MAC: Mines and Communities

UK newspaper supports global mining regulation

Published by MAC on 2015-08-05
Source: Observer

Following an investigation into the activities of UK registered Vedanta in Zambia (see: Global demos around Vedanta AGM in London, India and Africa), the Observer newspaper has issued a comment calling for "a comprehensive, muscular and mandatory global regulatory regime" for the mining industry.

The Observer view on global mining regulation

The suffering of communities in Zambia’s copper mining region highlights the need to create a global regulatory regime

The Observer

2 August 2015

The appalling suffering of villagers living close to the mining town of Chingola, in Zambia’s copperbelt region, whose water supplies have been dangerously polluted by leaks of sulphuric acid and other toxic chemicals, is both avoidable and unacceptable. As we report today, the Chingola pollution and associated environmental damage has led to serious health problems for those affected, such as potential organ failure, cancers and permanent disabilities, as well as failed crops, loss of earnings and livelihoods.

This continuing toll on life and well-being is wholly avoidable, in part because the problems associated with Vedanta Resources’ giant mine at Chingola have been common knowledge for some years.

A scientist whistleblower familiar with company activities claimed operating and maintenance standards were consistently poor from 2005, when the Vedanta-owned subsidiary, KCM, bought the plant. “There have been heavy spillages and massive leakages. Acid has been leaking all over the place… No effort has been made to correct this scenario,” the whistleblower said.

Avoidable, too, because public attention has been drawn to the Chingola situation in the past. In April, Zambia’s supreme court upheld a 2011 high court judgment that found Vedanta (KCM) guilty of water pollution in 2006. But compensation payments to 2,000 claimants who said they suffered liver and kidney damage and other illnesses remain uncertain. Separate proceedings against London stock exchange-listed Vedanta began in the high court in London last week. A demonstration is planned outside the company’s AGM in London tomorrow, part of a “global day of action” by activists protesting at the activities of Vedanta and its subsidiaries in Africa and Goa, India.

The Chingola case is unacceptable, in part because it seems so familiar. To a limited degree, some mining companies and the extractive industries’ national bodies have moved to clean up their act in recent years. Public awareness of issues arising directly and indirectly from mining in its various forms is greater than it once was, as the passionate debate in Britain about fracking has shown. But that said, the continuing problems linked to mining – human health and rights, climate change, deforestation, environmental pollution, water resources, and adverse impacts on biodiversity – are among the most fundamental challenges of our age. Not nearly enough is being done by mining companies or government regulators to mitigate them.

The days when British coal miners died in large numbers in underground pit disasters and from mining-related disease have thankfully passed. Only about 34,000 people are now directly employed in mining, broadly defined, in the UK. But like other countries, Britain is not immune, for example, to the un-lovely effects of open-cast mining and quarrying.

In Appalachia, in the eastern US, for example, strip mining involving the removal of whole mountain-tops continues to exact a huge environmental and human toll, particularly in respect of clouds of dust particles linked to cancer. In Soma, in western Turkey, the trial of allegedly negligent mining company officials continues after an underground fire that killed more than 300 miners last year.

In the high sierras of Latin America and the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, miners and seabed oil-drillers continue to pay the ultimate price for the global scramble for cheap energy resources. In remote stretches of Inner Mongolia, residues from China’s booming rare earth industry have created a vast inland lake full of toxic sludge.

And in terms of regulation, Chingola is again a case in point. Aware it had a pollution problem, Vedanta employed a leading Canadian engineering firm in 2010 to advise on remedies. But the Canadians’ subsequent, critical findings do not appear to have been acted on.

Governmental inaction also greeted the findings of the House of Commons’ business, innovation and skills select committee, whose report last October on the activities of the extractive industries in the UK and around the world supported calls by NGOs for closer scrutiny of London-listed companies, but tiptoed around some of the nitty-gritty issues. The UK, it said, was “at risk of being associated with some of the negative practices often reported alongside the [mining] sector. To counter this, more needs to be done to improve social and environmental performance, transparency and reputations of the companies it hosts.”

Pressure groups testifying before the committee were more incisive. The Publish What You Pay NGO highlighted “profit shifting, transfer mispricing, secret deals and the use of secretive shell companies and tax havens” by international mining companies operating out of London. It advocated an open, public ownership registry, in part to curb tax avoidance. Christian Aid said the current lack of transparency contributed to corruption. World Wide Fund for Nature UK suggested these factors encouraged a belief that the reputation of the extractive industries “is at an all-time low”.

Unperturbed, the committee accepted government assurances that London-listed mining companies were not dodging tax. The UK exchequer was grateful for what it received: £6.1bn in 2012-13. Britain had joined the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the committee noted approvingly. This and various new EU directives would help the UK “become a beacon of best practice”.

This conclusion, and the government’s response, smack of complacency. Like the financial and banking sector before the 2008 crash, too many mining companies around the world, such as Vedanta, still put profit and greed before people and the planet. This cannot go on. As a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found, “international regulation is necessary to prevent mining facilities from damaging the environment, to ensure the safety of miners, and to effectively deal with conflicts that arise over the international trade of strategic minerals”. Since offenders continue to offend, a comprehensive, muscular and mandatory global regulatory regime is required.

How developing countries are paying a high price for the global mineral boom

Soaring worldwide demand for the minerals used in electronic devices such as smartphones and laptops has left a legacy of social conflict and human rights violations across Asia, Latin America and Africa

John Vidal


15 August 2015

A 200ft deep pit gapes where three years ago stood a mountain. Fields where small farmers planted rice and grew fruit are now an industrial site, and wooden houses in the old village of Didipio have been abandoned – the community moved to make way for a large-scale gold mine owned by a New Zealand company.

The Filipino mine, guarded by high fences and bitterly contested by the indigenous Bugkalot people who fear pollution, spills and ill-health, is just one of scores of major new gold and copper mines opened in the last few years to meet soaring world demand for minerals used in electronic devices such as smartphones and laptops.

While the spot price of gold and other minerals has recently seen its greatest annual decline in more than 30 years, the legacy of the global mineral boom is social conflict, human rights violations and environmental devastation across Asia, Latin America and Africa, says a global investigation into hundreds of the world’s mineral mines.

As angry communities in Colorado last week counted the cost of a toxic spill from an old gold mine, a new atlas of 600 international mining and oil companies has identified more than 1,500 ongoing conflicts raging over water, land, spills, pollution, ill-health, relocations, waste, land grabs, floods and falling water levels.

The EU-funded report by academics at 23 universities and environmental justice groups in Africa, India and Latin America has identified 142 disputes involving gold mines, 130 at coal mines, 96 at copper mines and 73 at silver mines, with India, Colombia, Nigeria, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and the Philippines having the most. They ranged from longstanding legal disputes to armed conflicts.

The companies whose mines have attracted the most accusations of human rights abuses and environmental conflict are some of the largest in the world, mostly listed on the London stock exchange. They include AngloGold Ashanti, Rio Tinto, Barrick Gold, BHP Billiton, Glencore Xstrata and Newmont Mining. Between them they are involved in 75 conflicts in countries ranging from Colombia, Burma and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the US, Zambia and the Philippines, says the database.

“Across Latin America, Asia and Africa, more and more community lands, rivers and ecosystems are being despoiled and devoured by mining activities,” says Philippe Sibaud, author of two reports on the extractive industries for the Gaia Foundation. “The rights of farming and indigenous communities are increasingly ignored in the race to grab land and water. The hunger for these materials is a growing threat to the necessities for life.”

In many cases, governments have had to call on the army to defend the mining companies against aggrieved local communities who have taken up arms.

“Much of the Philippines has now been militarised to defend the companies,”, says Benedictine nun Sister Stella Matutina, a community worker in Mindanao province who has been targeted by the government for opposing mining companies. In the last year she has been charged with kidnapping, human trafficking and illegal detention for opposing Canadian, Australian and British mining companies and for looking after tribal people displaced by mining.

Mining in the Philippines has exploded from only 17 operations in 1997 to nearly 50 mega-mines today. “We have found that mining divides our people, it kills them, it does not help us. It destroys our values. Mining and militarisation are twins. Where there is big mining there is always militarisation, because the government has to ensure that foreigners can invest in our country. People are resisting, are taking up arms against the entry of these mining companies. We are killing each other over mining,” she said.

Following his outspoken encyclical on climate change and human ecology in June, Pope Francis has also stepped into the mining debate, calling for radical change by the industry.

In a message sent last month to leaders of communities affected by mining in Latin America, India, Africa and Asia, he spoke of “the cry for justice … for their lost lands, the violence, threats, corruption, the trampled human rights, the dire working conditions, and sometimes the slavery and human trafficking as well as the pollution of water, air and soil”.

The groups, meeting at the Vatican, said that mining companies “regularly invaded and denuded the traditional lands of indigenous peoples and poor farmers, expropriate water used for irrigation and drinking and leave polluted land and water behind.

“There have been grave human rights violations experienced: environmental destruction and contamination, health impacts, community divisions, uprooting from territories, sicknesses, loss of culture, prostitution, alcoholism and drug addiction, loss of their own economy, and the ties to organised crime that are generated by the mining industry.”

In his encyclical, the pontiff said: “It is morally unacceptable, politically dangerous, environmentally unsustainable and economically unjustifiable for developing countries to continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future.”

Conflicts have flared in Latin America, where many countries have opened up new regions to mining. Guatemala has awarded more than 350 new licences since 2007, mostly to Canadian companies. A further 600 are under consideration by the ministry of energy and mines.

New mines in Honduras, Peru and Chile have all provoked opposition. Thousands of troops had to be deployed and anti-mining activists were shot as anger flared around the Canadian-owned Escobal silver mine in Guatemala last year.

Canadian mining companies have some of the worst records for human rights violations, according to a report submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2013. It found Canadian companies were involved in more than 100 human rights and environmental disputes in Latin America.

Pierre Gratton, director of the Mining Association of Canada, said: “We don’t deny that there is conflict everywhere but feel we are leaders in setting standards and are doing a better job than anyone else. There’s a much higher level of awareness and sensitivity now, and an ability to raise issues which in the past might have been overlooked. The industry is more active [than it used to be] in Asia, Africa and the Americas and is working in countries with weak governance. These [mines] are multibillion-dollar investments. The money flows to the capitals, and [impacted] communities say ‘what about us?’”

In the Colombian Amazon, the floodgates have opened for mining concessions, with licences being given on around 20 million hectares of land, much of it pristine rainforest , says former Colombian environment minister Martin von Hildebrand, who has been working with groups living along the lower Apaporis river.

“Yaigojé Apaporis became Colombia’s 55th, and third largest, national protected area in October 2009. And yet, just two days after the official announcement, a company was granted a mining title and began attempting to revoke the ‘protected area’ status. The same mining company is believed to be linked to a further 20 applications for mining exploration around Yaigojé Apaporis,” said Hildebrand.

The high price of gold in recent years has also attracted thousands of small-scale miners into fragile ecosystems. Yanomami Indians in northern Brazil and Venezuela whose populations were devastated in the 1980s by illegal goldmining face new invasions of gold miners, says tribal leader Davi Yanomami. “History is repeating itself,” he said on a visit to London last year. “Twenty years ago many thousands of gold miners flooded into Yanomami land and one in five of us died from the diseases and violence they brought. We were in danger of being exterminated then, but people in Europe persuaded the Brazilian government to act and they were removed.

“But now 3,000 more miners and ranchers have come back. More are coming. They are bringing in guns, rafts, machines, and destroying and polluting rivers. People are being killed. They are opening up and expanding old airstrips. They are flooding into Yanomami land.” More than 100,000 small-scale gold miners using rudimentary methods to extract gold from hillsides and rivers are thought to be active in Peru. In many cases they are competing with mega-mines which employ far fewer people.

According to PwC, one of the world’s top four industry auditors, government intervention and conflicts have mushroomed as commodity prices slump. “The gloves are off for the industry with widespread government intervention, internal industry conflicts and rising shareholder activism,” it said in its annual report.

Earlier this month anti-mining activists from 28 countries announced they would work together to seek a binding UN treaty and international tribunal to address the destructive impact of international mining. “It will give rights to people to sue mining corporations and hold them accountable for violations and crimes,” said Clemente Bautista of the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment.

“With an international mechanism we can join forces and file cases in an international tribunal,” said Selcuk Kozagacli, chairman of the Progressive Lawyers Association in Turkey. “Now more than ever do we need a united struggle worldwide to defend people.

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