February 2010

Canadians Abroad

Around the world with mining: Not always a blast, but CSR crusader sticks to his guns

By H. Ednie

 

Joe Ringwald (in red shirt) takes a coffee break with geologists and engineers at Cayeli Mine.


If being held at gunpoint on a Turkish beach failed to discourage Joe Ringwald from a career in the mining industry, little else could. It was the 1980s and the current Vancouver-based vice-president of operations for Brett Resources was in Turkey — his first overseas assignment — to help develop the Cayeli copper zinc mine. One night, after an evening out with some Turkish geologists on the project, he and a colleague were walking back along the beach to their apartment block.

“All of a sudden, this guy came out of the dark in front of us in combat fatigues with an automatic weapon,” Ringwald recalls. “He started pushing the barrel of the rifle into our chests, pushing us back, yelling at us in Turkish.” The terrified pair had no idea what was going on.

“I dropped my briefcase and he motioned for me to pick it up,” continues Ringwald. “I did, and started backing away, and he relaxed. We made it back to our apartments and found out  later that we had walked into the gendarme area — a secure police zone — and they thought my briefcase concealed a bomb.”

People are people

Undaunted, Ringwald has since hung his hat in 17 different countries throughout North America, Mexico, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and China. Although it has been rocky at times, Ringwald figures he has learned a thing or two about how the world works.

“People are the same no matter what the country,” he says. “They have the same general values. There are just minor differences due to culture and religion. They care for their loved ones and for their homes. They don’t like war. And they don’t like a tailings impoundment sitting above them.”

Ringwald was not always so understanding. On one project in Greenland, Ringwald recalls that the national  government asked a lot of questions about feasibility and insisted on signing off on the project’s funding. “At the time I thought, ‘What right do they have?’ But over time I realized it’s not a problem — I saw their reasoning and a strong relationship ensued,” he explains.

These kinds of realizations about the industry’s impact on local communities have led Ringwald — who has worked as a consultant, contractor and company representative on more than 50 projects —  to focus his work in recent years on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainable development. He’s become well-known for his dedication to the minerals industry’s need to be a leader in these areas. “I really believe our industry can have a tremendous impact on the global society,” he says.

Fear factor

Ringwald has also learned that the minerals industry needs to market itself better in the communities where it works. People are often fearful when a company wants to start up in their area. “We need to help people understand that society needs products from mines,” he says. “But how do we reconcile their fears? Through shared benefit, tolerance and our firm commitment to return the land to the state or better than it was in pre-operation.”

When government, civil society and industry collaborate, the local economy is improved and the people benefit, he says. “It also just happens that the product is a benefit to the world as a whole,” Ringwald adds with a grin.

Ringwald has been busy promoting these core values for the last several years. He volunteers with CIM — on Council and as co-chair of the past two Vancouver conferences —  and presented to the National Roundtable on CSR in 2006. He is on the Interim Executive Commitee for the CSR Centre for Excellence, is a current director with Transparency International-Canada and a member of the Pacific Hub steering committee for the Canadian Business Ethics Research Network.

But Ringwald has not lost his wanderlust. “I love variety and change — I’m a firm believer that the only constant in the world is change,” he says. “I like inspiring and observing change in myself and in humanity. I love to observe, and the best way to do that is to travel. For that, the mining industry is a great vehicle.”

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