Diamond mining, or any sort of mining is clearly not sustainable. You dig a hole, you take stuff out of the hole, and take it somewhere else. Eventually, the hole runs out of the stuff you were digging up. That is not sustainable.
But as an activity, diamond mining can be made to contribute to sustainability. Firstly, we recognize that development is necessary to eliminate poverty and to provide economic choices for northern peoples. The question then remains, how do we make this development (in this case, diamond mining) as sustainable as possible?
Although diamond mining is not the worst form of mining in regards to its environmental impact, impacts are already being felt from the two diamond mines currently operating in the Northwest Territories. Those physical impacts include:
Social and cultural impacts from the two existing diamond mines are also being felt.
A sudden influx of money into communities creates some social tensions, and this can show up in increased amounts of substance abuse and family violence. The shift-work patterns imposed on workers at the mines disrupt normal social rhythms, taking parents away from children and elders for weeks at a time.
Even though the existing diamond mines have made commitments to attempt to hire northerners, they are having trouble meeting their quotas. There are simply only so many people ready, willing and able to work in the mines. That means an influx of migrant workers will be necessary if companies continue to develop new mines at a pace faster than the resident labour force can absorb.
This is of course not an argument that the provision of jobs and money to people in northern communities is a bad thing, but it must be recognized that some negative effects can accompany the benefits. These negative effects must be taken into account in planning diamond mines to attempt to minimize the disruption that comes with the benefits of development.
It should be noted that Ekati and Diavik mines are governed by agreements that provide for some substantial social benefits—training, trade certification and community programmes, for example. These agreements, and the companies’ willingness to contribute to the new diamond cutting and polishing industries, are definitely steps in the right direction. What is needed here is some territorial and federal policy governing the kinds of social support and economic diversification objectives that need to be met in the context of diamond mining—or any other mining, for that matter.
For diamond mining in northern Canada to be more sustainable, planners need to have an idea of what values are the most important to protect. This is usually done through a process called land use planning which identifies areas of the land important to local people, and important to the health of the environment. There are no settled land use plans for the areas where the diamond mines have been developed, or for the areas most likely to be developed in the future. There are also no permanent protected areas in the land between Yellowknife and the Arctic Coast (the Slave Geological province) where most of the diamonds have been found.
Lack of federal monitoring of diamond developments is also an issue. Over the past few years, there has been no funding for cumulative impact monitoring program, and co-management bodies do not have resources necessary for their work. The federal government itself seems short of resources for adequate monitoring. Both of the operating diamond mines in the north went without federal inspection for several months.
Apart from the two principles we mentioned above, we have several more specific recommendations to help improve the contribution of diamond mining to sustainable development: