Why I do what I do…

When I say to people that I am a geologist, they often picture someone down underground in a mine. Or possibly digging up old cities (sorry people, that’s an archeologist). Or walking through the bush in sweat-stained clothes and carrying a hammer. OK, that last bit was accurate, for a while.

The commute between my fieldwork and field camp, in my early exploration days. Far northern parts of South Africa, early 80s. © Ron Smit

The reality today is that I spend almost all my time pounding on a keyboard, not on rocks. I haven’t used a geopick for many years. Yes, my career did start in mineral exploration, back in the 80s, but now I have the dubious status of being a “consultant”. This is a species of animal often described as someone who you pay to look at your own watch to tell you what time it is. 

When working on some donor-funded projects, contracts often refer to us as experts, which is a term I detest. Someone once told me that the word expert contains two parts: “Ex”, which means “has-been” and “spurt”, which describes a drip under pressure. I’d rather be called a consultant.

So, for the past 17 years or so, I have been advising various governments and institutions on mining sector governance. Essentially, how to take better care of the resources in their countries, how to be more responsible and thorough in overseeing what mining companies do, and so on. Capacity Building.

A younger version of me, illustrating to an audience in Uganda what so-called “artisanal and small-scale mining” has been doing to the environment in Ghana. I’m not a fan. Picture by a colleague, with permission, using my camera. © Ron Smit, 2010

This doesn’t mean that I’ve been converted into a rabid anti-mining advocate. On the contrary, we all need mining to survive, even if we are going to get much better at recycling, which we certainly should!

If you have any doubts whatsoever on how important continued mining is for all of us, then do read about the impact if it were to end, in this very interesting article published by BBC Future Planet.

Copper being cast into anodes on a casting wheel in a Zambian smelter. © Ron Smit, 2015
Consultants and representatives of our donor (the EU, in this case) admiring a batch of refined copper cathodes at a mine in Zambia. © Ron Smit, 2015

(Just in case you are remotely interested in how a brown rock becomes a sheet of red copper, and what is involved, I’ll write a little summary in layman’s terms, one day.) The short version: It takes a tremendous amount of long-term investment, lots of technology, skill and effort.

Why do I do this work?

Well, the most obvious answer about any job, whatever people may say, is that we all need to work so that we can eat. And to have a beer or two from time to time.

But I also want to do something that is useful and creates some value for the rest of humanity. I wouldn’t have been able to become a lawyer or an accountant or a doctor, something that humanity should be deeply grateful for!

For most of my working life, my jobs have required travel to lots of countries, using the experience gained in one place as background for the next job. Meeting very interesting people, making friends along the way. What’s not to like?

Sometimes, as a consultant, you have to survive in rough places… The view from my cottage balcony in Accra, Ghana. © Ron Smit, 2010

But why mining sector governance, you may ask? Even if you’re not going to ask, I’ll tell you anyway:

Unless we all want to go back to living in caves, we should accept that our lives, our actual survival, requires us to use the resources provided by this planet. (Actually, even when we were still hunter-gatherers in the stone age, living in those caves, we were already using flints mined from the earth…). If you are still not convinced, and if you haven’t looked there yet, here’s another link to that same BBC article to inform you of how our society would struggle to exist for more than a few months, in the absence of mining.

Reduce, re-use, recycle… and rethink?

Yes, we should recycle as much as possible and yes, we should also re-use as much as possible, but the only way for us to really reduce our consumption of minerals and metals, would be to reduce the number of… us.

That’s not going to happen anytime soon.

How NOT to do recycling… Agbogbloshie, Accra, Ghana. © Ron Smit, 2010

So we need mining, but we should do it as carefully, as responsibly as possible. Governments of countries where mines are located should at least have a grip on the process, should at least ensure minimal environmental harm, and maximal benefit for their citizens. Yes, companies must follow the rules, pay their royalties and taxes, etc. But governments need to know how to set the rules, and should have the capacity to monitor compliance.

Too often such compliance is left up to large multinational mining companies and their stock exchanges in Canada and the UK, etc. It is the mines’ legitimate role to carry out the mining process, many of whom do an excellent job at environmental management and making a positive social impact.

But mine managers were not elected to be leaders in remote parts of the world. That’s a job for governments, that’s why we have democracy. (Well, sort of, anyway.)

So in my work, I try to contribute to that process. And it allows me to travel to fantastic places and taste the beers there!

The only way to experience the Serengeti and the beach at the same time… :). Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. This was after a week of consulting, so I earned it! © Ron Smit, 2019

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little peek into my professional life. I know it was more serious than my usual fare, but I trust that some of you were interested enough to read to the end. If you like this kind of stuff, let me know. If not, well, you are also welcome to tell me that, and why.

9 thoughts on “Why I do what I do…

  1. Hi Ron. Thanks for the interesting description as always and for the inclusion of a picture of myself looking at copper cathodes in Zambia.
    Cheers
    Michel

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  2. So here we are sitting by the Zambezi, reading this episode of your entertaining blog…
    A few things… one; we love how you define a consultant, rather accurate! I like to think I then also teach people how their watch could run even better.
    Two; I often struggle informing people what it is you actually do. Something that will be a bit easier now as I can steal your own wording.

    So then a question; can you give us an example of where you made a difference and helped humanity a bit forward? May help to explain why you do what you do.

    Fun read again! Thanks

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  3. Excellent stuff Ron, keep up the great work.👍 As an experienced “rock doctor” could you please give Gwede Mantashe and the RSA Department of Minerals & Energy some much needed guidance on setting up their long awaited mining cadastre. 😀

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    1. Hi Jeff, thanks for the positive words. Various people have commented about the “good work” and I agree that it’s important stuff, but also really enjoy it. (Almost as much as my travelling and writing about that, haha.) Anyway, in connection with the DMRE, yes, what can I say… Many countries North of the Limpopo are using cadastre software designed in Cape Town (Flexicadastre, from Spatial Dimension, now part of Trimble.) Some other countries are using RDF’s MCAS system. I’ve been involved with both softwares, both sets of people. I find it absolutely mind-boggling that DMRE hasn’t gone for one of these systems. The problems would have been sorted out years ago. They say that ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’, but if the will doesn’t want to find the way, then the industry will be lost in the proverbial desert. Let’s hope that this will not be for 40 years.

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  4. Hi Ron, good to read some of your experiences, makes me want to put pen to paper,or is it fingers on keyboard lately, sharing some of my experiences. Two of my experiences that jump to mind is meeting Col Bob Dennard and his group of mercenaries in Comores many years ago and working in Libia in Ghdaffi’s days. Awesome memories.
    Thanks for sharing.

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  5. Ja Ron, uitstekende en interessante beskrywing van jou ervarings! I fully appreciate your take on consultants vs experts and also prefer to consult which is what we do. We know each other from long ago and as I also ended up consulting, I believe that it is a very appropriate route for and in any discipline to plough back the experience gained through years in a specific area . My career incidentally started in the geology department of a mining company so I have a good idea of what you guys were up to! In my case I diverted to the financial side in mining via the supply chain. My focus turned to the evaluation of efficiencies and risk in business processes such as tendering and commercial contracts and eventually consulting. All the best and keep on consulting!!

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