Several recent and catastrophic tailings dam collapses have brought into focus the complex interaction between a mine site and the local community and environment in which it operates. The failure of the tailings dam at the Córrego do Feijão iron ore mine in Brumadinho, Brazil, in January 2019 is one of the most devastating. When the dam collapsed, 12 million m3 of toxic mining waste surged through the mine site towards the town below, killing 270 people and causing widespread environmental and socio-economic damage.2 It followed another failure of the Fundão tailings dam in Mariana only four years earlier, in the same state in Brazil and by the same mine owners; at least 19 people were killed when the dam breached and abruptly discharged over 43 million m3 of tailings, polluting the region’s most important river, the Rio Doce, and causing what has been termed the biggest environmental disaster in the global mining industry.3
The subsequent rise in scrutiny and renewed sense of urgency to understand the risks posed by tailings facilities and their potential for failure has been preceded by decades of stakeholder campaigns along with calls for greater public disclosure and corporate accountability.4 Yet the failures at Mariana, and then Brumadinho, were evidence that change was not happening from within the industry.
In April 2019, efforts gained momentum when a group of institutional investors (now representing more than $13 trillion assets under management)5 governed through a steering committee chaired by the Church of England Pensions Board and the Council on Ethics of the Swedish AP Funds established an investor-led engagement initiative, known as the Investor Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative (the ‘Initiative’); Ruffer began supporting the Initiative in April 2019.
This has led to several key interventions.