Mining for common ground: putting biodiversity on South African mining companies' agendas

South African civil society groups, government and mining companies have come together to draft guidelines to help mining companies work in a biodiverse environment. The process of developing a set of shared principles has laid the foundation for change.

Article, 21 March 2016
Stories of change: mainstreaming biodiversity and development
A series of pages showing how African countries are finding new ways to mainstream biodiversity into policy and planning for development
Site discussions to integrate biodiversity into mine planning and operations (Photo: SANBI)

Site discussions to integrate biodiversity into mine planning and operations (Photo: SANBI)

In 2011 the Vele Colliery – a large open-cast mine in South Africa – hit the national headlines. Civil society groups accused the mining company of damaging the environment near the Mapungubwe National Park, while the mining company argued that its operations were in line with the law.

The mine was closed temporarily for non-compliance with environmental regulations but reopened after lengthy discussions between the main parties. 

Controversies such as this had become familiar in South Africa until civil society groups, mining companies and the government took the initiative to find common ground. Together they drafted a set of guidelines to help mining companies understand the status of and risks to biodiversity, and the opportunities for using a biodiverse environment sustainably in their operational context.

The process of defining shared principles across different interest groups has laid the foundation for change. 

South Africa: biodiversity and mining
South Africa is the third most biodiverse country in the world. From wetlands and grasslands to coastlines and forestland, the country contains 10 per cent of all plant species on Earth and is home to rare species, big and small.

South Africa is also a mine for the world, producing metals ranging from platinum required for our catalytic converters and chemotherapy drugs, to kyanite for bricks and mortar, rutile used to protect our skin from ultra-violet (UV) light, and coal.

The mining industry employs more than 500,000 people, and has been central to the country's economic development. 

Laying the ground for change 

Stephen Holness, a consultant working with the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), helped to facilitate the guidelines. He describes how – surprisingly – it was the mining sector that initiated the idea rather than government environment or mining departments.

Mining companies were encountering too many risks to their business operations and reputations. Although there was a wealth of data about the country's biodiversity, much of it was highly complex or fragmented.

The sheer volume of information made it difficult to know what was important without doing detailed and expensive studies. Industry representatives recognised that they needed some practical guidance on how to use the available information to help them better manage the environmental approval process and their environmental impacts.

The South African Mining and Biodiversity Forum brought together industry, civil society, government and academic representatives to discuss how to generate a set of guidelines. 

Patti Wickens, environmental principal at De Beers Group who chairs the forum, says the atmosphere at the early meetings of the different interest groups was nervous. 

Crossing the language divide 

Unlike past efforts to mainstream environmental issues into private sector practices, the Mining and Biodiversity Forum decided against a legislative or regulatory approach.

Rather, it opted for consensus-based and voluntary guidelines, which incorporated all existing legal requirements. 

One of the biggest challenges in drafting the guidelines was developing a common understanding of key terms across all interest groups:

 The ecologist’s definition of a wetland and an engineer’s definition of a wetland are two very different things – Stephen Holness 

The drafting process took over two years. But it was this painstaking approach that proved important in the long run.

Patti Wickens notes that for the first time, biodiversity has been framed in terms of the business risks and opportunities, while technical teams working in the mining houses began to understand the ecological needs of the areas they were working in. 

Putting guidelines into practice 

The final Mining and Biodiversity Guideline provides the mining sector with a practical, user-friendly manual for integrating biodiversity considerations into the planning processes and managing biodiversity during the operational phases of a mine, from exploration through to closure.

It gives direction for where mining-related impacts are legally prohibited, and where biodiversity priority areas may present high risks for mining projects.

For many people the final product is a symbol of the strengthening relationship between industry and civil society as well as within government. In May 2013 the guidelines were launched jointly at the highest political level by the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs and the Minister of Mineral Resources alongside the Chamber of Mines and SANBI — a collaboration that signals a new attitude among policymakers towards the country's shared natural assets. 

Wilma Lutsch, director of biodiversity conservation at the Department of Environmental Affairs, says that the process has prompted some long lasting change.

New coordination mechanisms have been established to help government departments and the provinces identify issues of mutual concern. "Through these joint forums, it is expected that industry values will be changed and improvement in industry practice will follow," she says.

For Holness and his SANBI colleagues, the most significant achievement has been the shift in language and approach at the strategic level in mining companies. For the first time, the technical departments of big platinum and coal mining houses have started to use spatial, ecosystem-level data as they plan their activities.

As a signal of the continued practical value of the guidelines, the mining industry supported workshops to train more than 500 environmental consultants, industry experts, policymakers and researchers in how to use them.

As the trust between the different interest groups has grown, so other collaborations have emerged, including more practical tools for implementing the guidelines and a new approach to biodiversity offsetting in wetlands. 

The road ahead 

It is still too early to gauge the longer term impact of the Mining and Biodiversity Guidelines. But, by reframing the risks and opportunities of protecting biodiversity in a language that businesses can understand, the foundations for more responsible practices have been laid. 



Dilys Roe (, principal researcher and biodiversity team leader, IIED's Natural Resources Group

John Tayleur (, senior programme officer, Ecosystem Assessment, United Nations Environment Programme