MAC: Mines and Communities


Published by MAC on 2001-05-01


Rio Tinto have acquired notoriety through some previous operations (Panguna-Bougainville, Freeport-West Papua, Rossing-Namibia, Capper Pass, United Kingdom) however they claim that past bad practices have been banished and they are now guided by a document entitled "The Way We Work" which outlines the new company approach. They claim to be industry leaders in adopting a new community-friendly approach. However "The Way We Work" has itself been criticised for its lack of enforceable or even verifiable standards and its reliance on fine sounding but none binding aspirations. Certainly the Zamboanga experience reinforces concerns of a continuing gap between high principle in words and low practice in deeds. In this it is difficult for an outsider to determine how much of this represents unresolved internal conflicts of approach within the company and how much is just a new spin on an old outmoded approach. However based on the statements that have emerged it is fair to report that many in Zamboanga have even less confidence in the intentions of the company now than they did at the outset of this process.  If the approach of Rio Tinto in Zamboanga was to win public support or confidence then clearly they failed.

Subanen felt their clear expressions of view were not respected. Their efforts to represent these views were dismissed and downplayed and inclusive expressions of local opinion superseded by the need for expert inputs under company patronage. Dialogue and "hospitality", such as they were, were directed disproportionately at winning favour among those influential in government and media who might sway opinion or collaborate in its misrepresentation. In these endeavours sometimes lavish hospitality rather than the content of discussions seem to have been the core of the company approach. 

In fact, according to the company (November 1999) they have now withdrawn from Zamboanga and closed their Philippine office. This should be a cause for some rejoicing among local groups however given the past experiences of misleading statements from the company many Subanen remain sceptical and on guard. The areas identified by Rio Tinto are now being claimed by smaller local companies, which in many ways do not arouse the same level of international concern yet may still offer the opportunity of re-entry to Rio Tinto or others if mineable gold is found. One of the exploring companies is Lepanto Consolidated in which Rio Tinto has known previously to have invested.

It might be assumed that the company was finally forced to accede to the mounting opposition to their presence and to the 1995 Mining Code and its’ provisions as a whole. It is inconceivable to this writer that the sustained opposition did not or should not influence the decision. It is therefore regrettable that Rio Tinto has asserted strongly that the reasons for withdrawal were purely that better prospects existed elsewhere and that their decision was not to do with their social unacceptability. In truth the company might have gained some longer term credibility from withdrawing with more acknowledgement of local opposition but seems unprepared for a bold move that would set a precedent of conceding the right of an indigenous community to reject company overtures and assert ancestral land right by rejecting mining. 

With each new year mining companies make statements of revisions in policy and drop their allegiance to last year's failed agenda. Each year they are drawn into further recognition of local rights. The latest new broom is the Global Mining Initiative a $6 million project of research and "dialogue" financed by Rio Tinto and other major companies. Companies protest their openness to dialogue and change. Yet it seems that while articulate and critical international NGOs are being wooed for inclusion in dialogue and consideration of statements of principle the on the ground experience remains largely unchanged and the practice remains too often abusive, disrepectful, alien and disempowering to the affected communities. 

Geoff Nettleton. Philippine Indigenous Peoples Links, June 2000 

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