New analytical paradigms are required to address the complexity of relationships between political actors, the need to sustain valued ecosystems, and diffuse policy communities with overlapping or conflicting interests. In recent years, a ‘new’ or ‘post-normal’ science has emerged which investigates the dynamics of ecosystems and human systems. The thrust of this body of literature is that “traditional reductionist disciplinary science and expert predictions, the basis of much advice given to decision-makers, have limited capacity” (Kay et al., 1999: 722).
Ecosystem approaches, on the other hand, work across numerous human and geographic boundaries. Kay et al. argue that decision-making should be based on an understanding of a nested network of holons, as distinguished from hierarchies, because they recognize “reciprocal power relations between levels rather than a preponderance of power exerted from the top downwards” (Kay et al., 1999: 723).
Ecosystems approaches are now becoming communicated and adopted in various forums going beyond academia into the public sector and non-government organizations. Moreover, such approaches fit well with some traditional First Nations worldviews that are holistic in orientation. Kay and colleagues observe that ecosystem approaches have implications for resource decision-making:
Expectations that decision-makers can carefully control or manage changes in societal or ecological systems have also to be challenged. Adaptive learning and adjustment, guided by a much wider range of human experience and understanding than disciplinary science, are necessary (Kay et al., 1999: 722).
Dealing with complex systems requires new policy approaches to understanding and managing human interactions with biophysical systems. In the mining sector, resource managers, labour representatives, government decision-makers and community leaders are now trying to develop strategies to deal with the inevitable complexity and uncertainty that accompanies contemporary resource and environmental policy-making (McCarthy, 2003). Institutional techniques for bringing together groups, interests and concerns to address resource complexity include multi-stakeholder consultations, co-management, integrated resource management, and institutional interplay at vertical or cross-scale linkages (Berkes, 2003). These new systems perspectives have been influencing the policy environment in a number of ways and to varying degrees. Public and private decision-makers in the mineral sector have had many different responses.
Rising to the Challenge? Responses to Change
The mineral industry and public officials in government departments of mines have been traditionally educated in such fields as geology, engineering and finance. None of these disciplines adequately equip the personnel with the tools required to operate within a complex systems paradigm as described above. Industry has, however, one again responded to competitive challenges in the ways it knows best, primarily through technical innovation. For many years, industry has been investing heavily in research to mitigate their adverse environmental impacts such as acid rock drainage considered to be mining’s most devastating environmental impact, develop recycling programs to recover metals, and adopt integrated environmental management systems.
The industry has also become aware that it needs to work more effectively with other groups affected by mineral activities. To that end, with varying degrees of commitment from companies and mining associations, from the 1990s onward, the industry initiated a number of multi-stakeholder approaches to mining development. One of the most notable of these was the national Whitehorse Mining Initiative (WMI), an extensive attempt by industry and government to foster a broader consensus about how mining should proceed in the future: “The Accord adopt[ed] a strategic vision for a healthy mining industry in the context of maintaining a healthy and diverse ecosystems in Canada, and for sharing opportunities with Aboriginal peoples.” (Mining Association of Canada, 1994; McAllister and Alexander, 1997) More recently, consultative efforts have extended to international efforts including a three-year Global Mining Initiative (GSI), created by international mining companies (including Canadian corporations) in preparation for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesberg in 2002. The GSI provided funding for the Mining Minerals and Sustainable Development (MMSD) project, which was billed as an “independent two-year process … with the objective of understanding how to maximise the contribution of the mining and minerals sector to sustainable development at the global, national, regional and local levels” (International Institute for Environment and Development, 2004). One representative from a Peruvian non-governmental organization, however, observed that the “The MMSD, however much good work has gone into it, is still an attempt to set an agenda from the top down, to limit the debate, and to define who the legitimate actors or stakeholders are. The role of NGOs is to support processes that are built from below, to construct a new social agenda, and to support communities’ struggles to recuperate their economic, social, and cultural rights" (International Institute for Environment and Development, 2004).
Nevertheless, efforts such as the WMI and the MMSD do indicate a recognition on the part of governments and industry that they need to develop effective consultation processes, distribute the economic benefits from mining more widely, and mitigate the environmental impacts. The question remains; do these changes indicate a significant shift toward a new approach to staples development?