United Nations
Environment Programme

Understanding the Long-Term Impacts of Natural Resource Extraction

Mining activities – whether artisanal or industrial in scale – result in two types of environmental and social impacts: primary impacts, which occur on or immediately adjacent to an extraction site, and secondary impacts, which occur because of infrastructure development, population movements, and changes in local economies.

Secondary impacts can include deforestation along roadways constructed for transporting the extracted products, and biodiversity loss, e.g. through increased fuel wood harvesting, bushmeat hunting or poaching to support miners’ families. They can also include the introduction of invasive alien species through transport operations, expanded agriculture into natural forests, and expanded illegal logging.

Extractive companies, local communities and government agencies are better able to reduce secondary impacts if they know where environmental sensitivities exist; know how to mitigate impacts; have sufficient incentives to address secondary impacts; and are operating within a legal and policy framework that can identify, manage and monitor a broad range of impacts. 

A dedicated session at the UNEP Science Policy Forum ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly, due to be held in Nairobi, Kenya, on 19 May 2016, will focus on the secondary impacts of mining activities, and the following key questions:

To what extent are extractive industries helping or hindering countries in their efforts to reduce deforestation, forest degradation and greenhouse gas emissions?

What data is needed to identify and reduce the secondary impacts on forests from mining?

How are data and analysis from REDD+ meeting these needs?

Information sharing

The operations of large companies, particularly in the extractives sector, have huge potential for environmental impact. Business reputation increasingly depends on working to minimize this damage. Many oil and gas, and mining companies want and need to know how to manage secondary impacts, and how to plan and manage their activities so as to avoid or mitigate impact. All too frequently, they lack access to the information they need to do this effectively.

In particular, while primary impacts of mining activities are often envisaged in environmental impact assessments, the same is not true for secondary impacts.

Secondary impacts can start before mining operations have begun and can continue long after operations have ended. They are long term, can have impacts over a wide area, and can have an unlimited effect on ecosystems.

The extractives sector is beginning to consider such impacts.

For example, a concession request was recently denied in Limpopo, South Africa, because proposed activities threated the climate resilience of the surrounding area.

The most recent Ernst & Young ranking (in 2014) of the top 10 business risks facing the mining and metals industry included – for the first time – “access to water”, explaining that the availability of affordable water is “an essential part of operations… and has become increasingly difficult”. With competition for water expected to increase and the long lifespan of a typical mine, there is a strong case for mining companies to plan ahead to pre-empt or mitigate any shortages. And that means working with local communities and governments over the longer term to look at the bigger picture, including forests.

As part of its work under the UN-REDD Programme, UNEP has explored the role of forests in providing water in Kenya. The resulting report concludes that about 75 per cent of Kenya’s surface water is provided by the five main forested “water towers”.

Africa Mining Vision

Regional initiatives such as the Africa Mining Vision (AMV) seek to manage the impacts of extractive industries including through broader dissemination and awareness-raising on environmental risks, and increase public participation in decision-making processes.

AMV was adopted by Heads of State at the February 2009 Africa Union summit. It is Africa’s response to tackling the paradox of great mineral wealth existing side by side with pervasive poverty.

AMV advocates thinking outside the “mining box”: Besides making sure that tax revenues from mining are optimized and spent wisely, mining needs to be much better integrated into development policies at local, national and regional levels.

That means thinking about how mining can contribute better to local development by making sure workers and communities see real benefits from large-scale industrial mining, and that their environment is protected.

What is UNEP doing?

Through its various initiatives, including the UN-REDD Programme, UNEP is:

  • Helping to establish safeguards, frameworks and information systems for REDD+.
  • Working with partners to mobilize additional resources for forest conservation, restoration and sustainable forest management, including engaging the private sector in REDD+ finance.
  • Facilitating improved forest monitoring including through partnerships with the Global Forest Watch.
  • Undertaking studies, including one in partnership with the Government of Zambia, to examine how mining affects deforestation.
  • Identifying areas for REDD+ activities in forests that can also deliver multiple benefits for biodiversity, ecosystem services and livelihoods, including through a mapping project for forest carbon and great ape habitat.

Furthermore, Proteus  a unique, voluntary collaboration between UNEP-WCMC (World Conservation Monitoring Centre) and 17 large, forward-thinking businesses, aims to support the provision of biodiversity information. Initiated in 2003, Proteus’ most significant achievements have been the compilation of global biodiversity data and the development of tools to aid accessibility by a range of sectors, including business.

What’s next?

Natural resources extraction is an important economic activity that will contribute to many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The linkages between the extractives sector and the SDGs are numerous and well documented. Recognizing these dependencies requires us to consider very carefully how progress on one goal may have contingent positive or negative impacts on other goals, and anticipate such outcomes in our development projects and programmes.

Drawing links between extractive industries and the health and productivity of ecosystems is one way to implement an integrated landscapes management approach. Using the data and science generated through REDD+ activities is an important first step towards science-informed policymaking on the secondary impacts of mining.