Mining and sustainability – A social responsibility case study

Aboriginal woman working on a loom
There are companies that change people's lives. They generate employment and have a positive impact on the quality of life of traditional populations. But what happens when these companies take off? This is the case of SSR Mining and its plan to create sustainability for communities in the Argentine Puna.

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Introduction

 

In the 1990s, Pirquitas and Santo Domingo were forgotten rural communities in the province of Jujuy, Argentina. The population of the area – mostly indigenous – lived from the pastoral farming of sheep, vicuñas, llamas, and goats, to agriculture, and handicraft production.

But in the salt deserts of the Puna, in the northwest region of the country, a great treasure was hidden. Minerals such as silver, zinc, and lithium attracted the attention of large mining companies around the world.

Silver Standard Resources Inc, a Canadian mining company, began its activities at the Pirquitas mine in 2009, employing more than 800 people in tasks related to the extraction and processing of the resources obtained.

In 2016, given the imminent exhaustion of the mine, the company began mining in Chinchillas, 43 km from Pirquitas and 5 km from Santo Domingo. In order to minimize the impact that the closure of the first mine represented on local workers, SSR Mining continued exploring and in 2018 began to reuse the mineral processing plant in Pirquitas.

But Pirquitas’s resources are nearing their end. The projected lifecycle of the mine goes from 2018 to 2026.

How will the local population survive after the mine closes?

SSR Mining knows that a business has a responsibility to the community in which it is inserted. This is why the company has already begun planning a project for a post-mining legacy.

Due to our experience accompanying improvement and transformation projects, we were consulted to provide methodological support to help structure the closure process.

 

The problem

 

Before we came across this project, an experienced Social Responsibility advisor – Empoderar RS – had been consulted by SSR Mining. The result was a detailed report on how the company impacts and relates to the community.

This analysis, based on in-depth interviews and focus groups, revealed the existence of the following problems:

 

  • Lack of participatory territorial planning

  • Overlapping intercultural tension between Company, Community, and State

  • Corporate Relationship Culture based on “donations”

  • Reactive Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Policy – which represented an opportunity for greater planning

 

How to deal with these basic problems, clearly traversed by intercultural tensions? With so many possible lines of action, how to prioritize and plan a realistic and viable sustainability project?

Although this type of problem is very common in undertakings of this magnitude, this case, fortunately, presents a peculiarity. There is a determined intention to confront and mitigate the conflicts.

 

The objective

 

When we discussed the project with SSR Mining managers, we found a clear objective.

 

We want to accompany the indigenous communities that today make a living from our company so that they develop ways of working that are sustainable after the closure of the mine.

What was not clear was how to get all stakeholders involved in a real commitment. This was the focus of our work.

 

The project

 

The action plan proposed by Empoderar RS included several axes of action.

Of them, I would like to highlight the three that I consider most valuable:

1. Interculturality

The corporate vision must incorporate interculturality in all company processes. It is about establishing a culture of agreements and feedback, in which the company, the community, and the state work as a team to achieve sustainability.

After all, in a transformation project, the key is always the culture.

 

2. Social Responsibility Indicators

“What is not measured cannot be controlled, and what is not controlled cannot be improved”

Peter Drucker

Establishing social monitoring indicators is essential in order to understand the progress made in the plan and identify opportunities for improvement.

 

3. Participatory planning

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”

Chinese proverb

The post-mining sustainability plan is for and by the communities that will remain after the closure. This is why it must be developed with a consultation and participation methodology in shared Programs and Projects.

The plan must also be based on the perspectives of the communities. The company must promote the development of the communities, but they are the ones who, autonomously, will imagine their own future.

Now, how to develop a plan that promotes the autonomy of the communities? Which is the gap that exists today regarding the desired objectives? These were some questions that we brought to our first assessment workshop for discussion.

Assessment Workshop

 

After analyzing the existing documents, carrying out a preliminary diagnosis, and identifying the gaps with respect to best practices, we proposed holding a guided discussion session in which we invited the main participants of the project.

These were:

 

  • the Community Relations Department and its entire team

  • the Improvement and Environment Management area

  • the Operations team in charge of coordinating the project

  • the Social Responsibility consultant

 

The working session was organized as follows:

 

1. Structuring the history of the project

Although there was numerous documentation regarding everything that had been done with the communities, there was no consolidated and visible document for all parties.

In order to sort out the history of the project and better understand the existing gap, we asked the team to:

 

  • define the phases of the actions that had been carried out with the communities (we conceptualized them as territorial interaction, intercultural dialogue, commitment to territorial integration, and sustainability)

  • order the actions step by step (Dialogue Tables, Community Assemblies, among others)

  • identify the stakeholders that were impacted by each of the actions and the resistance that they presented

Our final document was consolidated as follows:

We had already finished the first step towards designing a strategy. It was time now to start delving into the aspects of the project.

 

2. In-depth analysis of the project

In the second stage, the Coordinating team (Human Resources, Community Relations, and Operation areas) focused on understanding in detail the objectives of the project and its key elements.

We helped do this in the following way:

 

  • We listed and wrote down on post-its what the team thought were the key aspects of the project (What can not be missing? What are the requirements?)

  • In the variable “X” we ordered the aspects of the project by the degree of knowledge and the understanding that the team had about them (Do we know this key aspect? Do we understand why it is key? Is this aspect known and understood by the different stakeholders?)

  • In the variable “Y” we located the aspects of the project by their level of importance (To what degree does this aspect determine the success of the project?)

This was the result of our shared thoughts:

Classification matrix of key aspects of the project

Finally, we analyzed the resulting matrix. What aspects of the project are of great importance but are not known or understood?

Thus, we identified the critical aspects that needed to be worked on, communicated, and resolved.

 

3. Identification of all the stakeholders involved and touched by the project

Although there was a clear will to understand the impact on the territory, and the company had identified the different communities as stakeholders, this did not mean that the managers and the second line recognized them.

In the same way that we had done in the previous point, we evaluated as a team and for the different stakeholders (listed on post-its):

 

  • the degree of commitment/involvement (“X” axis)

  • the importance/impact (“Y” axis)

 

Stakeholder classification matrix
 

This is how we discovered that, for example, the global company was not being involved in the project, although it was considered a highly important stakeholder.

Classifying the stakeholders – focusing at this stage on those that were a part of the company – allowed us to identify the key stakeholders to address.

 

Methodological planning for improvement

 

As a result of the workshop, the coordinating team took on the task of putting together the strategic map of the project, which is part of the global strategic planning of the company.

This is a succession of milestones to be achieved – significant key results in the process that will mark progress in development.

Once the milestones have been defined, the next step is to design a global plan for the project. This stage, already much more detailed, will include:

 

  • description of each activity

  • purpose

  • person accountable for the task

  • indicators of success

  • expected deadlines

There is still a long way to go, but we already have a goal, shared objectives, clear problems to solve, and a definition of the key aspects of the project. And we know what the next step is.

 

Conclusions

 

Social responsibility is not a fad. When a company impacts people’s lives so much, it understands that it depends on the people in the community to develop its business – and that by working together, both parties benefit.

SSR Mining has understood this very well. And because of this, the company has learned that social responsibility is not about donating, but generating the conditions for the communities themselves to create their sustainability.

I hope this pilot project is as successful as it promises and, as a result, can be replicated all over the world. This is certainly the intention of SSR Mining, and we are proud to be part of the initiative.

Author: Raúl Molteni

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