Restoring land: our work in land rehabilitation

posted: 22/02/2018

From forests of Canada to grasslands of South Africa and islands in the Pacific, we’re responsible for significant amounts of land, featuring a diverse range of ecosystems.

Of course, our operations can’t last forever. So we work to rehabilitate land as part of the long-term closure plans we establish at each asset. The idea is to prepare for a responsible exit.

The planning starts even before we begin to mine – and we often rehabilitate land while mining operations continue. 

Here are just a few of the ways we’ve worked to do this, from planting forests to storing native seedlings to making sites safe for communities.

“Regreening” land in Sudbury, Canada

In 1978, after decades of smelting operations, the Greater Sudbury area of Ontario was mostly black and barren. Today, though, it’s a very different place: the landscape flourishes with native grasses, spruce trees and birdlife.

It’s all thanks to the Regreening Program run by the City of Greater Sudbury – a project in which we have actively taken part, and to which we greatly increased support in 2009.

In 2017, project workers enriched 6.7 hectares of barren land with crushed limestone, planted almost 80,000 tree seedlings and more than 46,000 shrubs/understory trees throughout Greater Sudbury bringing the respective totals to 3,471 hectares, 9,723,172 trees and 360,539 shrubs/understory trees since the Regreening Program was launched in 1978.

Moreover, in 2017, forest floor plants, used as a tool to re-introduce species, improve habitat, create a seed bank and increase the diversity of past reclamation sites, were transplanted covering an area of 0.148 hectares bringing the total to 1.83 hectares since the practice began in 2010. 

Not only do we help fund the Regreening Program, but many of our employees at Sudbury Integrated Nickel Operations volunteer. And we’ve made a long-term commitment to support the regreening – taking responsibility for the landscape around us.

(L-R) Coniston Hydro Road - before and Coniston Hydro Road after

(L-R) Coniston Hydro Road - before and Coniston Hydro Road after

Planting seeds of change at Alumbrera

Revegetating former mine sites is a key part of the rehabilitation of land – restoring nutrients to soil and improving wildlife habitats.

But as our copper–gold mine at Alumbrera in Argentina nears closure, finding the right mix of native seeds to plant on site will be less of a challenge – thanks to the Alumbrera seed bank.

Our “germplasm bank” is a collection of live seeds with a variety of local and native vegetation, which we’ll use to support planting at the former mine site.

Because restoring the precise natural composition of the land is difficult – cacti, for example, have slow growth rates – we have identified species with high survival and adaptability potential. 

These include Cercidium praecox, a beautiful tree with vivid yellow spring flowers, and other native bushes and grass.

It’s all part of the long-term preparation for the responsible closure of Alumbrera – a plan that is 19 years in the making.

(L-R) Rehabilitation in progress; and Senna aphylla growing at the former site

(L-R) Rehabilitation in progress; and Senna aphylla growing at the former site

Making legacy sites safe in South Africa

Rehabilitating an open-cast coal asset is no small undertaking. At Tweefontein Complex in South Africa, it has meant closing  voids, sealing  underground shafts, removing  coal waste dumps, rehabilitation of coal waste dumps by shaping, topsoiling and seeding – and turning 165 hectares of land into green fields with lush grass.

But this was just the first of many similar projects undertaken by our legacy rehabilitation team in South Africa, which started work in 2011.

Since then the team has rehabilitated land at  further sites such as iMpunzi, Goedgevonden and we have also completed rehabilitation work with specialist contractors at our defunct operations such as Alpha East and West in KwaZulu Natal .

“At some of our operations  the grass is  baled and used for animal grazing,” says Group Manager Nico Dooge. “We conduct annual rehabilitation vegetation assessments in order to track the quality of the rehabilitation and we’re very pleased with the biodiversity returning to these sites.”

Piloting improvements in Colombia

We’re always seeking ways to improve how we rehabilitate land. In 2016 at our Prodeco asset in Colombia, we piloted ways to improve revegetation and reforestation – with a view to rolling them out across our global business.

New measures have included mulching to protect soil; ploughing in a way that maximises water retention; and dividing revegetation into phases, to allow soil to stabilise as plants and trees are gradually introduced.

In all, as of 2016, we had rehabilitated 1,033 hectares of disturbed land across our two sites at Calenturitas and La Jagua.

Managing a Pacific island ecosystem

The Australasian island of New Caledonia – where we are part of joint venture Koniambo Nickel – is a unique island ecosystem. 

It includes a natural lagoon that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with sensitive habitats such as rainforest, wetlands, mangroves, savannah and coral reefs. Overall, 115 species of plants and animals are on the IUCN Red List.

As part of our rehabilitation work, we have planted tens of thousands of seedlings in land affected by construction, supported by our on-site nursery where we collect and grow native and endangered species. 

We have also worked to limit our impact on marine environments from building a port on Vavouto Bay. For example, Koniambo Nickel transplanted 2,100 colonies of coral, and set up a programme to replant mangrove shrubs.

Establishing native forest in Australia

Land rehabilitation has long-term results. Nearly 20 years after reforestation began at Mount Owen coal mine in New South Wales, Australia, there are now 430 hectares of native forest – in an area previously devoid of native woodland.

The area has been incorporated into Ravensworth State Forest, where it is designated for conversation.

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