MAC: Mines and Communities

MMSD views of the GMI and the WSSD

Published by MAC on 2002-04-17

MMSD views of the GMI and the WSSD

"The Toronto Conference [of GMI] could be a place for establishing priorities not just for industry or government, but for a wide range of actors…It could set some guidelines for processes directed at specific issues…It could define the next steps. Beyond Toronto the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) will be an important upcoming opportunity…[It] is unlikely to achieve any definitive resolution of issues but can be an important step in setting a framework for driving the debate forward faster and better". [Chapter 16, page 29]

Sustaining whom?

It's actually worse than that. For, if you can bear to read the entire report, it becomes clear that academic objectivity has itself been jettisoned. MMSD spokespeople may even acknowledge this profound weakness - while protesting it's due to the fact that many of mining's most experienced critics damned the MMSD from the outset. But this argument doesn't stand up. None of these critics, or community representatives, rejected the need in principle to critically examine mining's central tenets. What was deplored was the way the MMSD was pre-scripted by the industry itself. And it has indeed been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Widely-accepted definitions of sustainable development are grossly distorted to suit what mining companies can accept.

"Applying the concept of sustainable development to the minerals sector does not mean making one mine after another sustainable", claims the report - adding gratuitously "whatever that may mean" [Chapter 1, page 13]. Surely it really means that MMSD cannot demonstrate a single convincing example of a mine that has been unequivocally welcomed by the landholders, served their explicit needs, contributed to regional or national sustainable development goals - while at the same time averting the loss of socio-cultural, ecological, gender and age-based values that, by definition, are non-tradable?

The rot sets in when MMSD asserts that "the idea of 'capital' lies at the heart of sustainable development" [Chapter 1, page 7]. Although the report quickly explains that this concept "goes well beyond the common idea of financial capital" while there is "an emerging consensus that there are in fact some 'non-negotiable' or non-tradable types of capital" [Chapter 1, page 8], in practice MMSD places no absolute prohibition on the sequestration of any place for (or method of) mineral extraction.

One of its most disconcerting, if convoluted, arguments is that IUCN and World Heritage protected status for mineral-rich areas should now be "negotiable" with the mining industry, as well as with inhabitants and national governments. Should this surprise us? Not at all. For MMSD's own version of "Sustainable Development Principles" stresses, inter alia, the necessity to "maximize rents" through "efficient use of all resources natural and otherwise". Governments are enjoined to "encourage free enterprise" - albeit "within a system of clear and fair rules". And, instead of stringent application of the precautionary principle (to which it pays lip service elsewhere) MMSD would have mining companies merely "exercising prudence where impacts are unknown or uncertain" [Chapter 1, page 14].

At the heart of MMSD's final set of proposals is the "Community Sustainable Development Plan (CSDP) " [Chapter 9, pages 45-46]. At first sight this sounds progressive - if somewhat predictable and pedestrian. However, the design of such plans is principally assigned to companies. Even though they are supposed not to "lead" the process, in the event of "inadequate" government they are invited to adopt the main implementing role.

As for industry-wide "codes of conduct" (or principles) MMSD has given less thought to these than might have been predicted. Perhaps this is due to the bewildering proliferation of such blueprints over recent years; MMSD views all existing codes as incomplete or problematic. It doesn't prevent the project from citing (obviously with approval) individual corporate examples of codes, such as Freeport and Rio Tinto's on human rights observance in Papua [Chapter 8, page 28]. Nor has it stopped the group from proposing yet another - dubbed the Commitment to a Sustainable Development Code". And here there is no equivocation: the task of developing the code will be firmly in the hands of the ICMM [Chapter 16, page 8]. It will lead to an "expanded-Code system" (sic) by which companies should seek "certification or verification." [Chapter 16, page 9]

There was a fear that mine certification would be used by MMSD to bulwarking the power of the UNEP or World Bank to broker a definitive new set of rules. Existing World Bank standards - its operational guidelines and safeguard policies - are indeed approved as "the norm for the industry" [Chapter 16, page 18]. The Bank is also projected as a possible forum for drafting a broad set of operational guidelines. At another point, we're told that Best practice guidelines could "perhaps" be marshaled under UNEP [Chapter 10, page 28]. MMSD is clearly grasping for a figleaf to cover the huge gap it has discovered between a wagonload of good intentions and structural weaknesses or resistance to implement them.

The report does refer (uncritically) to the Forest Stewardship Council' s brand of certification, and there is passing reference to the World Commission of Dams. Neither of these is made much of in the report. At one early point it is stated that such a process would apply to specific projects rather than companies. But by the end we're left in little doubt that certification is intended as a "company wide" process. However, rather than incisively investigating all impacts of a company's activities, certifiers would primarily assess its commitment to the code. Nowhere does the MMSD dispute the bona fides of the consultants and auditors which vet company operations, although these have been called into question on many occasions (see for example "Into the Unknown Regions: the hazards of STD", SSC and International Books, London and Utrecht 2001)

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