MAC: Mines and Communities

Author's foreword

Published by MAC on 2001-05-01

Author's foreword

As I write, the press is announcing that a waste dam at a gold mine in eastern Europe has overflowed, sending thousands of gallons of cyanide contaminated slurry cascading into Romanian waterways. The somewhat naive shock which has greeted this announcement is a sobering reminder that the majority of people - even those deeply concerned about other industrial hazards - know little about the world's fifth most important industrial sector. What safety measures were in place at this facility? Who was responsible for management? What are likely to be the long-term impacts on workers and communities? How will those affected be compensated for any resulting damage? These questions may take months, even years, to be satisfactorily answered. Or may never be. When Guyana's biggest gold mine suffered a similar disaster in 1995, this too seized headlines across the world. A national commission of enquiry was set up but, even before its report could be properly debated, the government allowed the mine to re-open. None of those responsible for its design or management has yet been brought to court, and thousands of potential claims for damage have yet to be properly investigated.

Romania and Guyana are democracies; access to the countries is reasonably open, if not unrestricted. Moreover, the companies operating these two mines were ostensibly respectable outfits, hailing from countries boasting high standards of monitoring and control (Australia in the case of Romania, and Canada in the case of Guyana). How much more dangerous such projects are likely to be, if located in states where the people cannot bring their grievances to any responsive authority; where independent investigations are nigh impossible; and where mines are run by local enterprises and foreign companies which do not answer publicly to shareholders, or follow any internationally accepted standards?

In 1998, I was asked to do a report on these issues, by a consortium of Burma pro-democracy groups, based in north America, Thailand and Europe. In the course of my research, several salient facts emerged. First, the number of mining projects established under the military regime (the SLORC) with cooperation from overseas companies, is greater than we previously suspected: in chapter three, more than 60 of these are listed. Second, despite a high-profile and persistent international campaign to bar all foreign investment in Burma, some major corporations, not just "juniors", have invested in mineral exploration and exploitation. Third, the most important single operator in the country is a multi-millionaire, backed by several of the world's biggest corporations, who owns critical stakes in other mines - not only in the Asia-Pacific but also Africa. Fourth, despite the extreme difficulty (and dangers to "whistle blowers") of gaining direct evidence on conditions at Burma's mines, disturbing accounts of pollution, the use of forced labour, and violations of human rights, have emerged. Lastly, the laws under which miners operate under the regime are scandalously lax or ambiguous, and provide virtually no protection to the communities most affected.

In the course of my research, I was sometimes asked the highly pertinent question: to what extent does mining provide a cover for drug profiteering in (or indeed outside) Burma? It is relevant that, four years ago, Colombia's minister of mines ordered an investigation into all emerald export contracts, following revelations that at least one mine had registered grossly inflated sales in the US, in order to justify sending millions of dollars from cocaine trafficking back into the country [FT 1/9/95]}. Unfortunately this is one Burmese issue about which rumour is rife, but hard evidence seems almost totally lacking. What has been recently documented is an alleged shocking epidemic of HIV/AIDS among jade miners in Hpakan, in Kachin state, northwest of the township of Myitkyina; mostly young male drug addicts, who inject heroin while working at the minesite and then transfer it back to wives and partners when they return home. [New York Times 4/5/98; see also Far East Economic Review 21/7/94]

The report is divided into three chapters and an appendix. The first deals with the history, and current (post-1994) state, of mining and mineral-related legislation in Burma. The second examines in some detail the operations of specific companies, including the large number of exploration projects which may, or may not, eventually become working mines. Chapter three is an expose of the "Friedland empire" - that brace of enterprises set up by the world's most notorious mining promoter, whose Monywa copper mine is not only the biggest of its kind in Burma, but also Friedland's most important single investment. This is followed by an appendix that briefly summarises the destructive impacts of copper mining and, in particular, the processing method used at Monywa.

I have set out here only a few of my own thoughts on the nature and timing of a mining campaign on Burma. My prime aim has been to ensure that the campaign is well-informed, broad-based, and relevant to pro-Burma activists who otherwise may not regard mining as a priority issue . They will find evidence to confront specific corporate bodies with complicity in unacceptable practices; and on to indict even further a justifiably vilified, terroristic, military elite Hopefully the report will also be of use to democratic and "ethnic" organisations in Burma, as they look forward to the time (not a day too soon) when they have purged their territory of the influences of the SLORC. A major challenge will be for them to determine the degree and the manner in which Burma should exploit its minerals; as well as the rights of its citizens to

do (or not to do) so, without jeopardising community values, other natural resources, and the biosphere.

Roger Moody, Nostromo Research, London February 14 2000

[NB The author welcomes comment on, and additions to this report. Thank you]

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