Sustainability Assessment
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Sustainability Assessment

Criteria and Processes

Bob Gibson, Selma Hassan, James Tansey

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eBook - ePub

Sustainability Assessment

Criteria and Processes

Bob Gibson, Selma Hassan, James Tansey

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About This Book

Sustainability assessment is now emerging as a more transparent, comprehensive, integrated and far-sighted approach to decision making. Its basic demand is that all significant undertakings must make a positive contribution to sustainability. To apply this test, decision makers need criteria based on the core requirements of sustainability and the particularities of the context. As well, they need appropriately designed public processes; guidance on the weighing of alternatives, trade-offs and compromises; a supportive policy framework; suitable tools and inspiring examples. Drawing from transdisciplinary theory and practical case experience, the book addresses these matters and many of the surrounding controversies. While sustainability assessment must always be adjusted to particular circumstances, the generic approach set out in this book is applicable virtually anywhere.

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Stumbling Towards Sustainability Assessment

Beginning in Labrador

They say that on the seventh day, God hurled stones at Labrador. Perhaps it is true – even by Canadian standards, Labrador is a hard land. The north coast is all rocky islands and headlands swept by Arctic waters flowing out into the North Atlantic. The interior is more rock, rivers, barrens and boreal forest. And yet for millennia Inuit and Innu people have lived there successfully – the Inuit on the coast, harvesting seal and fish, the Innu in the interior, relying on the caribou. European contact and the arrival of new residents led to changes in economy and culture, and more recent decades have brought more outside influences. But for most people in northern Labrador the hard land is home; it has been so since time beyond memory and will continue to be in any desirable future.
Whether the future of northern Labrador will be desirable for people who consider it a permanent home is a question of sustainability. It is a matter of how to ensure viable and fulfilling livelihoods over the long haul from one generation to the next. Essentially, the same concerns apply to communities everywhere, since the basic challenges of sustainability face all of them. But so far only a few places have chosen, or been permitted, to confront these matters explicitly. Northern Labrador has been the site of one such attempt.
Between 1997 and 2002, a proposed major mining project beside Voisey's Bay, a deep inlet on Labrador's north coast, was the subject of an environmental assessment and a set of associated and consequential deliberations that wrestled directly, often openly, and by some interim measures successfully, with the project's potential contribution to local and regional sustainability.
Serious application of sustainability-based evaluation criteria is not yet common in environmental assessments or other decision making on important undertakings. ‘Contribution to sustainability’ is frequently presented as an official objective of environmental assessment. In a host of related practical circumstances – urban neighbourhood planning, corporate responsibility reporting, regional growth management initiatives, new versions of progress indicators and so on – reasonably comprehensive lists of sustainability considerations have been adopted. But true sustainability assessments, carefully designed and intentionally influential, are still rare. The Voisey's Bay case in Labrador is just one example of an emerging practice and, inevitably, it has some unique characteristics. Nonetheless, it captures well the basic needs and challenges involved in sustainability assessment.

On Voisey's Bay

The Voisey's Bay mining project began in a moment of extraordinary good fortune. In 1993, prospectors Albert Chislett and Chris Verbiski, returning home from work further north, flew over the Voisey's Bay area just as sunlight from a particular angle reflected off a mineralized outcrop. They landed to investigate and discovered rich deposits of nickel with associated copper and cobalt. The most spectacular part of their discovery, a body of exceptionally high grade ore called ‘the ovoid’, was later found to contain about 31 million tonnes of reserves – 2.9 per cent nickel, 1.69 per cent copper and 0.14 per cent cobalt (Inco, 2002a). Moreover, it was right at the surface, mineable by open pit methods and conveniently near tidewater. Subsequent drilling delineated over 100 million tonnes of additional ore underground in less rich but still commercially extractable deposits.
In 1996, Inco Ltd paid Cdn$4.3 billion for the claims and associated drilling information. Though the company later announced a Cdn$2 billion write-down of that investment, the Voisey's Bay deposits continued to be seen as the foundation for an economically important development for the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as for the northern Labrador region. Deliberations on the nature of the development and conditions for approval had to overcome a variety of difficulties, including court challenges and high-stake negotiating positions, but in June 2002 the five key parties – Inco, the federal and provincial governments, the Innu Nation and the Labrador Inuit Association – announced an agreement. It covered the mine, mill and concentrator operation at Voisey's Bay, plus a closely linked metal processing/refining operation to be established at Argentia in Newfoundland.1 The announced overall capital cost of mine and smelter components was Cdn$2.9 billion.
During the negotiations, Inco was understandably most interested in recouping its investment and maximizing its financial returns. For the provincial and local interests, however, durable longer-term gains were more important.
Expecting long-term gains from a mining undertaking may seem futile. Non-renewable resource extraction projects are generally poor candidates as contributors to sustainability. Mine project life is limited by orebody geology and made uncertain by market fluctuations. Often the boom is closely followed by a bust, and the lasting local effects – economic, social and ecological – are largely negative.2 This has frequently been accepted as the nature of the industry, though the busts usually inspire some last ditch efforts by local residents and relevant governments to encourage further exploration in hopes of life-extending discoveries, or to attract some other employer to the area.Options beyond that have been limited, though some jurisdictions have taken anticipatory steps to build ‘heritage funds’ while the resource income is flowing, to diversify mining centre economies or to foster downstream processing – additional ore milling, refining and smelting, perhaps even manufacturing using the product – that might continue after the initial orebody is exhausted.
Provincial authorities in the Voisey's Bay case took the latter route. Long dependent on the fishery and often frustrated by failed development ventures in other sectors, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador insisted that the Voisey's Bay ore be smelted in Newfoundland. This, in the provincial view, would make the Voisey's Bay mine a stepping stone to a technologically advanced and globally competitive smelting industry in the province and an accordingly longer stream of economic benefits. After an extended campaign fought partly in the business media and partly in private negotiations, the province did get Inco to agree to process the ore in Newfoundland (Newfoundland and Labrador, 2002a). This may not be enough to win the province a lasting role in the industry. However, the province has certainly shown commitment to more durable gains.
While the difficult contest over the processing question attracted the bulk of press reporting on the Voisey's Bay project, more innovative steps, from a sustainability perspective, were taken in the deliberations about the mine itself. In the processing negotiations, the province's longer-term concerns centred on conventional economic development considerations – creating more jobs, capturing value added benefits from provincial resources, enhancing provincial revenues, fostering economic diversification. Environmental issues received some attention and sustainability may have been an implicit objective, but it was not pursued in a comprehensive or well integrated manner.
The mining part of the package was treated differently. At Voisey's Bay, sustainability effects were the central issue. This was in part because the mining was to be in aboriginal homelands and in part because the proposed undertaking was reviewed through an extraordinary environmental assessment process.


The lands in question were traditionally shared by the Innu and the Inuit (perhaps not often simultaneously or always amicably) and remain part of their traditional territories. Emish is the old Innu name for the area where the nickel deposits were found. Tasiujatsoak is the Inuit name for the nearby deep inlet, which they used long before Amos Voisey, a fur trader and merchant, settled there in the 1800s. Although the usual name now is Voisey's Bay, the area remains Innu and Inuit land, at least in as much as aboriginal title is recognized, since neither people ever signed away title to these lands. As a consequence, the Innu Nation and the Labrador Inuit Association, as bodies representing the Inuit and Innu, became participating government authorities in the evaluations, negotiations and decisions on the Voisey's Bay mining proposal.
The Labrador Inuit Association represents most residents of five communities on the Labrador north coast including Nain (population 1200), which is located 35km north-east of the mine site. While the Inuit have been subject to European colonial, evangelical and commercial influence since the 18th century, they signed no treaties. Their land claim was accepted for negotiation by the federal government in 1977 and has since moved gradually towards resolution.3 Among the people included are descendants of Amos Voisey and other settlers whose families are now assumed to have partial Inuit ancestry.4
The Innu Nation represents the roughly 600 Mushaua Innu who now live in Natuashish, about 80km south-east of Voisey's Bay. The Mushaua Innu were nomadic hunter-gatherers in the Labrador interior until 1967 when they were moved to Davis Inlet (which the Innu call Utshimassits: the place of the boss). The coastal island site was inconvenient for access to mainland hunting and other culturally familiar activities and, not surprisingly, the social, cultural and economic effects were largely tragic.5 Whether things will be better in Natuashish, the new mainland community established in 2002, remains uncertain, but that move symbolizes Innu determination to make a better future. The Innu have also been negatively affected by low level military test flights over their lands and this led to lengthy and bitter conflicts with the federal government. The government has, however, recognized the Innu land claim, which was submitted in 1977. Negotiations began in 1991 and a Canada/Newfoundland/Innu framework agreement was signed in 1996 (INAC, 1996b).
In their different ways, the Innu and Inuit communities of northern Labrador are hybrids of the traditional and the modern. The people have been, to varying degrees, separated from many of their old ways. But they are not far in time or place from the traditional understandings and practices that over countless generations made it possible to sustain themselves. They are still close enough to the land to feel the interdependence of the social, ecological, economic and cultural aspects of their lives. Perhaps their traditional lives were rarely easy. Probably the customary practices of the Innu and Inuit were in other respects as flawed as those of other cultures. Nonetheless, their ways of getting along with each other and being part of the land worked well enough – were sufficiently respectful, flexible and sensitive – to demonstrate the possibility, nature and importance of durable livelihoods.
For both Innu and Inuit the prospect of a nearby mining project raised hopes and fears. It brought the promise of new economic opportunities and associated improvements in regional infrastructure and services. But it also meant less control over traditional lands, more disturbance of wildlife and damage to local ecosystems, and further disruption of already fragile social conditions. Moreover, the gains could be brief and the negative effects permanent.
In the northern Labrador communities, the mine became the focus for discussions about future relations between traditional renewable resource harvesting activities and the modern, globalized market economy. While the traditional activities had long been the foundation for survival and identity, they no longer seemed to offer a sufficient basis for community livelihoods. Unfortunately the mine, like many other modern economy options for places like northern Labrador, offered only a transitory economic alternative. That might be good enough for people willing to move from one such opportunity to the next. But for people with deep roots and a long-term commitment to their home place, the mine would not be acceptable unless it built the short-term opportunity into something both desirable and lasting.
That test of acceptability – grounds for confidence that there will be desirable and lasting gains – might seem obviously reasonable. But it is not commonly applied in major project decision making. As a rule, proposed undertakings gain approval if they have devoted and apparently capable proponents, however narrowly motivated, and if there is no persuasive evidence of likely undue harm to any interests deemed worthy of attention. While that is a simplified version of the general rule, it is the essence of processes centred on limited restriction of enterprise. In the Voisey's Bay case this general rule was replaced. How this was accomplished and what it entailed is worthy of attention.

A landmark assessment

From the outset of the Voisey's Bay project deliberations, the Inuit and the Innu made it clear that they had long-term rights and interests to be respected.6 On the strength of their claims to aboriginal title, both groups were recognized as relevant authorities for key project evaluations and decisions especially in two processes that were to play particularly important roles in forcing attention to sustainability considerations. These were the Voisey's Bay mine and mill environmental assessment review and the subsequent negotiation of impact and benefit agreements.
The Voisey's Bay environmental assessment was a landmark in Canadian and global assessment practice because it introduced ‘contribution to sustainability’ as the basic test of acceptability.
As a major project with inevitable environmental significance, the proposed Voisey's Bay mine-mill was subject to assessment requirements as well as Inuit and Innu approval. To consolidate the review, the four government bodies signed a memorandum of understanding and drafted terms of reference for a single review by a five member environmental assessment panel. The panel, with appointees recommended by the four parties, then prepared guidelines for the proponent to follow in preparing an environmental impact statement that would be reviewed through a set of public hearings in the relevant communities, including Nain and Utshimassits.
Aside from the willing agreement among four parties with a considerable history of tension and conflict, none of this was particularly remarkable. Consolidation of hearings where two or more jurisdictions are involved is a common means of avoiding duplication and inefficiency. The panel's terms of reference were broad and progressive – covering the full range of ‘social, economic, recreational, cultural, spiritual and aesthetic conditions that influence the life of humans and communities’, as well as the biophysical aspects of the ‘environment’ – and including attention to traditional ecological knowledge, cumulative effects and the precautionary principle.7 But all of these elements had been included before in environmental assessment practice.
The panel took a further interpretive step. It concluded that its obligations, taken together, imposed a requirement to consider the sustainability effects of the proposed undertaking. ‘Promotion of sustainable development’, the panel observed, ‘is a fundamental purpose of environmental impact assessment’. Accordingly, the panel, established ‘contribution to sustainability’ as the key evaluative test. In its Environmental Impact Statement Guidelines for the Review of the Voisey's Bay Mine and Mill Undertaking, the panel stated:
It is the Panel's interpretation that progress towards sustainable development will require the following:
the preservation of ecosystem integrity, including the capability of natural systems to maintain their structure and functions and to support biological diversity;
respect for the right of future generations to the sustainable use of renewable resources; and
the attainment of durable and equitable social and economic benefits.
Therefore, in reviewing the EIS [environmental impact statement] and other submissions, the Panel will consider:
the extent to which the Undertaking may make a positive overall contribution towards the attainment of ecological and community sustainability, both at the local and regional levels;
how the planning and design of the Undertaking have addressed the three objectives of sustainable development stated abov...

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