Post-COVID-19 surge in mining exploration leaves vast tracts of protected land in danger of exploitation

Press release, 16 February 2022
Areas include national parks in at least eight African countries, among them the Serengeti.

Mineral exploration licences covering huge swathes of land are being awarded by host governments to prospecting mining companies with insufficient environmental and social safeguards, putting at risk national parks and conservation areas while marginalising local communities, according to new analysis from IIED.

Publicly available records show that mining companies are currently exploring for minerals in protected areas in at least eight African countries including the Serengeti in Tanzania.

In Uganda, around a quarter of the country’s land mass is currently under exploration licence, including parts of the Queen Elizabeth National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, home to endangered Mountain Gorillas. Records for many countries are not yet in the public domain.

A surge in the price of gold, together with growing demand for so-called ‘green’ minerals like cobalt and lithium to make batteries, is driving demand for exploration licences around the world.

Although companies need exploitation licences to begin mining, they can threaten legal action against governments through Investor State Arbitral Tribunals on the grounds that an initial exploration licence raised legitimate expectations that they would be allowed to mine minerals.

Abbi Buxton, a research associate at IIED and author of the report People and nature first: safeguards needed in mining exploration, said: “Exploration licences are often awarded without any consultation with local communities and risk giving mining companies a loophole to bypass the people who are already using the land and disregard their rights. 

“The number of national parks affected by exploration licences also shows that precious wildlife and biodiversity are in grave danger of being destroyed in the hunt for minerals.

“Once a resource is proven to exist at profitable levels, it’s very hard for governments to turn down the economic benefits its exploitation could bring.”

Exploration licences typically cover huge swathes of land to increase the chances of identifying a resource of sufficient wealth. Mining companies must then apply for a mining or exploitation licence to mine the land and more extensive environmental and social safeguards then come into play. But by this point key decisions and assumptions may already have been made. 

IIED has a number of recommendations to close the exploration licence loophole, including:

  • Governments and companies ensuring prior knowledge of and engagement with existing land users’ rights and ensuring meaningful consultations before exploration begins, to protect local rights
  • Governments strictly enforcing environmental protection and ‘no go’ areas within even early investment approval processes, and
  • Governments being aware in their communications with investors not to create legally enforceable “legitimate expectations” that may undermine their ability to make future decisions on mine development.

Media enquiries

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Sarah Grainger via sarah.grainger@iied.org or +44 7503 643332

Notes to editors

Information on exploration licences (cadastre) is available for some countries from the Trimble Land Administration website. Cadastres accessed in January 2022 showed parts of national parks or conservation areas in Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Namibia, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia were included in exploration licences. 

IIED has published research and analysis on Investor State Dispute Settlements