operate, such as Botswana, Peru and Colombia.

In Limpopo, we work with a broad range of stakeholders, including the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the charity World Vision International, the mining company Exxaro Resources, and the Limpopo Office of the Premier. A dedicated support organisation – staffed by representatives from these partners – ensures that we all pursue a coordinated agenda, measure impact consistently and communicate openly.

Anglo American’s approach goes far beyond compliance with mining legislation: it’s about making a more strategic, holistic and lasting impact

While these partners each have different motives, they share a common purpose: to contribute to the sustainable socioeconomic development of Limpopo. Our hope is to play a part in diversifying the regional economy and making it more resilient to economic fluctuations, which includes lessening its dependency on mining. To help achieve this, we have undertaken various feasibility studies in agricultural development, including agri-processing, the biodiversity economy and access to information technology.

The upside is clear: such a strategy could create substantial economic benefits and employment opportunities across the entire Limpopo province. As such, collaboration is not just the right thing to do for the local community – it also makes sense for all parties involved.

It is still relatively early days, and the approach of multiple cross-sectoral partnerships represents unchartered waters, but we are already seeing multiple benefits – both expected and unexpected – come to fruition.

What’s mine is yours
Today, institutions are increasingly identifying partnerships as a means to tackle complex problems at scale. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals place great emphasis on partnership but, at present, organisations in all industries are poorly equipped to partner across various sectors. This is an area where significant research and development still needs to be conducted. That said, other businesses – including those from the tourism, pharmaceuticals and agricultural sectors – are recognising the intrinsic value of partnership. Undoubtedly, this trend is set to continue in the near future.

In many ways, the industry of 40 years ago is similar to the mining industry of today. My real hope is that the mining industry four decades from now will be unrecognisable; that mining will be seen as an innovator and world leader in technical sophistication. By that point, I hope that the quality of our products will have significantly improved and our environmental footprint will have been dramatically reduced.

Finally, I hope that by then any trust deficit that currently exists with stakeholders – whether that’s host governments, communities or society more broadly – will have been replaced by a situation in which we are seen as a natural and desirable partner for development and change. Mining must transform in the decades ahead. At Anglo American, and across the industry as a whole, we must work together to reimagine it.