MAC: Mines and Communities

Jan Roberts: commemorating a true warrior

Published by MAC on 2016-03-02
Source: Mines and Communities


The tribute below comes from Roger Moody, currently Research Editor of the MAC website, and a close friend and colleague of Jan Roberts over many years.

"Our" Jan

There's one woman, among all those I've been privileged to know,  to whom I owe more than any one else what it means to counter the lies and myths perpetrated by the mining industry.

For more than forty years, she devoted herself fearlessly to exposing the covert practices of global miners - often putting herself in direct physical danger.

However,  Janine Roberts - known to many colleagues and friends as simply “Jan” or Jani” - is sadly no longer with us in mortal form.
She slipped away peacefully on 26 February 2016; six years to the very day when she had suffered a massive stroke, following several days locked-in by ice on a boat in Bristol's city basin, which served as both a home for her and her cherished canine, Storm, and the focus of some remarkably effective and diverse electronic campaigning.

Many strategies, now  familiar to organisations critical of the extractive industries, were ones she either initiated or materially assisted in bringing to birth. Perhaps the most noteworthy of these was the  launch of  PaRTiZanS (People against RTZ and its Subsidiaries) in 1980.

In a few  years, this global network became the vehicle for many so-called “victims” of the-then  world's largest corporate miner, to dramatically throw-off the dubious mantle of victim hood, by attending and speaking out as minority" shareholders at Rio Tinto's AGMs. In fact,  around one hundred Indigenous spokespeople and workers  have intervened as “dissident” shareholders at Rio Tinto AGMs over succeeding years, and one or more will surely be present again at this years event.

The CIMRA years

Having spent a formative period of her earlier life camping out in the bauxite-ravaged lands of Weipa, north Queensland, Jan arrived in Britain in the late 70's, pledged to stand four-square with the region's Aboriginal communities, as they battled to overturn the fraudulent colonial trope of their land as being  “terra nullius” - thus unoccupied and open to flagrant exploitation.

She swiftly set up a militant Aboriginal solidarity group in the UK – Colonialism and Indigenous Minorities Research and Action, or CIMRA

Her 1978 book, “From Massacres to Mining”, inscribed the first full account of the atrocities which accompanied that invasion to  the late 1970's; an Australian edition appeared in 1980, and a second was published ten years later (1).

In 1980, Jan organised the first visit to the UK capital by three mining-afflicted Queensland Aboriginal leaders - Joyce Hall, Mick Miller and Jacob Wolmby - who publicly indicted Rio Tinto (then RTZ-CRA) for “racism” in the columns of the Financial Times.

Although the trio didn't themselves get to attend that year's AGM, another Aboriginal Australian, Boolidt Boolitha from Victoria, flew in to confront the company in person at its 1981 Annual General Meeting.

Following this, and in quick succession, Jan poured out a tremendous corpus of work, including several books and numerous articles. She gave many radio and television interviews, and was indispensable to the production of several films, including one shown on Granada TV in the UK – and just once by ABC in Australia, before CRA stepped in to prevent its further dissemination down-under [ Australia: why we must still weep for Weipa .

A second mining giant, Anglo-De Beers, also wanted to stop her bringing to fruition perhaps her most treasured authorial project – an exposé of how the world's biggest diamond trader viciously exploited workers and communities across the globe.

Begun in 1987, and multinationally funded, this mission took her across five continents, and produced some very disturbing images (for example of  young children labouring in the company's diamond cutting shops.)

Only there for (or rather against) De Beers

In this case, Anglo American didn't need to resort to legal action to prevent the truth being told of what she'd uncovered about these “conflict diamonds” (which in a real sense they were, some years before Global Witness and Leonardo di Caprio made the term fashionable.) 

The company asked to meet the film's prime sponsor, the BBC, to discuss the series' content. Here's Jan's own account (in third person) of what happened after “Aunty” at Broadcasting House then decided to sack her:

“Researching why the BBC were so insistent on her removal and why it refused to give reasons, she learns that the Oppenheimer family attacked her in meetings with BBC, complaining that she was "obsessed" with investigating the diamond trade .(That is, she will not go away.) The film is completed by the BBC in her absence. It is then first shown in the US - and despite her having produced many of the scenes in the film, her credits have practically vanished. When she asks why, she is told the BBC gave instructions to remove her producer and journalist credits.

“At her request the General Secretary of the Broadcasting and Entertainment Industry Trade Union, the powerful BECTU, contacts high officers of the BBC asking that she be given the proper credit for her work. On the Friday before her film is shown, a senior officer of the BBC phones her to tell her that while the BBC did not deny that she produced part of the film, and was the senior journalist, it refuses to give her any credit for this work on the film... She is extremely perplexed by this..”

“[T]he BBC (who do not own the film - it is owned by the Australian government investors - the BBC only bought UK transmission rights) then make a deal with De Beers Tthat they will not sell her film to any other country...”

Despite this: "[S]he does all she can to get the film out to more viewers - and to complete her book on De Beers. When De Beers tries to ban the American version of her film from being shown in the diamond rush area of Arctic Canada, their heavy handed action leads to the Federation of Trade Unions, the local environmental organisation, Ecology North and the Dene Indians inviting her to speak to her film. She is flown to Yellowknife. Her film is put on in the largest hall in town and it is standing room only. Later she is the guest of Dene Indians, goes out with dog teams, falls in love with a beautiful frozen land and sky.

That's not all: “When she goes to South Africa and Namibia to research her diamond book, she shows her film on De Beers property to the mine workers. De Beers tries unsuccessfully to ban her from several mines. The Union says she is the first person banned by De Beers since the Emergence of 1988!” [See:].

I've quoted this extract from one of her many blogs at some length, because it strikes me as emblematic of the sheer courage and fortitude – we may also say “bloody mindedness” - Jan exhibited towards the highly powerful and insidious forces she chose to tackle head-on throughout her life.

Speaking truth to power

It was this resilience and passion for the “right way” of doing things which inspired every facet of her extraordinary life.

On her hospitalisation in early 2010, the consultant treating her doubted she would survive more than a few days. Jan not only proved him wrong; she went on to publish several further books, though not specifically on mining, from her bedside over the following six years.

Even though it's increasingly rare to meet – let alone work alongside – such a multi-faceted human being in today's mono-cultured and rapidly acculturating societies, Janine Roberts was truly a “Renaissance Woman” in many senses of the term.

I doubt we'll ever encounter her like again.

(1) My own recollection is that first English edition of “From Massacres to Mining” was co-published by War on Want and CIMRA in London in 1978. However, pressure on the British development agency and threats to suet for libel, caused War on Want to withdraw this version from distribution, although a second, re-edited, version was soon put back into circulation (RM).


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