How the IRMA standard guides sectors towards more responsible mining

A crucial strategy to combat the climate crisis is an accelerated transition from fossil to renewable energy. With the project Bottom Line! we are working with a coalition of civil society organisations towards a fair energy transition. IUCN NL is exploring and promoting a transition with the lowest possible negative impact on people and nature, both in The Netherlands and the EU and in mineral production countries like Indonesia, Ghana and The Philippines. This article sheds light on the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) standard.  We urge the public- and business sectors in The Netherlands, the EU and elsewhere to adhere to the IRMA standard for responsible mining, with an eye for the interests of both nature and people.

The demand for minerals for consumer goods has doubled between 2000 and 2023 – a trend that is expected to continue in the coming decades. Large quantities of minerals are needed for the production of renewable energy sources, like wind turbines, solar cells and batteries for electric cars and for e-bikes. The World Bank estimates that the demand for raw materials such as copper ore, bauxite (aluminium), cobalt, nickel and manganese needed for the energy transition will increase by 500% by 2050.

A standard for responsible mining

A fair energy transition comprises many stakeholders. There are actors like consumers and mining companies, and there are those who feel the impacts of mining for this transition, like nature and Indigenous Peoples & local communities (IP&LCs). For a just energy transition, it is crucial that we work towards a circular approach in which a reduction in energy consumption is a priority.

In addition, we need to set stricter requirements for the responsible extraction of raw materials. A bottom line has to be established and monitored: a clear limit that indicates where and how mining may take place, so that the damage to people and nature is limited and remains within set boundaries. 

How can we ensure that the mining of transition minerals is done in a responsible manner using international best practices, without the risk of making the earth unliveable and without victimising nature and people whilst providing net societal benefits?

The Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) has developed and is further developing a standard for responsible mining that industrial-scale mining companies (and others involved in the mineral / metal value chains) can use to assess and report on their site level practices.

About the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance

  • IRMA was founded in 2006 by a coalition of six sectors: nongovernment organizations, businesses purchasing minerals and metals for resale in other products, affected communities, mining companies, and labour unions. All working groups and committees ensure balanced representation by each of the six member sectors. All sectors have the same voting and veto power. A topic cannot pass if one of the stakeholder groups is fundamentally opposed.
  • It is guided by its vision of a world where the mining industry respects the human rights and aspirations of affected communities, provides safe, healthy and supportive workplaces, minimises harm to the environment, and leaves positive legacies.
  • IRMA contributes to responsible mining – including related activities, such as construction of infrastructure or preliminary ore processing that occur on the mine site and the different phases of the mine life cycle – both as a standard as well as a governance system. As a standard, its 400+ best-practice requirements contain a level of detail and depth of coverage across all relevant environmental and social topics for industrial-scale mining.
  • IRMA certifies a mine, not a mining company – although a mining company may have all its mines certified.
  • IRMA’s scope is within the mining, metals and minerals sector including all types of industrial-or large-scale mining (excluding artisanal or small-scale mining) and all mined materials (e.g., minerals, metals) with the exception of energy fuels.
  • Its standard and voluntary assessment are meant to complement, not replace, government laws and regulations. Voluntary initiatives should not delay or replace the adoption of improved laws. We hope governments across the globe will draw upon IRMA’s work to improve their regulations for the mining sector as well.

Destruction of nature

Mining operations have a major impact on nature and may affect up to one third of the world’s forest ecosystems as forest loss and degradation can occur within a 70 km radius of the mining activity itself. This is because of the nature of the exploitation, but also because of the location of mines – 77% of all mines are located within a radius of 50 km of important biodiversity areas [1] and 44% of all mining takes place in forests [2] .

Destruction of the habitat in the actual exploitation site results in biodiversity loss. In a wider area, mine waste residuals lead to poisoning through food and water, affecting animals, vegetation and micro-organisms. Furthermore, most modern mining techniques have high water demands for extraction, processing, and waste disposal. Wastewater from these processes can pollute water sources nearby and downstream (incl. coastal waters) and deplete freshwater supplies in the region surrounding the mine.

Bauxite mining in Ghana

The Atewa Forest Reserve in eastern Ghana (263 km2) is home to a wide variety of plants and animals. It is threatened by the development of a bauxite mine whereby layers of soil and rock are removed. This means all trees and other vegetation are cleared from the area, together with the species living in it. In practice this would mean the end of the Atewa Forest with its unique biodiversity and its important ecosystem services.

  • IRMA seeks to promote best environmental practices at the mineral processing level that include environmental management, impact mitigation, and engagement of affected communities in these processes. It is further elaborating its set of best-practice standards for mineral processers, smelters, and refiners, covering mineral exploration, production, and processing.

Mine workers at risk

A large part of raw materials needed for the energy transition are extracted from the global South for meagre pay, under poor working conditions and with cases of human rights violations, and are exported to the North.

The mining process includes physically demanding jobs and can expose workers to various physical risks such as extreme temperatures, humidity, noise, vibrations, as well as inadequate protective gear and extended work hours. Safety risks may include accidents due to rock fall, plant collision, fire and/or explosion. The Copenhagen-based The World Counts claims that more people are killed or injured in the mining industry than in any other industry. More than 15,000 miners are killed every year[3]  Nobody really knows how many people are injured in mining, but it is likely to be hundreds of thousands of people every year.

Deaths across mines in Sulawesi

Recent news reports have documented a rising death toll across the mines and smelters of Sulawesi province in Indonesia. Between 2015 and 2022, Indonesian independent civil society organization Trend Asia counted 47 workplace-related deaths and 76 injuries across various nickel-smelters in the country.

Indonesia’s Tompotika peninsula, home to an enormous wealth of biodiversity, is now also threatened by mining. Watch the video.

Communities impacted

More than half of the mining needed for the energy transition is in or around the territories of Indigenous peoples. Communities in mineral-rich countries suffer from deforestation, environmental degradation, exploitation and health damage. Where forests are cleared for large-scale mining activities and associated heavy infrastructure, it is often at the expense of territory and rights of Indigenous peoples and other residents of the area. Globally 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods.

Resistance against copper and gold mine in the Philippines

A planned copper and gold mine in the southern Philippines, the Tampakan project, stretches across the ancestral lands of five tribal councils, threatening their source of food, medicine and their spiritual grounds. The mine requires the eviction of around 4,000 people. Clans and families have been split over their opposition or support for the mining company.

Since 2003, various units of the Philippine military, an armed paramilitary detachment established partly to protect private investments and security contractors hired by the mining company have been deployed in the area. After decades of conflict that has led to the deaths of at least two dozen people the Tampakan mine now seems closer than ever to reaching commercial production, thanks to fatigue at the local level and a pro-mining shift in Manila.

The requirements of IRMA

  • IRMA requires industrial-scale mining companies to have an equal governance system enabling true multi-stakeholder representation and accountability across sectors, giving equal power to the six member sectors – including labour unions and affected communities – in decision-making, and not simply consulting them.
  • IRMA includes numerous provisions emphasising respect for human rights and labour rights. For example, companies must provide a meaningful operational-level grievance mechanism for workers and affected communities to address any concerns, in line with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
  • IRMA requires that, where Indigenous peoples are affected by mining, a mining company must demonstrate consent as understood in the concept of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC).
  • IRMA asks for inclusive audits providing a holistic assessment of a mine’s operations. Third-party auditors not only interview mine management, but also mine workers, affected communities, rights holders, and government and civil society stakeholders in safe, confidential settings. A mine must commit to sharing its audit results publicly. The audit report can be a tool for NGOs and communities to ask for changes at the mine site, as they are able to refer to objective, verified information on the mine’s performance, rather than data or information from the mine alone.

Call for using the IRMA standards

IRMA is the only standard for the mining sector that utilises a governance system in which affected communities, NGOs, and organised labour have equal voting power alongside mining companies, purchasing companies, and the investor and finance sectors. It entails detailed and comprehensive requirements based on 400+ best practices, requires independent third-party site-level audits that engage local stakeholders and rights holders and transparent public reporting. The IRMA Standard is a global standard applicable across jurisdictions and types of materials.

Like for any standard, there is room for improvement of IRMA. IUCN NL would like to see that the IRMA standard under its new IRMA-Ready Standard[4] includes a clear position on No-Go zones – like for the deep sea and rainforests – as well as more emphasis on indirect and cumulative effects on biodiversity and ecosystems, ecosystem services and forest protection and No Nett Loss.

  • IRMA has not yet developed best practices for deep-sea mining. It will stay abreast of developments related to this topic, providing applicable expertise as appropriate.
  • IRMA is aware that certifications and standards can have negative unintended effects. For instance, displacement of poor mining practices or exploration for new mines, creating a relocation rather than a reduction of the negative impacts of mining.

Whereas the IRMA Standard is not applicable to the manufacturing and assembly of products, or end-product use and disposal, the public and business sectors and consumers can encourage manufacturers and retailers to only deal with materials and products that are sourced in mines that are using the IRMA standard for responsible mining, with an eye for the interests of both nature and people and with minimum social and environmental costs and maximum long term benefits for society as a whole.

Learn more? Contact our experts:

Mark van der Wal
Senior Expert Ecosystems & Extractives
Maartje Hilterman
Project Leader – Forests for a Just Future