MAC/20: Mines and Communities

London Calling! May 27 2005

Published by MAC on 2005-05-27


London Calling! May 27 2005

London Calling reaches those parts that other mining sites can't reach

Poor little rich boy

One has to weep for BHPBilliton. According to an Indian news source the comp;any's bought a pup. But, if the story is true, London Calling won't be shedding tears. Late last year we accused Chip Goodyear, the company CEO, of telling porkies about the deal to shareholders at the London AGM. Should we now care if a pig's ear has been made out of a silver purse?

The pup is a bauxite lease in Orissa called Karlapat, supposedly controlled by the Indian outfit, Sulakshini Mines, headed by Subash Panda who, though allegedly having no experience in mining was backed by a group of politicians.

BHPBilliton is said to have handed over Rs 400 million (that's about ten million US dollars) for the lease, only to find last month that Panda had absconded without trace - presumably with the dosh.

A high level state government team, headed by the mines minister, then sped to Australia to assure BHPBilliton that, whatever happens, the company will get its bauxite and its refinery.

Readers of this web site may already be familiar with attempts by the notorious British-Indian company, Vedanta, to secure the Nyamigiri hills - a bauxite deposit which effectively is an extension of Karlapat. Indeed, we more than hinted last year that the Big Aussie and the Shabby Brit might have agreed share the spoils, depending on which company got clearance first.

At the moment it looks like neither company is getting very far. The Indian Supreme Court has sent a clear message to Vedanta that deliberations by its Central Empowered Committee (CEC) into the legality of its Orissa operations will not be sidetracked. What's less well known is that the Karlapat prospect, from which BHPBilliton has apparently now been jilted, has also been named by the CEC as a protected site which it would be illegal to mine.

This may not bother the lackies of Navin Patnaik's, Orissa's chief minister. But if BHPBilliton cares for a shred of corporate social responsiblity, it should worry the hell out of Goodyear.

Not seeing the trees for the Wood

A chip off the old BHP block is its chief community trouble-shooter, the mild-mannered Ian Wood, who's rapidly gaining a reputation for opening his mouth before his brain is fully in gear.

Not only did he reveal a startling ignorance of land ownership in West Papua's Gag Island in 2003, when the company's nickel project threatened both forestry law and Indigenous rights (it looks like the scheme is now on hold). Recently Wood repeated the canard that the company was accused at last year's AGM in London of complicity in the massacre of Wayuu protestors in northern Colombia (see Colombian makes BHP plea for justice).

In fact the shareholder who raised this issue expressly didn't indict BHPBilliton, although he pointed out (quite reasonably) that it continues to have highly questionable relationships with the Colombian military.

A former consultant to BHPBilliton also tells us that, when director of environment and public relations at the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea in 1992, Wood claimed to have no knowledge of the major deforestation caused by the mine:

"So we loaded him onto a helicopter and made him walk through the ghost forests".

The company we keep on criticising

Over the past decade, Rio Tinto's attempts to forestall its critics have certainly borne some fruit. "We can and will do better" was the mantra offered at this May's London AGM in contrast to so many feckless - and sometimes outrageous - excuses made for its breach of operating standards through the seventies, eighties and nineties.

For example, there was the late Alistair Frame, who once declared that radiation from uranium miming was "no worse than background radiation from a Scottish city". On a later occasion, trying to jusify Rio Tinto's flagrant violation of the 1974 UN Decree on Namibia's Natural Resources, Sir Anthony Tuke burbled that "one might think" (as he clearly did) "a gunboat is worth any number of UN resolutions".

These days just about every environmental and social precept endorsed by so-called "civil society" gets an airing in the company's annual reports. So have the tables (and the worms) finally been turned?

Since 1995 Rio Tinto has spent millions of dollars in PR, and sponsorship of more social responsibility forums and "dialogues" than the World Bank could pack into a lifetime. Naturally this has taken its toll on the world's longest-surviving shareholders' campaign. Twenty years ago Partizans could call on eighty "dissidents" to pack a Rio Tinto AGM and fire off dozens of telling questions to a fumbling board. Over the past few years the group has failed to muster more than a dozen such hardy souls.

But this shouldn't give excess comfort to Britain's oldest mining company. Increasingly the real battles are being fought on other ground than the playing fields of Eton.

Indeed, this was the case with the most embarrassing issue raised at this year's AGM: the abject failure of the company to prevent, then acknowledge and deal with, serious damage done to its workers at the ERA uranium mine in Australia. Even the Australian courts and authorities couldn't sidestep this one.

Recently, activists in at least three other countries have put Rio Tinto on notice that they won't stand idly by while it threatens their territory.

First there's resistance in Sarawak to the company's revived intention to profit from the Bakun dam, one of the world's potentially most damaging hydro projects (see article below). Then, there's considerable concern in India that Rio Tinto will move back into protected forests in Orissa and resuscitate an iron ore venture apparently abandoned three years ago.

Third comes the announcement by leading politicians on Bougainville that they will be far from happy should the company attempt to re-open the Panguna mine (as hinted a fortnight ago), whose appalling depredations were at the heart of the 1988 rebellion.

It's the height of naivity to expect a leopard to change its spots. But, if you can't take the jungle out of the beast, you can still do your damndest to remove the beast from the jungle. (For an account of this year's Rio Tinto London AGM, see Appendix below).

Finally, it's out of the can

Talking of jungles, forget Cannes and its inevitable hype. The authentic movie story this month arrived with the tenth Royal Television Society (RTS) Student Awards, generally considered the most prestigious event of its kind. The winner in the postgraduate factual category was "The Company We Keep", directed by former Partizans activist Simon Chambers. It's an engrossing, witty (some might say quirky) account of one person's quest to expose the legacy of Rio Tinto's deadly Capper Pass tin smelter which was based in Hull, northeast England.

Although the film was finished more than a year ago, and swiftly snapped up by Channel Four TV, we've been unable to inform you of screening times because it's had no public showing (except one at a London art cinema and another at Cannes last year).

That's because Rio Tinto threatened legal action against the National Film and TV School who financed the project, just as soon as they got wind of it.

It took several months before the School mustered courage enough not to be browbeaten by the British Bully.

Renowned film producer Paul Watson, in his presentation of the RTS award on May 5, called Simon "a personable young man [who] takes on an (allegedly) unpleasant corporation and convinces me using unconventional methods that he's right to worry about trading their shares. If I didn't want television to lose an innovative talent I would advise him to get rich quick and sell insurance. Brilliant!"

Just as the RTS was deliberating on its awards, Sir Richard Doll published a report on the incidence of lung cancer among 380 men who had died after working at Capper's between 1967 and 2001.

"We found that the overall mortality and the mortality for all cancers were not significantly different from what would be expected" concludes the study. "However the mortality from lung cancer was significantly higher than expected while morality from heart diseases was lower than expected ... [We] conclude the risk of lung cancer has been enhanced as a consequence of employment at Capper Pass"

Rio Tinto issued a press statement "welcoming" Doll's report (it could hardly do otherwise since it had commissioned it as part of the ongoing Claims Review scheme). "We are pleased that there are now conclusive answers to questions which many people who have worked at the plant have" said Lisa Cullimore for the company, without a hint of irony.

In fact the only conclusion that can be safely reached so far is that around 70 workers contracted lung cancer, thanks to Rio Tinto's operations. Shortly after the Doll report was released, Professor Sorahan from the University of Birmingham's Institute of Occupational Health said it "does not completely close the door on other [non lung cancer] claimants", since it did not "look in detail at what happened to the people exposed to substances like arsenic and lead." Nor, one might add, who were exposed to hundreds of toxic and hazardous substances which went into or out of the plant.

Rilba Jones, the intrepid Hull campaigner, maintains that the study "certainly hasn't examined the possible links between childhood leukemias [and Capper Pass operations], particularly in the West Hull villages". It was this link which Ms. Jones revealed back in the early eighties, thus triggering one of the longest-ever health and safety investigations in UK history.

Tom the piper's son?

Coincidentally, while Simon Chambers was relishing his gong, the reluctant anti-hero of his film also came before the TV cameras. Tom Burke, long-standing"advisor" on environmental issues for Rio Tinto, went on BBC's Newsnight programme to vigorously oppose nuclear power and vaunt the value of "clean coal". Burke's advocacy of the black stuff comes as little surprise (Rio Tinto is, after all, one of the world's major coal mining multinationals and, in the late eighties, began pushing what it called "enviro coal" from its Kaltim Prima mine in Indonesia).

One wonders, though, how Burke's vehement opposition to nuclear power squares with his continuing to boost the fortunes of a company implacably in favour of uranium.

But then, as we know, Rio Tinto is a broad church which cherishes its dissidents.

Capitalising on nuclear

Of course it's not only big energy companies - or renegades like James "Gaia" Lovelock - which are now pushing nuclear power. Last week, as the German government presaged a reversal of its long standing opposition to nuclear power, the presidents of both Chile and Venezuela announced they too were seriously regarding it as an option.

No surprise about Chile. However, left-wingers who've uncritically backed Venezuela's Hugo Chavez as socialism's answer to US hegemony might now care to revise their opinion. In fact, since his announcement soon after inauguration that he welcomed increased foreign investment in the country's mining sector; his lavish praise for both the Iranian oligarchy and the despotic Putin, one wonders what solid credentials the Latin American folk hero has left to boast.

Peter Hudis of the Marxist-Humanist journal "News and Letters" recently summarised Chavez's (lack of) strategy in an appraisal of January's World Social Forum in Brazil where the Venezuelan president was an honoured speaker.

Pointing out that conflicts between state run companies and workers in Venezuela are far from unknown Hudis writes: "While the ultimate trajectory of Chavez's 'bolivarian revolution' is far from clear, the fact that many in the global movement against capital are jumping to embrace him is a disturbing sign. In the absence of a comprehensive concept of a new society .. many are reverting to the old notion that nationalisation of property represents the negation of capitalism - despite almost 100 years evidence to the contrary".

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