MAC: Mines and Communities

The Decade of Destruction

Published by MAC on 2001-05-01
Source: Nostromo Research

The decade of destruction

How the mining companies betrayed their promised greening


"The 20th century has been characterised by three developments of great political significance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of [corporate power] protecting itself against democracy (Alan Carey; quoted in Rowell 1999: see footnote 25 below).

Criticisms of the social and environmental impacts of mining have a long history - in the Western hemisphere, one of more than four hundred years, dating back to Agricola's De Re Metallica, published in 1556. (1) But it was only in 1989 that any leading mining company openly acknowledged the industry to be inherently dangerous, destructive and pollutive. That year, Roy Aitken, an executive vice-president of Inco, the world's biggest nickel producer, promised the Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy that "The 1990's is going to be the decade of the the year 2000, all of us will be committed environmentalists" (2)

We can speculate at length on the reasons for this apparent industry "conversion." The rapid growth of environmental political activism during the 1970's is undoubtedly a major factor; to a lesser extent, so is the "knock-on" effect that this activity has had on the lending policies of international financial institutions. But too often disregarded are the militant roles played by Indigenous communities worldwide, who have long identified mineral extraction and processing as a major threat to their survival; and of mineworkers, both unionised and "informal". Without the analysis and activism of these two constituencies, both the nature and the scale of today's struggle to limit the depredations of the mining industry, would be much reduced.

What are these depredations? They can be summarised as: the deprivation of land; the degradation of biosphere resources; and the denial of community self-determination. It is essential that the threat posed by these "three D's" should be confronted as a whole.

Unfortunately neither the industry's leading pundits, nor many international agencies, both multilateral and private, are concerned to do so. On the contrary, the past eight years - since UNCED's global environmental conference in 1992 - have seen an alarming tendency to gloss over the appalling legacy of the recent past. We are now invited to answer to a new agenda, characterised by catch-phrases such as "stewardship" and "stakeholder participation", aimed at practising something called "sustainable mining". Although the latter is clearly an an oxymoron, the concept is - alarmingly - one with which many former critics of mining are now prepared to go along.

What I believe is happening is that two critical concepts, around which many of us could - and did - mobilise in the eighties and early nineties, are being calculatedly forced into the background, or subtly re-defined. These are: the necessity to use "best possible technology" and the requirement that all exploration, mining and downstream processing are conditional on mine-affected communities giving their "fully informed prior consent". It is not that these preconditions are either watertight or particularly radical: they hinge, sometimes precariously, on agreement to what is "best" in all circumstances, and the exact meaning of "consent". Indeed, I suggest it is precisely because of these definitional problems, that - instead of being willing to return to first principles - the industry has begun substituting the diluted concepts of "good environmental technology" (3); and "participation", "consultation", "engagement" or "dialogue", as if these were paradigms for the coming millennium.

My comments are not intended as gratuitous "industry bashing", nor to deny the validity of some specific advances in processing technology, which may save on primary energy use (such as the solvent exchange-electro winning of copper) reduce carbon emissions (like the direct reduction of iron ore), or recover metals from abandoned waste dumps (as with the "treatment" of gold tailings in central Asia, or that planned for the Kolwezi mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo). The requirement that companies prepare full environmental impact assessments is now widely accepted, while the integration of social reporting into this process is gaining support, along with the need to audit and monitor ongoing operations: these are now a requirement of all World Bank-funded projects. But the reality is that, in six major respects, much recent community experience of mining has been not better but worse than in the "bad old days".

First, with the exception of mercury, asbestos and lead – specifically targetted for their environmental toxicity - the output of major metals has been increasing in line with population expansion, and in some cases (such as gold extraction) in an exponential fashion which has virtually nothing to do with satisfying basic human needs (4).

Second, the generally diminishing grade of most well-worked ore deposits has brought about a greater squandering of potentially productive land than ever before; along with a sometimes drastic cutting of traditional work-forces. Both are results of various forms of "bulk" (as opposed to underground) mining, which delivers a higher proportion of overburden and waste to mineral product. It is true that a few much-vaunted base, and precious, metal lodes continue to be located, sometimes remarkably close to the surface (5). But it seems the industry will inevitably come to depend more than ever on the exploitation of sulphide deposits, rather than potentially less hazardous, usually shallower, oxide deposits, which are either exhausted or fast being worked out.

Third, these trends are compounded by the refusal or reluctance of many companies to take responsibility for the massive legacy of toxic or acid-forming mine wastes already blighting our planet, even as they spew out additional ones (6). In this respect, operations of the so-called Superfund in the USA (officially known as the Compensation Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 or CERCLA) make for sobering and instructive reflection. There are well over half a million (more than 557,000) abandoned hardrock mines in the US, of which sixty-six are on the National Priorities List and earmarked for "emergency intervention and priority cleanup" Yet, as of 1997, only three had been cleaned-up - hence de-listed - while other sites were being continually added.(7). One of the biggest problems in executing this gigantic remediation is to identify the culprits - many of whom have dissolved, filed for bankruptcy or been bought up by other companies which then deny legal responsibility. In these events, it is the US taxpayer who usually has to bear the financial burden (8).

Fourth, the majority of current big mines, and those planned for the next fifteen years, are located on Indigenous territory - where the human and environmental consequences of mining are usually much more serious than in established extractive zones (9). . .

Fifth, the rate of both epidemic and endemic mine failures appears to be substantially on the increase, as evidenced by several recent spectacular collapses of tailings dams: including those at Omai in Guyana (1995), Marinduque in the Philippines (1996) Los Frailes in Spain (1998) and Atlas, also in the Philippines, which occurred in early 1999.

Lastly, the political and economic restructuring (or partial destruction) of the industry has posed major threats to both organised workforces (10) and artisanal miners worldwide. In several countries, the latter sometimes face a double pincer movement: being sacked from mining companies taken over by foreign companies - then forcibly expelled from their own diggings, in the interests of the same… When communities or miners challenge mining companies and their associates, in response to such threats, they are occasionally met with appalling violence - such as at Kahama, Tanzania, in 1997, when an estimated fifty miners were buried alive by bulldozers, operated by Sutton Resources of Canada (now owned by Barrick Gold) and the state mining company, backed by paramilitary forces (11): More often they are greeted with corporate evasiveness or downight lies (12).

Community responses to corporate violence or intransigence have varied - from the insurrection on Bougainville Island in 1988, which resulted in at least 10,000 killings or premature deaths, to blockades - predominantly conducted by women - at sites as diverse as the Philippine Cordillera, the Ecuadorian rainforest, the Papua New Guinea highlands; and a rash of court cases lodged over the past ten years As a result, in some instances mine plans have been cancelled, forestalled or significantly changed. But most communities are still being forced to accept a fait accompli well beyond the point at which they can have any meaningful, or democratic involvement - let alone themselves conduct the decision-making process. The principle that all civil groups dependent on, living around, or with claims on, a planned mine site, are entitled to give prior informed consent, is fundamental. But "consent" amounts to nothing if it does not embrace the power to say "no". And how can one give "informed" permission for processes or methodologies, whose operations or consequences not even the practitioners can predict or guarantee?

In the past ten years, there has been a significant escalation of personal injury and class action cases, seeking compensation against mining companies after things have gone badly - sometimes unpredictably - wrong. Not only do these cases usually come long after the event, but (as the Ok Tedi example from Papua New Guinea now demonstrates) residents and landholders may have become so dependent on mining, that the rational choice of closure seems no longer feasible, even when local people are belatedly offered the option to agree to it (13). These legal suits may well deter insurance companies and Northern based institutional investors from backing further schemes in "sensitive" zones. They may also compel earlier involvement in mine planning by state administrations - more rarely, local governments, and hardly ever the communities. On the face of it, this would mark significant advances on present practice.

Set against this largely Northern trend, however, is the fact that, throughout the South, there has been either a de facto or de jure surrendering (or calculated erosion) of government responsibility to protect the People's interests: starting with World Bank/IMF structural readjustment in the 1970's, and continuing today with those key components of globalisation - the commoditisation of labour, the privatisation of state mine assets, and the corporatising of entire mineral-based economies. Arguably some of the most malign impacts of this process are now being curbed, partly because of shifts in World Bank policy (14); partly because we may be reaching the limits of mining privatisation What we should really be worried about are the negative effects of a more recent global restructuring of capital, labour and access to resources, dictated by the 1994 Uruguay Round of GATT, the midwife to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). As state tariff and taxation boundaries erode, and national interests become subservient to those of multi-nationals, so mining companies (along with oil, chemical and banking corporations) are both permitted and encouraged to amalgamate (hegemonise) into ever bigger (consequently fewer) units. This cuts operating costs, improves access to exploration sites, consolidates control over resource production and markets (15) and allows the corporations to project themselves, not merely as economic, but also political, players in the struggle for resources.

It is too soon - and simplistic - to characterise this struggle as primarily between local peoples and companies, rather than between states and other states (or states and their own Peoples). Nonetheless, it is quite clear that, having successfully by-passed or appropriated the post-independence regulatory mechanisms of many Southern governments (16), multinational extractive corporations now have their sights set on different, if not bigger, targets. These are the multilateral agencies and large international NGO's, perceived as main allies in subverting the resistance of mining-affected communities.

This agenda was first set at the time of UNCED in 1992, with the calculated destruction of the UN Council on Transnational Corporations (UNCTC) and the counter-establishment of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). In October 1999, the WBCSD in partnership with the world's biggest mining company, Rio Tinto, and a leading British environmental NGO, the Institute for Environment and Development, (IIED) announced a nearly-three million dollar (US$ 2,850,000) "scooping study" in order to "...set out the global challenge of sustainable development facing the mining industry" and "...propose the scope of a two-year process of participatory analysis to explore the role of mining in the transition to sustainable development" (17). The study is being promoted by several major mining corporations, and its putative partners include the World Bank, UN agencies and many Northern-based Big NGO's. However, no Peoples' or community-based organisation was invited to the London launch. While their future involvement is not ruled out, it is difficult to see that they will be regarded as serious - let alone prime - participants, in light of insertion by multinationals into similar forums: notably the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) (18) and the Business Humanitarian Forum (BHF) (19); and the recently-announced collaboration between five major mining companies and the World Health Organisation (WHO) (20).

It is clear that the most powerful global mining companies - Rio Tinto, Anglo American, BHP, Freeport, Inco, Alcoa, Phelps Dodge, Placer Dome - are now ahead of at least some of the field. With precious little opposition, they claim to be remodelling themselves not just as model corporate citizens, but also a new breed of arbiter of human (including land and workers') rights (21). And they promise to operate at the leading edge of environmentally responsible practice. Yet they are among the most criticised and confronted of global companies operating anywhere on the earth. They are undoubtedly complicit in human rights violations, continue their subversion of Indigenous self-determination and are redefining development and environmental criteria, primarily to their own ends.

As the new (Christian) century opens, the "trust" which the mining industry promised to engender with communities a decade ago, is as lacking now as it was when its pretended "greening" began. One recent example of this is the Foundation sponsored by US gold miner, Newmont, which has just opened one of Asia's biggest new-generation copper-gold mines, at Batu Hijau on Sumbawa Island in Indonesia. Protests against the project started nearly five years ago; inevitably Newmont cast around for ways to contain the nascent opposition. This became even more urgent in 1998, when the tailings outfall pipe at their other big Indonesian project - Minahassa in northern Sulawesi - burst just offshore, spewing cyanide wastes into the sea. Newmont's head of community development, Stephen Feher, is quite open about the way the Foundation operates. Newmont sets the rules, which include unanimous decision-making by the board. But the company keeps one representative on that board, thus maintaining an effective veto. Villagers in theory can allocate around US$500,000 each year for "development" - but the company has discretionary power over half this amount. "We try to avoid the problem of having to rush their community needs into our timetable" says Mr. Feher. "My foundation does the things that serve the needs of both Newmont and the community" (22)

But it is obvious, if we look around us, that in many regions these two agendas are locked in heavy, if not mortal combat. Hence "dialogue" has emerged as the key corporate cipher in the "engagement" process that leading mining companies now extol. Precisely because it allows the more powerful party to subdue and - in many cases - divide the opposition. It is a process which at least one community organisation has called "dialoguing to death", as it saw a gigantic foreign mining company bribe some of its leaders, fund lavish weekend "briefings" for journalists, organise public meetings, even where these had been widely ejected by local communities, and hold up a manifestly forged letter as evidence of support for the company (23).

A decade ago, a WHO official warned that accommodation between industry and "the market" and those pursuing "social equity" could help spell the end of democratic decision-making. "The tension which is unavoidable because of the contradictory objectives of the [two] actors involved will hopefully continue in the years to come because, if it stops, it means that the interests of the most powerful have won" (24). Control Risks Group (CRG) of London - probably the leading political corporate risk consultancy in the world - has spelt out clearly for the industry, the consequences of failing to engineer "dialogue" with the opposition. Last year it advised oil companies that "Many local groups are linked to international groups in the USA and Europe. Companies must try to undermine those links by increasing dialogue with stakeholders. The bottom line is that, if you dialogue with the people, then you win. If you meet a group that will not compromise, then you have a problem."(25).

Long may the "problems" continue!


1) It is appropriate to recall some of Agricola's negative observations on mining: "The strongest argument of the detractors are that the fields are devastated by mining operations...the woods and graves are cut down...then are exterminated the beasts and birds...when the ores are washed the waters which have been used poison the brooks and streams...Thus, it is said, there is greater detriment from mining than the value of the metals which the mining produces" [Georgius Agricola, De Re Metallica, published in Europe 1556]

2) Quoted in Financial Times, London 2nd October 1989

3) See for example, Mining Magazine, London September 1999

4) See Panos Institute Report on Gold, London April 1996 and papers delivered at the 1999 Gold Summit, held in California (available from Project Underground, San Francisco)

5) Examples are the Century lead-zinc zone initially explored by Rio Tinto Ltd in the late eighties, now "owned" by Pasminco, and the huge nickel-cobalt-copper deposit at Voisey's Bay, Labrador.

6) An estimated 25,000 million tonnes a year of raw metal-bearing materials are extracted globally each year, delivering around 15,000 million tonnes of tailings, each tonne of which poses a potential or actual problem of safe disposal.

7) Gary Gallon," Mine tailings: a widespread problem: emerging solutions", Gallon Newsletter, Canada, June 1999

8) CERCLA , or the Superfund, has had numerous critics on all sides of the debate over who takes moral and financial responsibility for the huge amount of damaging and dangerous wastes bequeathed by the mining industry. Some in the industry claim that the Superfund is inefficient, wasteful of resources and largely rewards fat-cat lawyers. Leading this view is Kennecott (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto) which in 1994 refused to have its vast Bingham Canyon copper-gold mine in Utah listed as a priority site, despite the mine regularly featuring as one of the 500 most toxic sites in the whole country. Rio Tinto acknowledged serious dust, particulate and underground water quality problems, but claimed that the USEPA - the federal government agency responsible for implementing CERCLA - would do a worse remediation job than the company. The USEPA caved in to corporate lobbying and Rio Tinto/Kennecott proceeded with its own clean-up programme, as well as installing new state-of-the art smelters. However, the water quality problems remain, while the company's cavalier attitude to the nation's leading regulatory body seems of a piece with its stated corporate policy that, since "the community" at large "benefitted" from the results of mining in the past, it should be prepared to pay for mopping-up the mess.

9) See Roger Moody Extractive Empires, World Council of Churches Mining and Indigenous Peoples Consultation document, Geneva, 1997

10) The International Federation of Chemical; Energy, Mine and General Workers Union (ICEM) - representing 20 million workers worldwide - in 1997 launched an international campaign to defend mineworkers’ jobs, threatened by Rio Tinto (see Rio Tinto: Tainted Titan, ICEM Brussels; 1998). At its international meeting in 1999, ICEM also decided to target Placer Dome of Canada (largely responsible for the Marinduque tailings dam disaster, already noted) and Inco on similar grounds. ICEM is not to be confused with ICME - the International Council on Metals and the Environment. This is a Canadian-based industry-sponsored organisation - ironically, a founding member of which was Placer Dome.

11) This appalling event was recorded by Amnesty International in its 1997 Annual Report, and is dealt with in some detail in Tunde Antiphas Lissu In Gold we trust: Tanzania's Mining Act, 1998 and its implications for land tenure rights and the environment, Paper delivered to the Third World Network (Africa) Conference on Mining, Development and Social Conflicts in Africa, November 15-18 1999, Accra, Ghana

12) Here is just one recent example: a member of Dames & Moore, one of the world's biggest private social/environmental consultancies, sought to assure villagers at the PT Meares gold minesite in Indonesian North Sulawesi, that her clients would not use mercury in its operations, "like Newmont does at Minahassa". This was clearly designed to allay the fears of the local people, who were aware of cyanide pollution problems and a major break in the tailings submarine disposal pipe during 1998. The statement was mendacious, since Aurora of Australia plans to use both cyanide and submarine tailings dumping, if the project overcomes mounting local and national opposition.

13) In 1996 BHP of Australia, operator of the Ok Tedi copper-gold mine in Papua New Guinea, settled an out-of-court suit for damages brought by representatives of landowners, who were primarily affected by downriver sedimentation and siltation, causing dieback of the huge expanses of vegetation, because tailings are dumped directly into the Ok Tedi/Fly river system. One of the stipulations to the settlement was that the company would scientifically assess alternative methods of, and sites for, waste disposal. As a result of these studies, in summer 1999 BHP concluded that the mine should never have been opened, while one of the viable options was now to close it as soon as possible. By then, however, jobs, other benefits and community financial security for many thousands of local people were intrinsically bound up with the continued operation of the mine. No proper study has yet been carried out, to establish the bases for alternative employment and livelihoods which will, of course, be required at some stage, even if the mine remains open for another ten or twenty years.

14) See World Bank Annual Report 1998; Environment Matters, Annual Review, 1999, among other World Bank publications, Washington DC. It should be noted that Bank practice in many crucial instances falls short of its rhetoric - especially when it comes to lack of equal participation by NGO's in its assessment processes, and the considerable disparity between standards and capacities of the private sector agencies, IFC and MIGA, and those of the IDA - themselves not among the world's strongest.

15) The collapse of state capitalism ("communism") in the USSR, together with the undermining of state control of mineral resources, and the opportunities for exploitation provided by the rules of post-Uruguay GATT, have also spawned a relatively new monstrous hybrid - the giant metals marketing companies, notably Glencore of Switzerland and TransWorld. Between them these secretive, privately-owned, democratically unaccountable corporations (TransWorld was recently cited as being implicated in the Russian "mafia") already lay claim to a large part of the world's alumininum capacity, while Glencore owns major coal interests in Colombia (where it is partnered with Anglo-American and Rio TInto), and Australia.

16) Around 70 state mining codes have been "revised" in the past fifteen years, predominantly in Africa, in order to open the door to increased foreign investment/ exploitation. While the codes differ in detail, they almost all incorporate improved access to land, bigger tax breaks, penalty-free repatriation of profits, and the opportunity to acquire 50% or more of the equity in nationally-based mining companies. See also Bonnie Campbell The role of multilateral and bilateral actors in shaping mining activities in Africa, paper presented to the Conference on Mining, Development and Social Conflicts in Africa, Accra November 1999, op cit

17) IIED, Final Report: Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development, Results of a Scoping Project for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, London, October 21 1999

18) See Corporate Observer, Geneva, volume 5 October 1999

19) Both Rio Tinto and Unocal - the US oil company condemned widely for its continued propping-up of the Burmese terrorist regime - are members of this initiative. They sit on the BHF alongside Nestle - the notorious "baby murderer", the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the executive director of UNICEF (see Farhan Haq "Development NGO's attack UN Participation", Interpress Service, San Francisco, September 27 1999

20) This was announced by both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and in the mining press, early in 1999. It is still not clear exactly what joint arrangement is being proposed, except for direct funding by the mining industry of parts of the UN agency's programmes.

21) Several major mining companies have now published "rules of conduct". An example is Rio Tinto's "The Way We Work" statement of "business principles". It promises that, where state administrations have failed to secure certain (largely unspecified) rights for local communities, the company will act as if they were in place. However, this - and a longer preamble published later - does not commit the company to actual observance of any UN protocols (only the UN Charter for Human Rights) - a move which Rio Tinto's chairman, Robert Wilson, at its 1999 Annual General Meeting, told shareholders was not necessary. The company has specifically refused to endorse the draft charter of the United Nations Working Group for Indigenous Peoples and even the weaker International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 on Indigenous Peoples.

22) Quoted in Business in the Community, no 1, Financial Times, London, 1999,

23) Once again the company is Rio Tinto. The communities referred to are those of the Subanen People in Mindanao, southern Philippines. The allegations are well documented by Minewatch Asia-Pacific (Philippines and Britain) and Philippine Indigenous Peoples Links. In October 1999, after numerous protests to the company (including a petition from the Catholic Bishops Conference in the Philippines) Rio Tinto finally announced that it was withdrawing from its FTAAs (Foreign Technical Assistance Agreements) in Mindanao, although the company did not promise to withdraw other applications.

24) P Brudon-Jacobovicz Ten years of essential drugs: presentation to the Panel on Pharmaceutical Policies of the NCIH, Washington November 1989, quoted from "Engineering of Consent: Uncovering Corporate PR" Cornerhouse, Devon, March 1998

25) Quoted from DELTA number 4, Leicester, August 1999 (e-mail version).


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