‘Bad reputation’: Mining engineering and mining justice at UBC

According to the 2019 Times Higher Education list, UBC ranks number one globally for “taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” With its various sustainability initiatives, it certainly appears as though there’s a lot going on with UBC as an administrative institution with relation to the climate crisis.

On the research and academic side, UBC is home to the Norman B. Keevil (NBK) Institute of Mining Engineering, a tight-knit Faculty of Applied Sciences department. Considered a leader in the field, it attracts innovative researchers and talented students every year.

But as an extractive industry run by huge multi-national corporations, the mining industry is a contributor to the ongoing climate crisis — something that UBC experts undertand.

Dr. Scott Dunbar, the department head of the NBK Institute and founder of UBC’s Integrated Engineering program, is quick to agree that the “[mining] industry has a very poor image and it hasn’t done itself any favours.”

In turn, Dunbar aims to answer two questions through his research: What will a mine look like 50 to 100 years from now and what innovations are needed to make it happen?

‘Knee-jerk reaction’

According to Dunbar, the aim of making the mining industry have a lower carbon footprint is highly effective in the struggle against the climate crisis — something he believes the industry itself is aiming to do.

On the other hand, he personally sees the practice of divestment as a “knee-jerk reaction [that] seems to be optics.”

“The university should be at the forefront of this debate,” Dunbar said of the transition from fossil fuels to one of renewable energy — a “technical issue” that he sees as the future of the mining industry.

Noting that the older generation is not doing enough to decarbonize the economy, he added that the NBK Institute focuses on teaching mineral and metal extraction over fossil fuel extraction.

“In fact, I’ll put this out there: Greta Thunberg was right, absolutely right,” said Dunbar.

“What we’re mainly focused on in this department is called green or cleaner techniques for doing mining.”

Dr. Ali G. Madiseh, assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in advanced mine energy system, agrees.

Just last March, Madiseh delivered a “Mining with Clean Energy” research seminar at UBC which stressed that “ultra-efficient” technologies were the only way to ensure long-term sustainability and combat the Canadian mining industry’s “heavy reliance on fossil fuels.”

He also believes that complete fossil fuel divestment is impractical, especially for developing countries which he thinks should not be held to the same ecological standards.

But Madiseh does not deny the urgency of the climate crisis. Born and raised in Iran, he sees how much redder — and drier — the soil of his home village is becoming every time he visits.

He believes that innovative mining engineering skills are a necessity for any sustainable future, while stressing the importance of precise terminology.

“There’s no such thing as green,” he said, explaining that mining technologies and mines can only accurately be called sustainable, low or zero carbon.

Adrian Heisis, a recent UBC mining engineer graduate, has a similar viewpoint. For Heisis, mining engineering — especially at UBC — is a forward-thinking technical discipline whose research and graduates are necessary for the development of sustainable technologies and the transition to a carbon-free economy. But he says he often has a “difference in opinion” from the people that he works with when it comes to the climate crisis.

“But that’s why I wanted to be there, so that my opinions will be heard within in the industry,” he said.

Broadening the conversation

But for many campus community members, it’s not enough to just consider the sustainability of the mining industry through an environmental lens. Instead, they believe the mining industry needs to also adequately address its numerous human rights violations — especially in relation to Indigenous communities in various parts of the world — and its often violent treatment of land defenders.

Last November, campus group Students for Mining Justice (SMJ) — in collaboration with a range of student and civil society organizations — held a “Stop UnderMining Indigenous Rights” rally in an effort to raise awareness about the Indigenous Xinka people in Guatemala’s peaceful protest against the construction of the Escobal silver mine and the resulting violence they faced. The Xinka people sued Tahoe Resources, the previous owner of the mine. This lawsuit was then settled by Vancouver-based Pan American Silver, after it acquired Tahoe Resources.

“At this early stage we are just interested in learning from the different stakeholders and the different parties within their communities and getting their viewpoints,” Siren Fisekci, Pan American’s VP of investor relations and corporate communications, was quoted as saying in a November 2019 article in The Tyee.

Started around three years ago, the SMJ is a collective of mostly Peter A. Allard School of Law students and faculty that focuses on the extractive metals and minerals industry.

For Jacob Fischer-Schmidt, the president of the SMJ, being aware that Vancouver is home to numerous mining corporations is crucial, as they are “students in UBC in Coast Salish territories.”

Through demonstrations, conferences and panel talks, the SMJ has actively campaigned against violence they believe “most people tend not to know much about.”

Dunbar believes the human rights violations related to mining are “not so much in Canada ... but a lot of it happens in Africa,” adding he believes the responsibility for violations lies not with the industry as a whole but with miners who are involved in Artisanal and Small-scale Mining (ASM) in places like Africa and South America.

“It’s very, very very messy and difficult, and there’s all kinds of different stories about things but it’s the reputation of the industry,” he said. “It causes problems for the reputation for sure and it’s hard to deal with that.”

Entangled in education

Mining companies also have a presence on campus.

For instance, the Beaty Biodiversity Museum is named after Ross Beaty, the founder and chairman of Pan American Silver, following an $8-million donation to UBC for the museum’s construction.

But there are only a few courses about the intersection between mining and Indigenous rights. At UBC, courses like MINE 470 and 559 are crosslisted, and are called “Indigenous Peoples and Mining in Canada.” Along with MINE 555: Mining and Society, they are the only courses that deal with Indigenous communities with relation to mining.

Delivered by Dr. Marcello Veiga, who is an expert on ASM, MINE 555 mainly deals with human rights in relation to the corporate social responsibility (CSR) of mining corporations and social ethics.

For these corporations, CSR can take a variety of forms, through scholarships to marginalized students, attempts to diversify their employee base, donations, awards for innovations in mining engineering, investing in sustainability research and offering assistance to developing countries with their extractive industries.

But Fischer-Schmidt questioned how much CSR can truly do to mitigate the mining industry’s impacts.

“It’s hard to find a company that has a clear record because at the bottom line, mining is a violence on the land … so one of the big questions that we ask is how can we reckon with this idea that our reliance on all these minerals and mining in general as a whole industry and as a relation to the land is causing a lot of violence?” he said.

This is an ongoing story. If you have any information you would like to share, contact Riya Talitha at r.talitha@ubyssey.ca.