Integrating biodiversity into mining operations: approaches and key elements

CTA, Consultoría y Tecnología Ambiental


The standard practice to approach biodiversity by mining activities in Latin-America, traditionally includes baseline and monitoring programs for the most conspicuous flora and fauna groups in order to comply with local requirements and guidelines. Throughout recent years, this has shown not to be enough. Today stakeholders of a mining project demand accurate information regarding biodiversity in all of its forms. In order to provide stakeholders with accurate information, mining activities most incorporate biodiversity key elements during all phases of a project and throughout the mine life. This requires identification and understanding of all the elements that biodiversity contain and how they interact in an environment surrounding a mining project.

A comprehensive biodiversity engagement needs to include adequate bioindicators, a precise ecosystem services identification, impact assessment through the mitigation hierarchy approach, communication with local and regional stakeholders and a robust monitoring program of these key biodiversity features. Using international standards (International Finance Corporation –IFC- Performance Standard 6, International Council of Mining and Metals – ICMM – principles and UICN red list of threatened species, among others) while developing a specific biodiversity management and action plan for a mining operation contribute to a full understanding on the biodiversity interactions, during mining activities.

This article present how key biodiversity elements on precious and base metal mining operations in Mexico, Central and South America, show different approaches and challenges depending on each environment. The comparisons of the assessments in these three mining operations show that although biodiversity values differ, key elements provide useful elements for decision making and stakeholder engagement.

Keywords: Biodiversity, Performance Standards, Ecosystem services


The following article, describes how traditional definitions of biodiversity, which include variability in composition, structure and function (e.g. Noss, 2001) of genes, species and ecosystems, and the interactions between them, are currently being addressed by mining companies in Latin America.

Mining operations usually focus on more narrow definitions of biodiversity, which may be restricted by factors such as type (e.g., habitats/ecosystems, species or processes), taxonomy and/or species interactions, scale (e.g., ecosystem classifications, species, subspecies or populations), conservation status, or value type (e.g., only existence values of biodiversity or also ecosystem services) (Burgin, 2008; Quétier & Lavorel, 2011). These narrow definitions are often chosen on the basis of selected biodiversity components are representative of biodiversity as a whole. Today biodiversity has become a more material business issue for the metals and mining sector; therefore stakeholders expect companies, as responsible businesses, to manage biodiversity alongside other sustainability issues. Mining activities most incorporate biodiversity key elements during all phases of a project and throughout the mine life. A comprehensive biodiversity engagement needs to include adequate bioindicators, a precise ecosystem services identification, impact assessment through the mitigation hierarchy approach; communication with local and regional stakeholders and a robust monitoring program of these key biodiversity features, including international standards.


For the comparison of the key biodiversity elements, three mining operations were selected:


  • Operation 1. Nickel mining operation in Izabal, Guatemala (brownfield project),
  • Operation 2. Gold and Silver project in Zacatecas, Mexico (greenfield project), and
  • Operation 3. Copper operation in Chile (operating mine).


On these operations, the following biodiversity studies where developed (where applicable): aquatic life (macroinvertebrates, fish, and habitat assessments), wildlife (amphibian, reptiles, birds, and mammals), bioacoustics and ecosystem services identification. All studies used standardized methodologies suggested by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the World Resource Institute (WRI), and comply with local and international standards (IFC- Performance Standard 6, ICMM – principles and UICN red list). Based on the results of the assessments, three key biodiversity values were obtained for each operation:

a) Critical habitat, as defined by IFC PS6 ,
b) Critically endangered species (using UICN red list of threatened species ), and
c) Ecosystem services (number and type of services based on the definitions of the WRI) .

For each operation, key biodiversity values were evaluated based on the most relevant international guidelines, which address biodiversity. The selection of guidelines was based on the current expected standard for the mining industry. These guidelines are presented in the following table:


Table 1 International Standard: biodiversity related guidelines
Standard Guideline
ICMM The design will avoid construction in protected areas and world heritage properties; when located in adjacent areas, environmental management practices to ensure that operations are not incompatible with the international value for which they are considered.
IFC PS6, Paragraph 14 A biodiversity based alternative analysis should be prepared, so that there is no significant conversion or degradation of natural habitats , unless No other viable alternatives within the region exist for development of the infrastructure on modified habitat
IFC PS6, Paragraph 15 The design will include mitigation measures to achieve no net loss of biodiversity:
Avoiding impacts on biodiversity through the identification and protection of set asides;
Minimize habitat fragmentation, such as biological corridors; Restoring habitats during operations and/or after operations and Implementing biodiversity offsets.
IFC PS6, Paragraph 17 In areas of critical habitat, No activities will be developed unless:
No other viable alternatives within the region exist.
The activities does not lead to measurable adverse impacts on those biodiversity values;
The activities does not lead to a net reduction in the global and/or national/regional population of any Critically Endangered or Endangered species; and
IFC PS6, Paragraph 22 Measures to avoid the potential introductions of alien species.


The comparison of each guideline was both, qualitative and quantitative, since, ecological conditions vary from each site, and local biodiversity will be better understood through complex biogeographical models. Also the background information, including environmental and social baseline data, was included in the analysis, since the information helped explained the current biodiversity status and the relationship of native species in response to the environment.


Biodiversity values

The most diverse area was observed in the nickel mining operation located in a humid subtropical forest (615 species), followed by the gold and silver operation with 120 species and last, the copper operation located in the Atacama Desert with only 20 species. The observed biodiversity value is presented in the following table.


Table 2 Biodiversity values
Mining Operation Ecosystem Critical Habitat (Y/N) No. of fauna species No. Protected fauna species No. of ecosystem services Type of ecosystem services
1 Humid subtropical Y 615 13 4 Provisioning Habitat
2 Dry Forest Y 120 2 6 Provisioning, Regulation, Cultura
3 Desert Y 20 7 2 Provisioning Habitat

Protected species include: endangered, critically endangered and vulnerable; Data source: CTA, 2015. As observed, the least diverse area (located in the desert), presents a higher composition of protected species (35%), therefore including the largest density of critical habitats. Mining operation 1 presents the most abundant fauna (mostly constituted by bird species). The least abundant and diverse is the desert, including primarily reptiles and birds (most of them endemic), alien species were also identified and quantify on all three scenarios. Species size is also important to mention, since the remaining large size fauna is traditionally used as game species, current biodiversity value has being directly influenced by local hunting pressure. For example, in operation 1, game species constitute a large percentage, and local communities, are used to obtaining protein from this resource, indicating that a sustainable biodiversity framework, which includes game species and their use, will be preferable. Regarding the ecosystem services, the more diverse are present in the dry forest, including 6 ecosystem services.


Table 3 Approaches and International Standard compliance
Standard Guideline
ICMM Operation 1. Full compliance. A private reserve was established, to preserve local protected species and biodiversity values.Operation 2. Full compliance. Biological corridors and water bodies (artificial) were incorporated into the design.Operation 3. Full compliance. Two adjacent conservation zones have periodical monitoring programs in place.
IFC PS6, Paragraph 14 Operation 1. Included.Operation 2. Included.Operation 3. Not considered.
IFC PS6, Paragraph 15 Operation 1. Included. Habitat restoration program in place. Ecosystem services conservation is achieved by the implementation of EMPs.Operation 2. Included. Habitat restoration programs and ecosystem services conservation is included on EMPs. Regional Programs include the local communities.Operation 3. Not included. Operation was already in place. No critical habitat was identified within the mining footprint.
IFC PS6, Paragraph 17 Operation 1. Endangered species and their habitat were identified. Critical habitat is included in the conservation programs.Operation 2. Endangered species and their habitat were identified. Critical habitat will be included in the conservation programs when the construction begins.Operation 3. Endangered species and their habitat were identified (all in adjacent areas). Critical habitat were identified and selected for set asides.
IFC PS6, Paragraph 22 Operation 1. Included.Operation 2. Not included.Operation 3. Included.



A detail review of the species composition suggested the best group of bioindicators for each operation. For the nickel operation, where several streams and small creeks are present, the best bioindicators are macroinvertebrates, particularly the Ephemeroptera, Plechoptera and Trichoptera (EPT) which indicate a good habitat quality, as opposed to Diptera which indicate disturbance and/or contamination. This selected group enables the company to measure the impact while refurbishing the plant and set a benchmark for future monitoring programs during operation.


Figure 1 Ephemeroptera Figure 2 Plechoptera Figure 3 Trichopetra Figure 4 Diptera
(Heptagenidae) (Perlidae) (Polycentropodidae) (Simulidae)


For the Gold and silver operation, with is located on a vast area with abundant shrubs and small mammals (rodents), the best bioindicators are birds, and reptiles which have shown to be sensitive to habitat disturbances and trophic web alterations. Long term assessments of these groups (prior to construction) will provide the operation with an indicator of the ecosystems health.


Figure 5 Parabuteo unicinctus Figure 6 Caracara cheriway


For the copper operation, located in the desert, the best bioindicators are also birds (although scarce), and some reptiles (lizards), which are restricted to microhabitats and therefore are sensitive to landscape disturbances. The selected species are both endangered and considered endemic to the Atacama Desert, which provides an excellent opportunity to monitor if the operation impacts the species composition.


For all three mining operations the prepared biodiversity management and action plans contribute to a full understanding on the biodiversity interactions, during mining activities, also present clear objectives and benchmarks to evaluate its applicability. These BMP include a hierarchical impact assessment based on selected species (the ones considered endangered and/or most relevant); which allow maximizing the monitoring effort on this groups, even when large set of species are present. For mining operations 1 & 2, which were not operating during surveys and are located in the most diverse areas, a strong baseline effort contributed to determine, the ideal biondicators among a large set of species. Selecting the endangered species as key biodiversity values and incorporating on early stages of the mining plan will allow to:


  • Maximize the effort of biodiversity related programs, by focusing on bioindicators, specifically selected for each mining site and also,
  • Guarantee that critical habitat can be avoided, through the identification and protection of set asides, and also minimize habitat fragmentation, such as biological corridors; By focusing the conservation efforts on the critical habitat, a mining project can avoid the net loss of biodiversity.
  • Contribute to the sustainability of ecosystem services at each site.


For operation 3, located on the least diverse area, the monitoring effort includes advance detection methods (like bioacoustics), which allow to obtain more accurate data while monitoring fewer individuals.

Restoration of habitats during operations and/or after operations is key for contributing to no net loss, identifying and integrating ecosystem services may provide an ideal tool to select these habitats and also to determine which species will provide adequate indicators. In all three scenarios local stakeholders include conservation non-governmental organizations, local governments and communities. All stakeholder identify the ecosystem services present, therefore monitoring programs and conservation action provide an opportunity to strengthen the relations among key actors.

As stated on IFC, PS6 GN, projects that involve significant risks and impacts across multiple biodiversity values and ecosystem services would benefit from applying an “ecosystem approach “to understanding the environment. As described by the Convention on Biological Diversity, the ecosystem approach is “a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way.” The comparison of these three operations with different biodiversity values, and approaches to biodiversity management, is a good example of how broader approaches lead to better results in the long term management of the environmental biological and social elements of the project.

Autor: Felipe J. Ramírez

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