Interview with Estelle Levin-Nally
3rd May 2021
A sustainability strategist with nearly twenty years of experience in responsible mining, supply chain management, ESG and climate action, Estelle founded Levin Sources to build equitable, sustainable and valuable minerals sectors by incubating and supporting diverse impact-oriented industry platforms and associations, NGOs, universities, and responsible sourcing initiatives. Most of her work is supporting pioneering companies and impact initiatives across the mining, metallurgy, automotive, ICT, and jewellery sectors. Her multidisciplinary education in science and social science has contributed to her commitment to conservation, regeneration, the circular economy and the green economy as pathways to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
Q: I would like to start with a question that usually is addressed to aspiring or early career professionals. I thought an answer to such a question from a person as professionally established as yourself might provide some inspiration and a good example for it. How would you describe yourself professionally in a short paragraph?
A: I would describe myself as a social entrepreneur who believes that mining can be part of a sustainable future. Mining has a history and a reputation for contributing to global challenges. But I think a future-ready mining sector would help solve global challenges instead, and I think it is up to us to reconfigure the sector to deliver on that. Mining’s societal contributions are commonly described in terms of the jobs, revenues and products it generates, but it can offer humanity so much more! On the other hand, mining is complicated, and so much can go wrong. And that is where I want to put my time in. As a professional, I realized I was really good at research, communication, problem solving and bringing structure to chaos. I had a lot of confidence as a young professional that I had something to offer, and I pursued that. Now, I want to collaborate with other professionals and enfranchise others to build a more sustainable mining sector through PPPs, futureproofing, digitisation and sustainable finance.
Q: How did Levin Sources got founded?
A: At the beginning of my career, I worked in the Oil, Products and Tanker Trades of Shipping leader, Clarksons, as an Economic Analyst, then as a Program Assistant for the Communities and Small-Scale Mining (CASM) Secretariat, for the World Bank. But my big passion has always been environmental justice. So I spent some time after that working in DR Congo for the Gorilla Organization. Following that, in 2006 I moved to Cambridge and began consulting; this evolved into founding Levin Sources at the same time as getting pregnant with my first child in 2010. I guess I like a challenge!
Q: What is one of the projects Levin Sources is proud of but did not get the media recognition it deserved?
A: I think what I am most proud of is actually a project that was led by my colleagues in Levin Sources and led to new laws in Uganda that provide rights to miners of development minerals. We gathered evidence for the governments regarding the extent of the development of the sector and the nature of sustainability issues. As a result, the government decided to safeguard the rights of these miners, which will definitely make a difference to hundreds of thousands of people.
I am really proud of the work we did on the ASM-PACE programme in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which shone a light on how and why ASM happens in protected areas and critical ecosystems, and what the impacts and best management pathways may be. At its heart it was exploring if there is a way for ASM to be sustainably managed in PACE to support continued socio-economic development without undermining ecological resiliency. Nobody was talking about policy or practice in this battleground between ASM and critical ecosystems, but it was happening in so many protected areas (approx.. 2/3 of the 150 we studied) so we started building understanding and raising awareness. Up until that point conservation authorities were simply refusing to civilly engage with artisanal miners. Our mission was to promote dialogue and meaningful engagement to find the best management solutions. In the decade since we have seen a huge shift in attitudes and approaches to dealing with ASM in protected places, with many organisations now working on this issue; consequently engagement is no longer a dirty word. I believe we were first movers at looking at the interface between environment and human rights in ASM, and as a result of our work, the attitudes of conservation authorities towards the artisanal miners has begun to change, and we are now seeing progress in several geographies and globally, e.g. through the Planet GOLD programme, the World Bank’s Forest-Smart Mining programme and the work of WWF on Deforestation frontiers.
Q: What made you ultimately choose a career in sustainable mining?
A: Actually, I worked as a shipping analyst at the beginning of my career in 2000 because I was interested in trade and trade justice. And I knew trade is a hugely important part of determining what benefits producing nations get out of their resources. I got this opportunity to work in ‘the belly of the beast’ in a very patriarchal culture, where I was only one of a handful of women in a firm of hundreds in the City of London. And that was hard. I always knew that I was a climate activist, and I always knew that I wanted to change the system. But I felt I couldn’t change the system if I didn’t understand it, and you cannot change it so easily from the outside. Many people do it, and they are excellent at campaigning and building up alternatives. But for me, I wanted to start from the inside.
At the time, I read ‘Small is Beautiful', by E.F. Schumacher, which was a watershed for me. For years, the concept of sustainability, as I had come across it in my first Geography degree in Edinburgh, had made a lot of sense because a commitment to inter- and intra-generational social and environmental justice has always been a part of me. When I read that book, I realised I needed to go and get the intellectual tools to interrogate whether this alignment fully made intellectual as well as emotional sense and if it did, to find ways of communicating and supporting it gradually. So, I got a scholarship to study a Masters in Geography at the University of British Columbia in Canada. At the time, I wanted to work in renewable energy. But I did a paper on environmental sustainability and wrote about “the Business of War” and the case for constructive engagement with artisanal and small-scale mining areas in conflict-affected areas of eastern DRC. I guess the geographer’s lens on the dialectics of realism - how we make the world and how it makes us, how culture makes us, how we change nature and how it changes us - is the root of my interest in mining. Because in what other field do you explore these questions more profoundly than in the mining and minerals sectors? And ultimately, what keeps me in it is ingenuity. Mining is interdisciplinary, so massive sometimes, and so complicated, and I am continuously fascinated and learning.
Q: From all the great work you did in the years you worked in the industry, what would be your favourite project you have worked on if you would have to choose?
A: I think it was working as the International Coordinator for the Gorilla Organization, in 2005. And the reason it was precious was because of the paper I wrote in 2003, which was precisely about the challenges we were trying to tackle in my work with the Organization. And so, to have the opportunity a few years later to try and solve those problems was really exciting. Unfortunately, it was not an all-around enjoyable job, although it taught me a lot about institutional culture and resource scarcity .
I ultimately reached the conclusion that I would not be able to make a big change for the gorillas or the artisanal miners in the area through the Organization, and I thought I needed to approach the issues from a different angle. I or Levin Sources have worked on various projects in DRC every year since 2003, and I lead our Environmental Division where we continue to tackle issues of illegal mining in protected areas (right now, under the banner of our work on forest-smart artisanal and small-scale mining).
Q: And what about the future? Which project are you most excited to pursue?
Of course I am deeply passionate about the work we do on forest-smart mining, and building the tools, community, and political will to help miners become environmental stewards through the opportunity that carbon finance affords. But right now, the project that is tickling me – and I think the whole team – the most is our ASM Spotter solution, which we do in partnership with machine learning firm, dida. ASM Spotter uses satellite imagery to automatically identify ASM sites and monitor change over time, to support improved management ASM penetration of forest landscapes. We won the Microsoft AI for Earth Prize in 2020, and have generate substantial interest from private and public sector partners who can see multiple applications. When I did my first Geography today, it was in the very early days of Geographic Information Systems; to have an earth observation solution that could help improve ASM management and forest outcomes incubated through Levin Sources is hugely exciting.
Q: Why do you think mining still has a long way to go to make its ESG agenda a reality, especially with so many projects happening to improve health and safety, sustainability, gender inclusivity, etc.?
A: There are so many answers to that question, but it is an important question. Personally, I would use an analogy from my days in analysing Oil Trading, where you deal with these massive tankers which require a lot of preparation to slow down and a movement in any direction takes early decision-making, skilled people, energy. Mining is a bit like that. There are loads of these big ships, and changing all these big institutions is slow, hard work. But there are a lot of ‘small and agile ships’ in mining which are entrepreneurial mines or exploration companies that are putting sustainability at the heart of what they do. And I am seeing efforts in all the parts of the industry beginning to happen, and it is just a matter of time until most will be facing the right direction. But I also think the sector faces a lot of prejudice from third parties, but there is also a lot of prejudice within it. And I think part of it is natural since in some parts of mining I came across a lot of discrimination on big mine sites or in artisanally-mined areas.
Also, one of the challenges to make mining more sustainable is its complexity. Because sustainability is massive, it uses hundreds of indicators and mining can contribute positively or negatively on several fronts. So, it is really hard if you are in a managerial role in the industry to make sure that all your risks are adequately mitigated at all times and all those positive indicators are checked. Therefore, incidents will just happen because you are dealing with a great deal of hazard in this line of work. And I think because of this complexity there are lots of different disciplines involved in the sector, whereas the leadership is mostly composed of accountants and economists. And as much as I respect their work, I believe that it is not necessarily fit-for-purpose. A mine that is driven solely for shareholders’ financialbenefit is not fit-for-purpose in the 21st century; these companies must eventually transition towards stakeholder capitalism forms of governance to unlock the sector’s ability to really deliver positive change to society.
Q: How do you think the industry has changed in the past decade in terms of gender equality?
A: I think it is definitely getting better. Because of its complexity, there is more to it than operations, and overall, it is a diverse sector. And I think we have seen a great deal of progress in all parts of the economy.
But sadly, we have seen a reversal of that progress in some societies lately, and we have certainly seen it now, during the COVID-19 pandemic. And so I think it is hard to put the blame of inequality on the industry itself when these inequalities are embedded in culture and societies, and it continues to oppress both men and women.
Although there is still a long way to go, I do think movements like Women in Mining campaigns really help in attracting more women to the sector, in building confidence amongst those women to aim high, and in supporting more women to get on company boards. And I do believe things are going in the right direction.
Q: How did the mining industry shape you professionally? (As someone with formal training in an adjacent academic area)
A:I think I have grown up with it. I was 28 when I graduated from my Masters and really began my career in mining , so it is hard to say how it shaped me because it has been my story for so long.
Q: What do you think today's generation of young professionals have in their advantage (or take for granted) compared with other generations?
A: Well, technology can create efficiencies in the way things are working, but it can also come with the assumption that you are always available. So I think the graduating classes might take technology for granted differently to my generation. It’s also far, far easier to find professional opportunities, but that also makes the competition harder.
And maybe, a different aspect would be the fact that there are women who had come before in mining companies and paved the way, but there are still a lot of frontiers and firsts to achieve in terms of diversity.
Q: And finally, what would be your advice for someone who would just start out in the mining sector?
A: I guess it would be to keep your mind open and be willing to keep learning because you will never know everything you need to know. Also, collaboration and integrity are crucial in this line of work. Lean in, speak out, and give others a hand where you can. This is a big old tanker we’re trying to move, and many hands will make light work.