MAC: Mines and Communities

Take Your Partners - But Where Are We Going?

Published by MAC on 2006-03-10
Source: Society of St Columban ()

Take Your Partners - But Where Are We Going?

by Roger Moody

Roger Moody is the Director of Nostromo Research and Managing Editor of Mines and Communities.

Over the past decade ‘partnerships’ between companies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs ) have enjoyed increasing currency. They are supposed both to mitigate the impacts of potentially damaging projects, and stimulate ‘sustainable development’. Last month the UK-based Ethical Corporation calculated that nearly half (45 per cent) of more than 500 big firms now embrace a form of partnership. Indeed, wherever we look - from the Prince of Wales Business Forum to the WorldWide Fund for Nature (WWF); and whether your concerns be saving rare birds or millions of starving people - the development initiative is steadily being wrested away from governments towards business and civil society. Three years ago, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) embedded this alliance in so-called ‘Type Two Partnerships’. Whenever you hear reference to the Millennium Development Goals, this concept is trailing not far behind.

Flying shoulder-to-shoulder with Tony Blair, Clare Short, and UK officials, to the WSSD in summer 2002 were Mark Moody-Stuart and Lord Holme of Business Partners for Development. The first had just been appointed chairman of the Anglo American Corporation and the second had recently retired as a director of Rio Tinto (RTZ) - respectively the world’s second and third biggest mining companies. What is still not generally recognised is the extent to which ‘extractive industries’ - mining, oil and gas - have determined the nature of this newfound collaboration between industry and environmental or development organisations. It is a coalition that has been forged at the highest diplomatic levels as well as literally on the ground, among villagers and rural workers.

Indeed, the first WSSD, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, was masterminded by well-known Canadian oil tycoon, Maurice Strong. His right-hand man was Stephan Schmidheiny, a Swiss citizen whose family derives its fortunes from ownership of the world’s third biggest cement producer, Holcim.

Since then, Rio Tinto, Shell and BP have been instrumental in launching the United Nation’s Global Compact (supposedly to promote good behaviour among multinational corporations); supporting Tony’s Blair’s Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and a host of smaller purportedly beneficial schemes. Visit London’s Natural History museum and you’ll find its main exhibit was sponsored by Rio Tinto, which was also a key funder of what is now the UK’s largest tourist attraction, the Eden project in Cornwall.

Whether they be called ‘corporate social responsibility’, ‘good neighbour agreements’, or simply ‘partnerships’, these bipartisan ventures are meant to persuade us that extractive firms, though collectively representing one of the dirtiest and most dangerous of all industrial sectors, are now reformed creatures. First - that they enlist their key critics in deciding corporate modus operandi (‘stakeholder engagement’). Second - that they’ll share their profits with local communities (thus promoting ‘sustainable livelihoods’). Third, that they’re ready to open their internal books, so we can see what they’re really up to (‘transparency’).

It would be the height of naïvety to assume that this agenda is inspired by genuine contrition on the part of mining’s leadership, or willingness to radically change. When these initiatives were first set out in the mid-nineties, mining companies were in grave crisis. The galloping exploitation of finite resources was widely erceived as the very antithesis of ‘sustainability’. Almost every new foray into virgin territory triggered massive community opposition, in particular from indigenous and tribal peoples. By the dawn of the 21stcentury, the majority of untapped gold, copper, iron, bauxite (aluminium), nickel and diamonds, was to be found on their lands. Worse - from the industry’s point of view - the price of many key metals had also been dramatically falling, while costs of extraction were rising.

What happened, then, to turn the industry around? First, there was the emergence of China into a market economy, and a new minerals boom. But, a close second, came the largely self-serving decision by the world’s three biggest mining corporations (Rio Tinto, BHPBilliton and Anglo American) - all with headquarters in London - to enlist their critics as pretended co-operators in ‘development’, and re-present themselves as defenders of human rights. In the process, the companies would cut their expenses - particularly by reducing enormous delays in getting their mines and plants approved.

Between 1998 and the present, major NGOs such as WWF, CARE, Conservation International, Birdlife International, Amnesty International, along with Kofi Annan and various governments (notably in the UK and US), have signed up to this strategy. That the ploy has mostly worked from the industry’s point of view cannot be denied. CARE, for example, sponsored a resettlement programme for villagers in Sierra Leone, designed to clear them from the path of a huge mineral sands mine - even though the families were dumped on inferior land On payment of a £3.5 million donation to WWF, the world’s best known environmental organisation joined hands with the global leader in cement manufacturer, Lafarge-Blue Circle, to certify its reductions of global greenhouse gas emissions, and carry out environmental audits. That sounds fine - until we realise that WWF says almost nothing about Lafarge’s mining methods on people in countries like India and the Philippines. It kept largely silent about the company’s proposal for a super quarry on the Scottish isle of Harris in 2003, despite an outcry from other environmental groups.

Overall, this proliferation of partnerships has done little or nothing to change corporate policies or mining practice. On the contrary, over the last decade, mining companies have introduced more dangerous and potentially damaging technologies. Larger open-pits are spewing out greater quantities of wastes. The world’s biggest single mine, operated by US-based Freeport and Rio Tinto in West Papua has, since 1995, doubled its output of contaminated tailings into a vital regional river system, to around 230,000 tonnes - and that’s each day!. Roughly the same amount of wastes is also being dumped daily onto the seabed from mines in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. It is a practice never employed in the Asia-Pacific before the early nineties, and one effectively banned in countries where these companies are registered - the US, Canada, and the UK.

But, surely, some communities are benefiting now, whereas they didn’t before? Yes - but it’s only a meagre number, and only in those states where communities have been legally empowered to reject, or participate in, mining projects on their own terms, principally Canada, Australia, the US and to a lesser extent, Papua New Guinea. Even in these few cases, the rewards have been scant and recipients have often become quickly disillusioned. Take Rio Tinto’s Lihir gold mine in Papua New Guinea. Initially welcomed by most local people, who secured a substantial ownership in its revenues and employment in several small enterprises financed by the company, the mining is now rejected by many villagers for causing depletion of their resources, cultural upheavals and ‘Submarine Tailings Disposal’, that is the dumping of mine wastes on the ocean bed.


Perhaps the biggest lie is that mining companies act as agents for the better observance of human rights. In fact, the insatiable quest for new prospects has taken companies into ‘frontier areas’ suffering under some of the world’s worst regimes: Burma and Uzbekistan, to name just two. Of equal concern must be the industry’s insidious erosion of rights to land and resources in many other countries - such as India, Peru, Philippines, Indonesia, Ghana, Russia, Tibet, northern Canada andthe mid-west US. Add to this, a concerted attempt (especially by Rio Tinto) to destroy the hard won gains of organised trade unions in Australia, Canada and the US, by shifting mineworkers onto individual contracts.

Just over the past month, two major UK reports have derailed the notion that extractive industry has changed its raison d’etre in any way (*).

It seems abundantly obvious that ‘partnerships’ between ‘foxes’ and the “chickens” will only serve the interests of the more powerful, against those of the relatively powerless.

* See ‘Flagship or Failure: the UK implementation of OECD guidelines’, published by Christian Aid, Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth, January 2006; also, ‘Joint NGO Report on Human Rights and the Extractive Industry’, published by the International Organisation for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR), January 2006.From: www.foe.co.uk/resource/reports/flagship_or_failure.pdf ; www.minesandcommunities.org/Action/press856.htm

* See also: www.columbans.co.uk

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