Responsible Mining with Rohitesh Dhawan
Rohitesh Dhawan: The conversation around critical minerals has really put mining into the consciousness of people in a way that wasn't there before because people understand that the products of mining, the metals and minerals serve a huge global public good. We cannot do the energy transition without them.
Lisa Hyland: Hello and welcome to Energy 360, the podcast from the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at CSIS. I’m your host, Lisa Hyland.
This week, we look at responsible mining and the challenges faced by the global mining industry with Rohitesh Dhawan. Rohitesh is President and CEO of the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM). ICMM brings together 28 mining and metals companies representing over one-third of the global sector in over 50 countries. Rohitesh is joined by my colleague Gracelin Baskaran, Research Director here in the Energy Program.
Rohitesh discusses the role of ICMM in improving the standards of responsible mining, emphasizing the importance of obtaining the consent of mining-affected communities and the need for a fair and balanced dialogue among stakeholders.
He and Gracelin also touch on minerals recycling and the circular economy, and the legacy of mining and the need for industry leaders to integrate closure considerations into planning from the earliest stages
Here’s Gracelin to lead the conversation.
Gracelin Baskaran: Ro, thank you so much for joining our podcast. It's great to have you here today.
Rohitesh Dhawan: Thanks so much for having me. It's great to be here.
Gracelin Baskaran: I just want to get started. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Rohitesh Dhawan: Sure. My full name is Rohitesh Dhawan, but I'm so pleased you've called me Ro because that's what all friends and family do. I am the president and chief executive officer of the International Council on Mining and Metals, ICMM, which is the body that brings together 25 of the world's largest mining and metals companies, many that everybody will have heard of, Rio Tinto, Anglo-American, BHB, Glencore, and Vale as being the five largest companies, and then some more.
And it is not a lobby group, although I wouldn't blame anybody for thinking that way, but rather a group that needs to try and improve the standards of responsible mining, not just because we think it's optional and something we think is a good idea, but when we say that we're committed to certain principles of responsible mining, they become a condition of those companies being part of our group.
And together, we represent one third of the global mining and metals industry across 650 sites in over 50 countries. But ultimately, Gracelin, the idea of the organization is that, by taking some risk and doing some things differently as a large part of the industry on our own, we hope we can open up new pathways for everybody else to follow and to make the overall mining industry, which consists of 25,000 different mining companies, even though we only have 25 in our group, more sustainable and responsible.
Gracelin Baskaran: Great. Mining has really taken off in the last five years. The sector has blown up. Governments are prioritizing growth of the sector in a way that we haven't seen before. I'm curious about your journey and how you ended up in the mining sector. What did that look like?
Rohitesh Dhawan: Hey, thanks for asking. I am an unlikely person to be in my position, I'll be the first to tell you that, because I have a lot of experience, passion, and love for the mining industry, but I'm not a through and through miner, as somebody might picture someone in my position. I'm not a mining engineer. I'm an economist with a deep passion and training in sustainability, both social and environmental issues. And I have had the privilege, I would say, of spending two thirds of my life in the emerging world, in developing markets.
I was born in India and raised for much of my life in South Africa, and the first part of my life was defined, partially, by poverty. Our family was quite poor. I say quite poor because we were lucky to never be homeless and to always have a roof over our heads, but there were many, many weeks when we didn't know where the food at the end of that week was going to come from.
And when even education, let alone any other extracurricular activities were real luxury for us. I tell you that because it has defined my decision to be a part of this industry. Because you see, Gracelin, for many people who are in the same position as that my family was when we were growing up, or in many cases, in much worse positions, if I think about which industry has the potential to give them a chance out of poverty, I quickly land with mining, and I can think of very few others. Because mining happens in places that you know very well, Gracelin, from your amazing work that you've done in South Africa's Platinum Belt, but in many other countries too, if mining doesn't exist in those parts of the world, there's going to be very little other opportunity for people to find economic growth and development out of the situations they may find themselves in.
That is part of the reason why I'm so passionate about the power of responsible mining to change people's lives, because we felt, as a family, what it feels like to go hungry and go without electricity and not have money for schools. And I would like to do whatever little I can to make sure that others don't have to go through the same thing.
And like you, I'm sure, and many others listening to this, I'm also deeply passionate about nature and have a deep love for animals and want to do what we can to reverse the loss of nature, and we'll get into this later, but I also think that responsible mining is a powerful force for the conservation of nature.
That may sound like a weird thing to say for some people who may think that mining and nature goals are the opposite of each other, but genuinely, I feel that, if you care about the world's crisis of nature and want to play a role in halting and reversing it, there are few other industries other than mining that help you do that, so I feel very much at home in this industry, even though, I'm not a through and through miner myself.
Gracelin Baskaran: What a powerful story. One of the things that has struck me most about the mining sector is that it can be a driver of poverty, or it can be an incredible alleviator of poverty. And a lot of that hinges in the extent to which we engage with responsible mining practices. We've seen it go both ways.
In the last few years, we've seen a proliferation around the dialogue on social license to operate. What was once seen for many years as a nice to have, actually became a must have at the center of business models. What does responsible mining look like when it comes to the consent of mining affected people and how are companies going about that?
Rohitesh Dhawan: Gracelin, I think responsible mining, when it comes to the consent of mining affected peoples, looks like a situation in which the people who are directly and indirectly affected by the mining activity have had a chance to say yes or no to that activity, and even if some in the community may be opposed to it, have a sense that whatever impacts their maybe suffering are for the greater good for themselves, for their region, for their country and over time.
You see, it's not the case that mining in every case will bring short-term benefits to everybody, but it's quite clear that responsible mining on the whole brings significant development to significant parts of the world. And we want to be in a situation where people who are affected by it most, especially those that are living closest to it, have the chance to be able to determine how it's done.
For too long, and it depends on how far back you want to go, but I would include the waves of colonialism in this, for too long, people on whose lands mining has been done have not necessarily had the ability to either say no to it or, even if they were in favor or supportive of some mining activity, to be able to influence and shape how that's done. You were totally right to say that the conversation around social license has moved from a nice to have to absolutely critical because, rightly, people affected by mining are having their voices heard to say, "We're not going to suffer, yet again, another wave of growth in mining, especially as we look to critical minerals, which does not respect the rights that we have."
And here Gracelin, I would say we need to start making a difference between this general term of stakeholders that the industry tends to use. When we talk stakeholders, we talk about everybody that has a stake in the industry or is affected by it, but within stakeholders or as a different group of stakeholders, we need to pay special attention to rights holders. There are people who have certain rights in relation to the mining activity that are different from those that have a stake in it.
For instance, Indigenous people have certain rights that mining companies have to respect and states have to protect before we can say that the activity is being done responsibly. Now, here, we also need to make sure that there's enough understanding of the realities of the ground when these consent processes are taking place for us to appreciate what both sides are going through.
First and foremost, of course, the idea of consent is that it should be free, prior, and informed. And the community that is offering consent must have had the ability to say no, so it can't be done under duress. It must be done before significant project activity starts. And people need to have the information they need to make a good decision.
At the same time, companies, of course, also need to have confidence in the process, and that they are engaging with legitimate representatives of communities because, sometimes, you can find yourself across the table from somebody who claims to represent the interests of mining affected peoples, but in reality does not, and need to have the confidence as companies that the process that has been agreed to is going to be respected by both sides.
I don't think the answer here lies in giving everybody a veto because, when you do that, you end up in a situation where you can have certain processes captured both on the side of the company as well as on the side of affected peoples that do not serve the best collective interests of everybody involved. So Gracelin, I would say that a key part of a good process to obtain this consent involves the government or the sovereign authority in the place where mining takes place, because only the government is positioned to be able to look at a process where consent was sought and decide whether that was legitimate and whether that was fair, and at the end of the day, to balance the rights and interests of those most directly affected by mining at a local level with the rights and interests of the entire population and community in the country in which mining happens.
I would just end by saying one thing we should all keep in mind, Gracelin, and at all times. The conversation around critical minerals has really put mining into the consciousness of people in a way that wasn't there before because people understand that the products of mining, the metals, and minerals, serve a huge global public good. We cannot do the energy transition without them. The benefits of mining are clearly global.
We also know that the benefits of mining can be significantly regional and local. They are a major source of employment. They are a huge contributor to tax as well as to foreign exchange. They build supply chains, they build infrastructure. When you look at the benefit equation, it occurs at all levels: global, regional, national, local. But when you look at the negative, and let's be honest, of course, mining has negative consequences be those noise, dust, potential safety hazards and others, impacts on nature, when you look at the cost or the impact side of the equation, almost all of that impact is local.
While benefits can be global, impacts are almost always local. So, to say to somebody whose child can no longer learn properly in school because, every 15 minutes, they're being disturbed by the vibrations from blasting taking place, that, "Oh, yes, I'm sorry that happened to you, but look at all this great benefit that this nickel or copper that's being produced is going to provide the world." That person would rightly stand back and say, "Well, I don't care." As the saying goes, all politics is local, all impact on the negative side is also local. I think it calls on us to have a great deal of empathy for people that are directly affected by mining activity.
Gracelin Baskaran: So many of the points you raised are actually applicable to mining communities all over the world. Being based in the U.S., this is a hot debate facing many of the communities, particularly on the West Coast now, where we have found copper and lithium and other key critical minerals. But we see it emerging in Peru and South Africa, Indigenous communities in Australia. I agree, and I think it's one of the most pressing challenges that the mining sector faces.
I want to take that one step further. There's also growing pressure for companies to go from consultation with local communities to a more participatory process. You have some of the biggest mining companies as members of ICMM. What are they doing to move from consultation to participation?
Rohitesh Dhawan: Great question, Gracelin. A couple of really great examples demonstrate that we are thinking much more creatively and going into a much better place when it comes to people feeling that they not only have a say, but they also have an interest and a state in the mining activity.
Let me give you one example of a project in Peru called Quellaveco, which is a project from Anglo-American to produce copper, one of the largest projects in Peru. They obtained their legal license to mine, but decided to not mine for another 18 months, which anybody who's familiar with mining economics, you can do the numbers and know just how much money you technically left on the table by delaying the start of production by 18 months. Why did they do that? They did that because even though they had the legal license to operate, they knew that they didn't yet have the trust of local communities and the faith that they will mine in a way that will bring them shared prosperity. They spent an extra 18 months in a process called the dialogue table where they brought different parts of society together and asked people to work through their concerns and issues in a fair and balanced way.
Today, Quellaveco ranks is one of the best performing mining projects globally. And over a period in which many mining projects in Peru suffered disruption and shortages because of community unrest, Quellaveco was possibly the only one that didn't. So, for anybody who doubts the value of really deepening the level of trust and support from your local community in the project, Quellaveco is a great example of that.
Let me give another example of where I think we're headed when it comes to moving from pure consultation to shared ownership and decision-making. Many communities in Canada, particularly Indigenous communities in Canada, have been speaking up about what they would view to be mining done in harmony with their values and with the life that they want their communities to have. Several Indigenous communities have said, "Look, we're happy for you to mine, but would it be possible for you to mine slower for longer instead of mining more intensively for shorter periods of time?"
Now, you see, traditional mining financial models are not built that way. We built mining financial models to be able to extract as much of the resource as safely and sustainably as possible in as shorter period of time so that we can meet our return on capital and return to investors what they would expect. We would have to really think differently for how to make a slower for longer model work, but that's part of what we could do, and people are thinking of doing to demonstrate true respect and joint decision-making with communities for whom that way of working would be much better.
And then, from Canada as well, Gracelin, we're seeing really great examples of shared ownership of mining projects, so actually, a community having a stake in the mining project in a way that generates real and sustainable long-term financial returns for them and which gives them the agency and authority to decide what to do with that money.
We've seen, in Canada, for example, the creation of Indigenous sovereign wealth funds that have a stake in mining projects and are planning, then, for the long-term future of their communities even after the mining activity has finished.
It's long been said that for example, First Nations peoples in America, when they make decisions, they think seven generations ahead for the impact that the decision they're going to make is likely to have. I don't think it's a controversial thing to say that we, as a mining industry, do not always think that way or generally think that way. There's a lot we can learn from how traditional communities have thought about the resource base that sits in their lands, and I'm really pleased to see some of these examples from Peru and Canada demonstrating that.
Just a very last one, I would say, Gracelin, is a project in Chile called QB2. Again, another copper project, this time built by the Canadian company, Teck Resources, and Teck did something really quite extraordinary. Teck was not required to build an agreement with the Indigenous community in Chile. It is not generally the way that mining projects are set up to have these types of indigenous agreements, yet, they chose to. They chose to have agreements with the Indigenous communities in Chile because they felt that was the right thing to do.
And importantly ,they said, "Well, that's the standard we would hold ourselves to Canada, so why should it be any different if we're operating in another jurisdiction?" And you can just feel the level of goodwill and support that is built from communities not just in Chile, but Indigenous communities around the world who are saying, "Yes, now, Teck is the kind of company that we would like to partner with to use our resources. We would rather work with a company like that than with somebody who hasn't put our interests first, or at least hasn't balanced our interests together with their."
Those are just some examples of where I see the shift happening but let me not also oversell it. It's not happening as widely and as quick enough as we need to, and part of that responsibility lies with me and my team at ICMM. We need to do better to make it the norm in the mining industry, where these kinds of models are explored and increasingly deployed.
Gracelin Baskaran: Both of us have worked in the mining sector for long enough that we know that this is a really exciting advancement. Mining has had such a bad reputation across the world that these are the examples that give us hope, actually, that we are becoming more conscientious as a sector.
I want to take this a little bit further now. Mining has long generated very negative externalities as it relates to the environment, and we are talking about biodiversity, damage, pollution, we talk a lot about emissions. Can you tell us about an example of mining being done in a way that's in harmony with nature and minimizing the biodiversity damage?
Rohitesh Dhawan: It's such a great question, Gracelin, and it's one that's so close to my heart because, I'll be honest with you, as somebody who just loves nature and animals and plants so much, just like others do, I would dream of a world in which we could just keep these areas pristine, not just for the non-human species that live there, but for the people that have called those lands home as well.
But I know that's not realistic because, of course, we need the metals and minerals that exist under the ground. Equally, turning that natural capital into human and economic capital is an opportunity for development for people as well. But I really myself am so conflicted when I think about mining and nature because I have this utopian fantasy of a world in which nature remains truly thriving and understood. But the next best thing, if that's not possible, and I know it's not, is to have not just mining activity but others too, but that are in harmony with nature to the extent possible.
Now, let me use the toughest situation in the world that people think, "Gosh, there is no way you can mine in harmony with nature in this place," and that is the Brazilian Amazon jungle. Obviously, arguably the world's most important ecosystem, and one in that 25 million people call home. There are 25 million people that live in the Amazon. Mining deep in that area not only poses risks to nature, but equally, to the rights of people that call it home. But yet, Gracelin, there is the world's largest iron ore mine, the largest hole in the ground for iron ore exists deep in the Amazon jungle. I'm told, but cannot verify, that it's so large you can see it from the moon. So we're talking big right.
Now, this is an iron ore mine in a place called Carajas, and it's operated by Vale, another ICMM member. And Vale has been operating this mine for nearly half a century now. The resource is very rich. It's iron ore that's being mined there. And iron ore, of course, is important to produce steel.
And here's the really interesting bit. Even though it is the world's largest iron ore mine, even though you can see this hole in the ground from space, it still only takes less than 3% of the area that Vale protects as a result of mining there. In other words, 97% of prime Amazonian old growth forest is being protected today, is remaining standing today, because there is a mine in the middle of it that disturbs less than 3% of the land.
Now, I can tell you, from personal experience, because I've been there and I've seen what else is around there, if the mine wasn't there, the forest wouldn't be there, simple as that, because everything else around this 97% has been felled, primarily to make way for cattle farming or farming horse farming.
If the mine wasn't there, you wouldn't be protecting 800,000 hectares. 800,000 hectares is five times the size of London. That is today's standing because this mine has made it a condition of them being there that they will protect the rest of this. So, you have jaguars and civet cats and macaws and just the most beautiful animal and plant species, and you have amazing Indigenous communities like the Xikrin community that continue their way of life because Vale has made a commitment to protect this area.
Then, they have poured significant money into research and development to understand how we can bring these environments back to places where we lost them from. They're contributing to research and development in these areas. They are showing us how we can restore biodiversity. It's just, for me, such a great example of how, yes, we disturb nature, but with a small disturbance in nature, we can protect a much bigger part of it too.
Just final angle to this, Gracelin, people might be thinking, "Oh, well, that's all well and good. Yes, you protect some land, but what about the land that you disturb? Can we ever bring that land back to anywhere close to what it was before we mined?" And here, I've just come back a few weeks ago, earlier in 2023, from another mine in the Amazon, different part of the Amazon, where I went to see for myself, is it possible to restore previously mined lands to a state of nature that we would consider to be healthy? And what I saw was amazing, Gracelin. This is a bauxite mine. Bauxite is used to produce aluminum, which is used in our cars and airplanes and medical equipment, and within 15 months to two years, you can start to see the same type of forest as what existed before the mining activity started.
Now, to me, the untrained naked eye, I can't tell the difference between an area that was previously mined and has been reforested and an area that was never touched by mining. But I'm told that even the scientists who are taking samples of the plants and animals that live there and the soil health and the value of ecosystem services have also found that, not only can previously mine lands be brought to the same quality as before, in some cases, they're even better because some of the concentrations and changes that happen in the soil actually generate even better plant and soil health.
There were even some jaguars that were spotted in that area, and you know that, when the apex predators there, it's a really good sign of ecosystem health. Thankfully, the snakes stayed away. I would not have been happy if I saw any of those. But it's just yet another example of, when you put enough thought into it, and yes, enough resources into it possible to mine in a way that is in harmony with nature.
Gracelin Baskaran: I love your example about the Amazon. We often think about biodiversity in a bit of a vacuum, but the reality of the Amazon is, our battle against climate change is infinitely harder. The Amazon is often called a carbon sponge, right? And the amount of emissions that would be in the air without something like that actually undermines sustainability of something much bigger than biodiversity. It highlights the knock-on effects of responsible mining and preserving that biodiversity.
I want to take that one step further now. We talk about all of the negative externalities of mining, and compounding this is a need for more and more critical minerals. The majority of minerals that we talk about are going to be in a significant deficit for our goals of 2030, 2040, 2050. How much mining do we need to actually do going forward? There's a lot of conversation now, circular economy, recycling. Will we actually need as much as we say we're going to need? In your opinion, having worked in the mining sector for many, many years, how much mining do we actually need to do?
Rohitesh Dhawan: Such a great question. The short answer to this is, and I don't want to be flippant, but the easiest way to think about it is, we should mine as much as we need, no more, no less. No less, because if we don't mine as much as we need, we may not have enough metals and minerals for the energy transition. No more, because if we mine more than we need, it means that we have missed an opportunity to reuse existing material to fulfill our needs.
Now, we need to and will get a lot, lot, lot better at being more efficient at the way we use things and reuse things. Now, part of that answer will lie in recycling more and better, but that's not even where the biggest prize remains because currently, around the world, if you take all the materials, not just metals and minerals, but think about everything we end up reusing or recycling only about 8% of the stuff that we throw away.
Let's grow that 8%. Let's double it and let's double it again, without question. But if we wait for things to become waste before we reuse them, even if we double the 8% to 16%, just think about how much waste we are still generating that we don't need to generate. The answer is actually to think about circularity right from the very beginning rather than when it becomes waste. So you design products in ways that allow you to take the material out much more easily so that you don't have to wait for them to become waste before you can take them out.
Now, to use a slightly but not too out there example, there are buildings in China today that are being torn down because people want to access the copper that is in the wiring of those buildings because they're really old buildings and the copper is very valuable. Now, what if, in the future we designed buildings with the wiring on the outside rather than on the inside? So if you really needed to get to the copper, you didn't have to knock the whole building down, thus generating a huge amount of waste and concrete and steel and everything else. You could just take what you needed from it. And then, imagine how you would design cars and washing machines and fridges and everything else to make it easier to recover materials before they become waste. That's the way I hope we will end up in the circular economy, and that's certainly the role that we want to play in the mining industry to help us get there, but the reality is Gracelin, that even if we double that 8% to 16% or even more, it will still not meet our needs for the growth in metals that we are seeking.
Let me use an example. We currently produce around 21 million tons of copper. The actual number doesn't matter. I'm just trying to give a sense of scale. We produce 21 million tons, but we consume 25 million tons. The difference is made up of recycling, and that's because all the copper we've produced ever since we started mining in the, well, let's call it from the 1900s onwards, two thirds of that copper produced is still in circulation today, because copper is infinitely valuable, and people will find a use for it.
Metals are actually already largely quite well recycled, so our challenge isn't so much, like it is, for example, plastic bottles, trying to incentivize people to recycle because there's inherent value in our product, but it's more that our collection systems and our thinking has not matured enough to make sure that we are harnessing these things.
Many people think, "Okay, you're talking a lot about battery metals these days, and how much more lithium and cobalt and nickel we're going to need. Can't we just recycle our way to this?" Now, yes we can and we must and we should, but to give people a sense of what we expect to see in terms of volumes, in 2035, which sounds a long time away but is only 11 years away, in 2035, if we managed to meet all the goals of recycling that are currently being announced, only 10% of our need for battery metals in 2035 will be met by recycled materials. So, 90% will still be met by primary production, which means growing lithium production somewhere between 10 and 20 times, cobalt production probably a similar number, nickel, and copper not as big a number, but actually, for those commodities, even doubling or tripling production is really, really hard and a big lift. So, while the actual multiplier on any commodity can vary, the key takeaway is, we will have to grow primary supply massively, and at the same time, we will have to grow recycling and circularity massively. Both of them will be necessary for meeting our needs for the transition.
And the final piece of that puzzle, Gracelin, is going to be clever substitution of materials where that's possible. We've seen that most in the battery world. You have two chemistries of batteries that are competing. You have NMC, which is nickel, manganese, and cobalt. A lot of the German and American car makers have used NMC batteries. They're reliable, they give you good range. But a lot of the Chinese technologies use LFP, lithium iron phosphate that are cheaper and as a result can be scaled more easily.
We're going to have to see how we can best manage the mix of materials and things like battery chemistries, but another form of substitution could be, if copper is really hard to get and has some significant knock-on impacts like the production of tailings waste and others, then, we might be able to substitute copper through aluminum in some applications. Aluminum can play the role that copper plays in many, but not all cases, but many cases. And aluminum can, in some cases, be slightly easier to produce depending on where you are and how decarbonized the electricity grid is. Primary production as well as recycling and reuse as well as material substitution is going to be the way we get there.
Gracelin Baskaran: Ro, that was really great. I think we don't give enough attention to the fact that we need to shore up our actual production in parallel with our recycling capacity.
There's one thing I want to ask you. What is the government's role in advancing research and development on recycling? We can recycle now, today, far more than what we could recycle five or 10 years ago because we've made advances. For example, with a battery, we can get 98% of our lithium out of our battery. What does the government need to do to ensure that we are actually advancing our recycling capabilities?
Rohitesh Dhawan: Great question, Gracelin. Two or three things come to mind. One is, to identify the parts of materials that currently there is no way to recycle and to really give things like research grants and innovation prizes and university scholarships to solve those very specific problems.
I'll give you one example. A wind turbine, we can already recycle about 90%, 9-0% of a wind turbine structure, excluding the concrete base. Tower, the motor, we know how to recycle all of that. What cannot be recycled well, at the moment, are the blades. We need to figure out a better way to strip away the coating on the blades, and then, to be able to recycle the material in there. Governments could easily identify that as a very specific and unique challenge that needs solving, and then, throw some money at that problem and throw some technical capability and brain power at that problem. That would move us along in a big way. That's one example.
Let's use another example people will be familiar with. Many people will have solar panels on their roof, or they will have seen solar panels elsewhere. Solar panels can be recycled to a very large extent, except that, in many places, it doesn't make commercial or economic sense to do so. But we know that a subsidy of $18, $1-8 per panel will make it economical to recycle it. There, your problem isn't technology. Your problem is actually not having the economic incentive to recycle it. So there, governments need to provide that economic incentive so that people naturally take on recycling.
Now, a bit earlier, I talked about the different battery chemistries, NMC on the one hand, nickel, manganese, cobalt, and then, LFP, on the other hand, lithium iron phosphate. Now, NMC batteries will naturally be recycled because the content and the value of the metals in them is enough for people to do it without any incentive. LFP batteries, on the other hand, do not have the same incentive. LFP batteries are likely to need some government support in the form of subsidy or in the form of a requirement for recycling before they will be naturally recycled.
As you can tell, it's about honing in on the very specific problem, the wind turbine blade, the solar panel subsidy, the lithium-ion phosphate battery, and then, you can start to channel government support into those places.
The final thing I'd say, Gracelin, is that there is another way to think about reuse and recycling where government help is needed. Now, in the past, mining has had a history of thousands of years, and particularly in the last 50 or 100 years, we have mined an ore body and extracted what we needed from it, and then, the waste rock, we have stored somewhere. And that waste rock still contains useful metals and materials, but they tend to be in diffuse concentrations where our traditional processing techniques have not been either effective enough or economical enough to go back into them to remind those what I call tailings, but there's a huge opportunity here to incentivize people to go into those old waste dumps, and then, remind them for valuable commodities.
But what's stopping us from doing that? Well, in some cases, it's money and technology, and governments have a role to play there too. But Gracelin, there's another very important dimension to this, which is that, in some parts of the world, and I think the U.S. as one of them, I'm not deeply familiar with the legislative landscape, but I do know this is a challenge, if you go back into an abandoned waste pile to try and mine it so that you are both solving the problem of this abandoned waste pile and you're extracting valuable material and you happen to find some really nasty stuff in there, that becomes your problem.
Now, there's a good reason why that law is in place to ensure that you can't just take over an area and not be responsible for cleaning it up, but that's holding people back from saying, "Hey, I want to be a good Samaritan here," and it is called a good Samaritan law, "I want to go in and help, but I don't want to take on the risk that I find some really nasty stuff in here. And that becomes a much bigger problem than I anticipated." Surely, governments can do something to underwrite that risk and to say, "Well, look, let's share the risk here. If something really bad and nasty comes out, we'll work with you to fix it. It won't just become your problem." That's an example.
And just so people want to know the scale of what the opportunity in places like that is, just take a country like Australia where we estimate that there are somewhere in the region of 5 million tons of copper that exist in waste piles in Australia today. A large copper mine is a 300,000-ton, 400,000 ton mine, so when I'm talking 5 million tons and that's production, I was saying in terms of a large mine, that's a significant resource. Again, there is huge potential if governments can help people and encourage people or at least give them a backstop to go into those waste piles and remind them for useful material.
Gracelin Baskaran: The point on waste, I think, brings us to a fantastic final question, which ironically, has to do with closing a mine. The mining sector struggles to overcome a very complicated legacy, and a lot of this stems from mining companies leaving behind waste damage that has a far-reaching set of socioeconomic consequences. And we see this all around the world. We're talking about the aftermath of coal mining in West Virginia. We see this with the million tons of partially radioactive waste in Niger. We see this with lead poisoning near lead mines in Zambia. How do we repair the legacy of mining?
Because I find this to be so important to turn around the reputation of the sector as one that is actually beneficial, that has the potential to facilitate economic growth and lifting people out of poverty, but also kind of de-stigmatizing the sector in terms of the role it plays with the clean energy transition. I guess, yeah, to wrap up, how do we fix the legacy of mining?
Rohitesh Dhawan: I'm so glad you asked this question, Gracelin. We fix the legacy of mining by first acknowledging it and acknowledging that it has some really bad parts to it. It has some really good parts, but it has some really, really bad parts to it. And I genuinely do not blame anybody who may not have had any direct exposure to mining, but still has a negative perception of it because, frankly, we've given people enough reason to be skeptical that we can do this stuff well because our history and track record does not suggest that we can.
There are some exceptions of it done well, but by and large. For example, there are 200,000 abandoned and ownerless mines and mining related infrastructure in Australia. Now, that is just extraordinary that we have allowed that to happen as a global society. And I can already hear some of my peers in the mining industry disagreeing with me on this point because they will say, "Well, yes, okay, but you can't blame me for something that blame my ancestors did or somebody I wasn't even related to."
Yes, that's right. But if we, as an industry, are asking people to trust us, and trust us big because we're saying that we can help deliver the energy transition in a way that is safe, just, and sustainable. We need to have a bloody good answer to how we're going to clean up the mess that was left by the people in our industry in the past and how we're going to make sure that we don't leave the same mess going forward.
The solution has two key parts, neither of which is easy, but both of which are necessary. The first part is a joint industry effort to deal with abandoned and ownerless mines and infrastructure. Currently, we don't have it, and it is something that I think is desperately required for us to work together as an industry, to find a way, and it won't just be us, but we need to be a key part of it, working with governments and others, to figure out a way to repair the damage, to responsibly close the mines that haven't been closed responsibly, and to stop any additional environmental damage from things like asset mine drainage or leaching.
That's the first part. And the second part is, we need to be much better at integrating closure of mines and the considerations that come with closing mines into the way that we are planning and operating our mines today. Ironically, closure is not an issue to think about only when the mine is closed. It's an issue to think about right from when you are designing it. And if you are already past that point, then, as you're operating it.
Another concrete example, it is possible to do a large amount of progressive environmental rehabilitation as you mine. And the example I gave from the mine in Brazil, the aluminum mine, it's run by Hydro, another ICMM member, it's called Paragominas. They have been doing progressive rehabilitation. So, as they're mining, they're continuing to rehabilitate the land that they disturb. They're not waiting to the point of closure to do that.
And it's also not just about the environment, Gracelin, because people also need to be thought through when it comes to closure of a mine. Communities built and grew around mines, especially in the rich experience that you have in the Platinum Belt in South Africa, you know how dependent communities are on the fact that a mine and its infrastructure exists. So just like we might have an environmental closure plan, we also need to have a life of mine plan for communities that depend on the mind.
And it's always nice to end on a high note. Let me give you a great example of where this has been done. In South Africa, the place that you and I have called home for many years, there is an old coal mining site on which that we have been able to build a successful project of growing wheat on that land, and that wheat is being grown in partnership with Kellogg's, the Corn Flakes company, and the mine was previously owned by Glencore.
Now, the beauty of this is not only that we are demonstrating that it's possible to grow wheat on land that's been mined that will answer a lot of people's questions of whether the area has been rehabilitated properly, but what we're finding, Gracelin, is that that wheat has higher concentrations of zinc than wheat that you grow on land that hasn't been mined. And zinc deficiency is linked to malnutrition and stunting of children in many parts of Africa. The fact that the wheat has more zinc than if you didn't grow it on land that was mined is a really positive and good thing. And of course, it's bringing agricultural and farming jobs to communities that don't have a job after the coal mine itself had closed.
It's one example of closure done well, but make no mistake, it's the exception. The rule has been for our industry that, by and large, mines have not been closed responsibly, and if we are expecting people to trust us in the future, we need to have a very good answer about our past.
Gracelin Baskaran: Ro, so much of this resonates with me, having shifted from living in a mining town in South Africa, and then, now, moving to our chairs in Washington, D. C. and London, and being able to understand the challenges around mining and changing that reputation.
I want to conclude by saying that, as the U.S. and its allies through the Mineral Security Partnership are thinking about how to advance mining interests in developing countries that it has not historically engaged with, leading the way on responsible mining, engaging with the environment, with communities, with the health consequences, has to be a centerpiece for engagement. And I am so glad that ICMM and yourself are really leading this dialogue on mine closure and respecting communities.
For as long as I've known ICMM, which actually preceded our friendship, ICMM has been the leader in this space. I remember going to these mining convenings five, six, seven years ago, and ICMM was the only one talking about mine closure. But I'm thrilled to see how your work has become embedded with communities, governments, and mining companies. I find it a privilege to see you, to see your work and see how it's really picking up traction globally. Thank you so much for joining us today. I know you're incredibly busy, so thank you.
Rohitesh Dhawan: Hey, this has been such a joy, Gracelin. Thank you so much. And thank you for everything you and your colleagues are doing. It's some of the most important work, and we really rely on you and really respect what you're doing to bring different parts of society to chart a course into a future of responsible and sustainable critical minerals. And I really appreciate everything you're doing. Thank you.
Gracelin Baskaran: Thanks.
Lisa Hyland: Thanks to Rohitesh for joining Energy 360. I can think of no one better to have explained developments in the global mining sector. I encourage you all to follow his work and the work of ICMM.
You can find more episodes of Energy 360, wherever you listen to podcasts and at CSIS.org.
And as always thanks for listening.