MAC: Mines and Communities

Submitted to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald: Re "Ethics test miner's mettle" [not publishe

Published by MAC on 2006-04-01

Submitted to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald: Re "Ethics test miner's mettle" [not published at time of writing]

Techa Beaumont, Executive Director, Mineral Policy Institute

I was quoted out of context in Saturday's edition of the Sydney Morning Herald "Ethics tests miners mettle" as pointing towards projects operated by Newmont and BHP Billiton as indicative of the importance these companies place on their sustainable development programs. In contrast, my experience with the sector makes me deeply skeptical of 'voluntary' progress made on social and environmental issues in the mining sector.

Ethics is best judged by consistency in action, yet it is the same companies who have improved practices at one mine who have the worst social and environmental practices in their mining projects in other countries where regulations are weaker or local people less organised.

Factors such as the legal recognition of rights of Indigenous Peoples and the existence of experienced representatives groups remain the clearest preconditions to the isolated instances of positive improvements in mining industry community relations (as can be found in instances of positive community programs on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory). While the industry PR would seek to convince us otherwise, community experience suggests that improvements in the practices of the mining industry have by and large been won by force; whether it be the force of laws aimed to protect the public interest, the force of community opposition to certain practices or in the saddest of cases the forces of community violence and unrest.

One only needs to look as far as Indonesia, to Newmont's Minahasa mine and Rio Tinto's Freeport involvement, (where toxic streams of mine waste are dumped directly into the country's oceans and rivers) to uncover the double standards and gap between rhetoric and reality. In another instance of ethical sleight of hand, BHP Billiton is seeking to sell out of the Tintaya project in Peru before realising the commitments in agreements made with local communities that promised to fairly resolve outstanding issues of land dispossession, environmental harm and social exclusion. Rather than a model of improved conduct, BHP Billitons Tintaya operations looks more like a sad repeat of the broken promises at the Ok Tedi mine. BHP offloaded its shares into an unaccountable trust company when the problems created by the project threatened to bite the bottom line. I watch closely for the moment when mining industry ethics can be said to consist of more than 'what we can get away with' in a silver lining of motherhood statements and empty promises.

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