Sustainable mining in the Arctic? 

PictureI might be in danger of sounding like a broken record, but last month I returned from another great conference and am struck again by the importance of getting out there and presenting my research, but for different reasons. This time, I headed to the very North of Norway for the Barent’s Institute’s “Mining the Arctic: sustainable communities, economies, and governance? Thorvald Stoltenberg Conference.

As well as acting as another motivating period of intense analysis and synthesis, I learned a great deal. Given my focus on Svalbard, it was really useful to get a picture of the work going on elsewhere in the Arctic, beyond what you can glean from the mainstream media: this Guardian article situates what is going on, or might do, to some degree for instance. The conference gathered academics from all over the Arctic region – who are looking at a large range of issues connected with mining the arctic. So this was great for learning more about the wider region my research is situated in. Moreover to have a supportive group of Norwegian and Russian academics from many disciplines to discuss my own research with was great, as they could pick up on cultural, political, historical or other points that as a Welsh geographer I had over-looked.

Though it might have been a long way to go for a couple of days it provided a glimpse of life in northern Norway that means suddenly some of the accounts from those I have spoken with in Svalbard begin to make sense in a different way. Of particular relevance to my thinking and work were hearing about the mining history and operations of the town of Kirkenes from the Major Cecilie Hansen, a representative from Sydveranger Iron mine (Harald Martinsen) and a tour of that mine. The parallels with Svalbard in the timings, politics and operations of the mine are uncanny. Of course, it is always good to hear from fellow (more experienced) researchers dealing with Svalbard from a different focus point as well and giving me an excuse not to try and talk about EVERYTHING- thanks to Peder Roberts and Dag Avango for covering the fascinating industrial heritage angle on coal mining in Svalbard as well as in Northern Sweden.

Thinking about mining minerals in the arctic in general has given me a broader perspective too. Whilst coal is a resource that although global demand shows no signs now of slowing down, could be largely replaced with investment in renewables, making the environmental case at least, a difficult one to argue for. However, what about minerals needed for fertilizer, electrical components, and construction metals? We are surrounded by infrastructure, food, commodities made from what starts out at such mines, some of which are, or could be in the future, located in the arctic. When it comes to mining finite resources required for modern living, what does sustainability mean in this case and how do we choose where to exploit resources from? Many of the speakers addressed this. Some good news is that environmental impacts and assessments are being taken into consideration, though there are always tough decisions to make and more progress is needed in transforming policy to practice.

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Vladimir Didyk speaking about the challenges of mining Apatit (a mineral for fertilizer production). ‘Challenges of sustainable mining: the case of two mining projects in Kirovsk municipality, Murmansk region, Russia’: V.Didyk, L.Isaeva, L.Ivanova, G. Kharitonova, Luzin Institute for Economic Studies of the Kola Science Centre RAS

Many speakers pointed out that social impacts and consultations had lagged behind. In terms of thinking about the working practices of the mines we heard about and visited, the intense extraction rate of 24/7 operation is one way to limit the already high costs by extracting as quickly and productively as possible. Yet, if long term communities surrounding such operations are part of thinking sustainably, then a slower rate of production, at least at times of low resource price, could prolong the life of the mine. This is certainly something discussed in terms of mining in Svalbard which I didn’t manage to squeeze into my presentation. I instead chose to focus on the narrative value and values of mining in Svalbard and how they relate to the question of sustaining coal mining there. You can see more of my presentation on Prezi here.

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Me presenting. Photo credit: Dmitry Borisov

Thinking about other actors beginning to enter the arctic, such as China, raises interesting questions too, geo-politically and when thinking about maximising benefits and mininsmising negative impacts of mining, as we discussed with Iselin Stensdal. Arctic operations are costly, require particular technological expertise, recruitment and work safety is made tricky by remote and cold work locations. Yet, arctic areas have or are developing strong regulations and packages to ensure local benefits accrue, as a research participant in Svalbard commented, ‘if we are saying no here, then we are saying yes to this activity elsewhere, which could be worse’.

Which brings me, aided by Brigt Dale, back to thinking along familiar lines about the value of landscapes, wilderness, which landscapes, peoples, species are worth protecting, which must be ‘sacrificed’. If we ‘save’ the arctic, does this mean we trash Africa? Is it ultimately how we conceptualise nature and humanities place within (or outside) of ‘it’? Of course, if we didn’t insist on all this stuff…. Though hidden within worries about ore prices perhaps, one thing we didn’t get around to talking about directly was the demand side of the arctic mining equation. All food for thought. The Barents Institute have a great summary of the whole event too.

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Slide from ‘Sacrifice zones and sustainability in mining development: An outline for a theoretical approach’, Brigt Dale, Nordland Research Institute and Berit Skorstad, University of Nordland

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