MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Mncs Poor Environmental Track Record

Published by MAC on 2004-12-08

Newmont has been blasted by journalists in its home city of Denver, Colorado, with a litany of its recent failures and bad practice (http://www.denverpost.com/Stories/0,1413,36~34165~2592207,00.html and ttp://www.denverpost.com/Stories/0,1413,36~33~2594109,00.html. At the same time, a leading environmental campaigner in Indonesia links the company's sorry record to the issue of basic human rights .

MNCs poor environmental track record

14th December

Nur Hidayati, Jakarta

Many people do not believe that a multinational corporation with a global reputation would victimize an already marginalized community and damage the environment for profit.

In reality, however, that often happens. But actually, many of these big companies, spread all over the globe, have a notoriously poor track record. But with their super capital power and huge political backing, they can cover things up, hide behind politically well-connected figures and academic institutions (scientific and social), as well as promote themselves through massive advertising campaigns.

In the case of Buyat Bay in Sulawesi, Newmont gold mining firm -- with its home office in Denver, Colorado -- also hides behind controversy with an assist from government officials, although a lot of evidence shows that its operation polluted the environment and ecosystem in and around Buyat Bay.

There is also a tendency to simplify environmental problems by calling them non-political problems. Environmental affairs resides in the public affairs sphere since it directly relates to the air people breathe, the water people drink and the places people live. It relates to sources of livelihood and quality of life for individuals and communities. Public affairs are always political affairs, hence environmental affairs are political affairs.

Apart from the legal process by the police against Newmont's executives for corporate crimes, one basic question remains: Is pollution in Buyat only an example of environmental mismanagement or is it a violation of basic rights of individuals and communities?

The Indonesian Constitution's Second Amendment, chapter XA on Human Rights, article 28H, explicitly states that "Everybody has the right to live a prosperous life physically and spiritually, to have a proper place to live, and to have a good, healthy environment and health services."

When pollution affects the people in Buyat Pante, most of whom are small scale fisherfolk, they have lost their right to live a prosperous life physically and spiritually and lost the right to live in a healthy environment. Furthermore, they have lost their source of livelihood that is essential to living in dignity.

Unfortunately, most of the time, the government also has not been able to fulfill its constitutional obligations, for a number of reasons; particularly, political pressure from multinational corporations' home governments. The "awkwardness" felt by the Indonesian government and the House of Representatives when encountering such a problem, generally leads the state to make a decision in favor of the multinational corporations.

The rampant practices of corruption, collusion and nepotism (KKN) are another major obstacle for the government in carrying out its obligations to protect the rights of the citizens.

The business sector has also contributed to sustaining corruption. Instead of admitting that this massive graft at all levels of society has caused a high-cost economy -- hence costing them profits -- the business sector points their finger at stringent environmental regulations, the labor movements and local peoples' demands for sound business practices as the reasons for the declining investment in the country.

In the concept of sustainable development -- which is defined by the United Nations as development that meets the need of current generation without compromising the future generation to meet their need -- the environment is no longer seen as a contradiction to economics (not merely economic growth). Taking the debate into that arena is a thing of the past. Over a decade ago, the world finally became aware, on a large-scale, when this concept was loudly promoted by the world's leaders in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. It is quite unfortunate that this government is just now beginning to show some political will when it comes to considering environmental aspects as crucial -- 12 years after the Rio Declaration.

The Buyat case is a test case of how the new government will handle environmental cases, especially the ones involving the operation of multinational corporations. Furthermore, the action taken by the new government in the Buyat case will become the cornerstone of the law enforcement and legal certainty in Indonesia in the future. The case will also be the benchmark and signal of the new "rules of engagement" for doing business in Indonesia.

If the new government is really serious and has genuine political will to make changes, it will not maintain the practice of business as usual as practiced in the past. If the new government is really serious about eliminating corruption, now is the time to prove it. The business sector must be given a sign that now they must deal with a very different kind of government. The business sector must be given a sign that the old rules no longer apply in Indonesia.

By default, the business sector will have to adjust to these new rules as it has always adjusted with previous governments (for example, when corruption was the order of the day it also adjusted to the corruption "culture"). We hope that the new government will prove to the people that it is different from the previous ones.

The writer is a Campaign Coordinator for WALHI (The Indonesian Forum for the Environment).

 

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