27 Nov 2017 Story Disasters & conflicts

Tackling mining pollution: a conversation with Yolanda Kakabadse

image Yolanda Kakabadse is the International President WWF International and the former Ecuadorian Minister of Environment. She was recently selected as the chair of an independent scientific panel that's examining the 2015 Samarco disaster in Brazil, one of the biggest mining pollution incidents in recent times. UN Environment sat down with Ms. Kakabadse to discuss the environmental impacts of mining, and to hear her thoughts on how the extractive industry can become more sustainable. 

The Samarco disaster killed 19 people and contaminated more than 650 kilometres of the Doce River. Why was this particular event so devastating?

Aside from the loss of lives and the severe environmental, economic and social damage caused by the collapse of the Fundão tailings dam at the Samarco mine, the incident was particularly devastating due to the sheer amount of tailings that came out of the dam site. This was compounded by picking up additional water and material as it scoured the upper reaches of the River Doce basin. As the accident happened during the day, many people were able to escape to safety. It could have been far worse if it had occurred in the middle of the night, catching people unaware. 

Will the Doce River watershed ever be fully restored?

The ecosystems of the Doce River watershed were already altered before the tailings dam collapsed due to decades of impacts from mining, agriculture, deforestation, raw sewage and other human activities. The agreement between the companies and government mandates that the watershed be restored to the state immediately prior to the event. However, the Rio Doce Panel intends to make recommendations regarding options and approaches that will secure the best possible environmental and social outcomes for the watershed.   

Many mining companies produce large amounts of toxic pollution, but this is often overlooked compared to other social impacts. How can we increase awareness among communities and regulators about this issue?

Providing science-based evidence and data, reports and examples demonstrating best practice can help raise awareness with regulators and decision-makers. Social engagement programmes, such as those involving communities in monitoring water quality efforts, can also help increase efficacy among local stakeholders. In the case of the Rio Doce Panel, we hope our independent recommendations will enhance collaboration among the region’s stakeholders, including local communities, government, industry, finance and civil society.

How can governments and civil society work with mining companies to avoid such tragedies in the future? What role do you see for independent panels like the one you chair?

The role of the Rio Doce Panel is to support restoration efforts being carried out by the Renova Foundation. The foundation is guided by 42 programmes addressing the environmental and social impacts following the dam collapse. In this case, neither the Panel nor the Foundation is directly involved in decisions related to mining activity and tailings dam management. 

However, depending on the circumstances, an independent scientific and technical advisory panel can provide useful recommendations to companies and governments on how to improve current mining practices. The key is having the requisite technical experience and independence to make credible and objective recommendations. 

The UN Environment Assembly is gathering in Nairobi from 4-6 December, bringing together environmental leaders from around the world. What should the Assembly do to better address pollution from mining?

Mining is an important economic activity, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. Mining is likely to continue for many reasons, and the transition toward renewable energy will demand many of the materials that are only available through mining. When mining is done responsibly, it can contribute to a country’s sustainable development. Therefore, it is important that the industry continues to strive towards adopting best health, safety and environmental practices, including addressing pollution issues.

UN Environment’s recently published Rapid Assessment Report on tailings dams provides an overview of challenges and opportunities for action. Governments and companies should heed this advice.   

Pollution is the theme of the UN Environment Assembly, which is gathering in Nairobi from 4-6 December. A side event on pollution in the extractives industry will take place on Monday, 4 December from 6:00-7:30pm. For more information on the side event click here or email Oli Brown (oli.brown[at]unenvironment.org).