When there are real concerns about mining, a simple mineral exploration project can trigger a long period of uncertainty, resulting in stress and anxiety about the future. The current Finnish legislation does not provide clear opportunities for municipalities nor their residents to prevent mines from being established in their region. This feeling of powerlessness can easily cause bitterness and skepticism toward the entire system which governs the sector. Due to the limited ways to influence decisions at the local level, we are practically in a situation, where the only method for the concerned citizen is to attempt to change the system at the national level. However, the discussion is no longer about analyzing the positive and negative impacts of a single mining project, but instead aims to influence the societal perception of mining and consequently impact the regulation. Thus, the nature of the discussion changes significantly when local disputes are brought over to the national arena.
In the age of the Internet, it is easy to mobilize the opposition, and cooperation networks are created across loosely organized groups operating at the national or even transnational level within the EU, for example. Rhetorically, the most efficient way is to label the entire industry as an evil, corrupted manifestation of the dark side of the capitalist system. The past blunders of mining companies and the small Finnish circles help to further promote this perception. With such broad strokes, however, the diversity, benefits, and good examples of the operations are readily brushed aside. This is understandable from a rhetorical perspective – in the polarizing discussion, arguments that focus on the multifaceted aspects are drowned out by the more simplistic messages that cater to emotions. The other side may also of course use similar simplifications. They can for example spitefully brush the opposition off as the “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) type. This often only makes the situation worse, as many of the well justified concerns are left unaddressed.
The so-called social license to operate (SLO) is often discussed at the local level. Simply put it refers to what degree of social acceptance people have toward a specific mining project. When it is missing, mining operations are only possible through the use of force, even if the formal permits would have been granted by the authorities. The social license is largely defined according to the specific local socio-economic features, but expectations at the societal level also have a notable impact on it. Therefore, a single mining company cannot control its all dimensions. For example, legislation that is perceived as unfair will also ultimately be reflected on the company and the expectations people have for it, even when communications are handled with great care and there is a genuine willingness to operate in a responsible way.
Strengthening the local decision-making across issues related to mining are sometimes opposed in the name of national or EU-level interests. Perhaps there is an underlying fear that mining operations would cease if the concerned communities were to gain more power. It is possible, that it would lead to the denial of some permits. However, as we have seen in Canada, for example, the obligation to negotiate with local communities has not become a critical hurdle for the industry. In Canada, when a company proposes a project on a First Nation’s traditional territory, an agreement must be negotiated with the impacted community. The agreement (known as impact benefit agreement) defines how the parties will benefit from the activity and how the negative effects will be mitigated. In practice, this changes the role of the local community to something of a partner with genuine power to lay out terms for the activity. These terms and benefits are backed by a legally binding agreement and not by mere words from a company.
It has been predicted that mining activities will only increase in the future as the energy transition creates a higher demand for minerals. This will likely be accompanied with new and more volatile conflicts. Dialogue and collaboration are often suggested as a solution for a sector that seems to be on a collision course. At the local level, this remains difficult when their boundaries are defined by only one party. If this power was distributed more evenly across the negotiating parties, it could be easier to decide once and for all whether the necessary preconditions for the mining operation in question exist. This way, the project would not be stuck for decades in a situation where the company, community, and government all lose. A system perceived as fair and just could redirect the discussion back to the local level, allowing for a better focus on the central questions surrounding the specific project in question. Another option is to continue on the current path and see how far that leads before the escalating conflicts form a concrete roadblock for the activity.
The author, Juha M. Kotilainen is a doctoral researcher at the University of Eastern Finland. He studies the possibilities for local mining collaboration models in the CORE project. CORE studies and develops cross sectoral collaboration between the state, civil society, and businesses in the context of environmental planning and decision-making.