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Creating an environment conducive to self-sustainable community development during the life of mine

Livelihood resilience in mining communities is now more important than ever. New threats to self-sustainable livelihoods in these communities have emerged in the past six months.

By Lisl Fair, Principal Consultant (Sustainability), SRK Consulting

Lisl Fair (second from right) with SRK’s social transitioning during mine closure core team (From right) Adel Malebana, Ashleigh Maritz and Jessica Edwards

These threats include more mines choosing to reduce production or remain on care and maintenance post-lockdown; worldwide economic volatility; and the widespread socio-economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic affecting lower-income families disproportionally. All these factors converge into a unique opportunity to pause and ask the question: how can development practices be adjusted to increase resilience and create an environment that fosters self-sustainable community development in mining footprint areas?

Key paradigm shifts in development practice are required; notably the need to effect meaningful change that avoids perpetuating social injustice based on historical narratives and economic imbalance of power. This shift in focus involves moving beyond paternalistic practices which aim to develop for, to a participative asset-based process where mines create meaningful long-term value with communities.

The process of creating value involves focusing on longer term objectives and turning short-term ‘charity projects’ into self-sustaining enterprises that can help mining communities build their resilience and withstand fluctuations in mining activities. Success stories are rare, but increased focus among sustainability practitioners on co-creating resilient communities reflect valuable lessons on how to make this happen.

An important focus of good practice throughout the mining lifecycle is on its social impact, and how a proactive process of concurrent social self-sustainable development can make communities more resilient. This necessitates a move away from community dependence on the revenues flowing directly from the mining operation.

A non-traditional approach

Most mines contribute significantly to local social development projects in one way or another – either through regulatory requirements or through corporate social investment (CSI) initiatives. Contribution is often done without upfront consultation with recipients, which results in the recipients being excluded from taking ownership throughout the lifecycle of the development project. An example of this type of development strategy is when mines focus on developing infrastructure projects such as schools or water wells for communities. All too often these projects are developed for communities resulting in no clear community ownership and maintenance plan.

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) pressures – through regulations or responsible investors – increasingly require mines to demonstrate their local procurement spend in the public domain. To respond to this requirement, mines are gradually forming enterprise and supplier development departments to engage with and build capacity in the local supply chain. While these developments are a step in the right direction, the need for long-term economic diversification in the area makes it vital that the mine actively supports suppliers to find other customers in the region, which will avoid long-term dependency and help strengthen networks and partnerships.

Traditional approaches to community development do little to create self-sustainable communities. When funding priorities shift throughout the mining lifecycle, the impact is often devastating for the organisations and individuals who are dependent on continued mine support. There have, however, been recent practical efforts by mines to take a new approach to community projects – supporting them not just to survive but to build a sustainable foundation for a future beyond the life of the mine.

Sustaining early learning

An example of a project showing how this can be done is the Lesedi Early Childhood Development Centre near Ivanhoe Mines’ Platreef Project in South Africa’s Limpopo province. Initially funded by Ivanhoe Mines in terms of the CSI mandate within the mine’s legislated Social and Labour Plan (SLP), the centre has developed a path that supports its independence.

Started in 2011 as a volunteer organisation, Lesedi was supported by the mine in a five-year multi-pronged engagement from 2014 to 2019. The support included training courses starting in 2016 – on leadership, childcare and catering – that would foster self-sufficiency. Lesedi and the mine also collaborated on an enterprise approach to generate revenue, starting a tree nursery in 2017. In 2018, the self-sustainability training continued with a process of asset mapping, business viability testing, and a micro-MBA small business course. The project was able to expand its nursery in 2019 and to apply for funding from other social development funds.

From our experience, mines can achieve a great deal in terms of creating self-sustainable community development if they start early in the mine life cycle. To foster this process, an innovative ‘Self-Sustainability Toolkit’ has been developed to help project teams consider self-sustainability right from the beginning of the development project cycle. This toolkit is applied within a framework covering the full project life-cycle, from the initial consultation phases and benchmarking through to project self-management and independence.

The instrument keeps evidence regarding self-sustainability interventions and guides the evaluation of existing projects against self-sustainability actions. It also poses questions such as these: Did the beneficiaries initiate or request the proposed project – at least in broad concept? Did the project team involve the beneficiaries in the project planning and design? Do the project beneficiaries understand that the ultimate aim is for the project to be financially self-sustainable? Did the beneficiaries receive training in basic project and business management?

The practical lessons in creating self-sustainable social development projects that have been learned in the mining sector to date have been valuable. They should be shared, adapted, and emulated – where appropriate – as we continue to build good practice in this important field.

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