MAC: Mines and Communities

London Calling - December 17 2003

Published by MAC on 2003-12-17

London Calling! December 17 2003

A tale of two citizens

Alan Dalton

In the past fortnight, attention has turned to two of London’s “grand environmentalists”. But while they share a similar genesis - both were campaigning in the early 1970s; both took on Rio Tinto at the time its power seemed supreme; both set up international forums - in recent years their paths couldn’t have taken a more contrasting turn.

Alan Dalton is tragically no longer with us. He died on December 11th from cancer. Typically he’d been working on the second issue of the broadsheet "DIRT" only three weeks before his death. The first issue came out in early 2003, published by the Centre for Environmental Protection which Alan helped set up and inspire. It contained some hard-hitting articles on cement kiln toxicity. At around the same time Alan also fired a fusillade against the British Environment Agency for endorsing the use of toxic chemical and industrial wastes in both cement and lime kilns.

Rio Tinto

In 1979 Alan published one of the most effective books, ever to damn an entire industrial sector. “Asbestos, killer dust” got to the truth, but far too close for many peoples’ comfort. Dr Robert Murray, an industry defender whose claims he’d rubbished, sued him. Five years later, though the plaintiff got only £500 in damages, Alan, and the Hazards Bulletin he’d helped pilot, was bankrupted by £30,000 in costs. In 1984 Murray was employed by Rio Tinto to do an audit of the company’s (illegally operated) Rossing uranium mine in Namibia.

Murray declared Rossing an “oasis of safety”, ignoring evidence of dust, radiation or noise. He provided no comparative date and mainly contented himself with a description of Rio Tinto’s medical facilities. Alan Dalton was incensed and, not long afterwards, joined Partizans (People against Rio Tino Zinc and subsidiaries) as a highly-active member. (Britain’s biggest mining company also managed two of Canada’s major asbestos mines during the 1980s - another fact which didn’t endear the company to Alan). Over the next fifteen years he was one of the most stalwart and vocal critics of the company, inside and outside its annual general meetings. Without his knowledge and application, research into the true damage caused by Rio Tinto's Avonmouth lead-zinc smelter, its Anglesey aluminium smelter and the horrendous Capper Pass tin smelter, would not have been half so well informed.

In the 1980s Alan worked with the London-based Labour Research Department (always keen to point out it had no relationship to the eponymous political party), and then as health, safety and environment coordinator to the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), Britain's biggest. While with the TGWU Alan joined in the historic 1997 meeting between Partizans, the ICEM (Brussels-based mineworkers union) and the Australian CFMEU, which inaugurated the first trade union/human rights/environmental alliance in mining history.

But he soon tired of union bureaucracy and, in 2000, published a tract against what we’re now duped into calling “stakeholder democracy”. The book “Consensus Kills” claimed that worker-corporate partnerships risked betraying basic rights, not least to worker safety.

A class working hero

There aren't many heroes around any more. Not the kind who selflessly devote themselves to saying what they believe, without fear, favour, an ounce of fanaticism or hope of any reward; those who tirelessely work with all and anyone who might advance - even by just one jot - the quest for a non-toxic, humane and egalitarian society. Alan was just such a rare bird; and he almost always got his facts straight.

Richard Sandbrook

Which is more than can be said of another seasoned environmentalist. Like Alan Dalton, Richard Sandbrook also has an impressive history but, in recent years, his mind has drastically turned.

As one of the founders of Friends of the Earth, Sandbrook took on Rio Tinto when it planned to mine gold in the North Wales Mawddach estuary and trespass on the Coed-y-Brenin forest in the world-famous Snowdonia National Park (Little corporate change of gear since, one might feel). Later, Sandbrook joined the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) which also gave informal help to Partizans in the early eighties, even though the Institute was funded by US oil-mining company, Arco-Anaconda.

IIED was not much concerned about mining issues until the late 1990s when Sandbrook lent its auspices to the Global Mining Initiative’s MMSD project. This was “killing consensus” with a vengeance - and a budget of several million pounds to back it. However most communities directly affected by mining refused to join the exercise because they’d never been granted the opportunity of a “level playing field”.

That’s not to say that some conclusions in the MMSD report, published last year, don’t have merit. Ironically they would have carried far more weight had the project been truly and transparently independent. But it wasn’t - being financed by the mining industry led by Rio Tinto. From the outset, Rio Tinto had built obsolescence into MMSD, seeing it as a stepping-stone to the industry’s own propaganda powerhouse, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM).

Economic with the truth

Most of us will now have forgotten the MMSD, let alone the key points it tried to make. But the industry hasn’t forgotten Mr Sandbrook. He was the sole “civil society” speaker at the Mines and Money extravaganza, hosted by the Mining Journal in London earlier this month. His subject: “the role of pressure groups”.

Now, inviting Mr Sandbrook to address this theme is rather like asking prime minister Blair to deliver the authoritative statement of Labour values. Indeed, Sandbrook himself couldn’t resist accusing NGOS of a “hidden agenda” in promoting “socialism versus capitalism”. It was wilful distortion: for example the alliance between Partizans and trade unions (which Alan Dalton helped broker) was openly intended as a rejection of multinationals economic power.

When he warmed to his theme, Sandbrook was even more “economic with the truth”. He accused mining’s numerous and various critics of being prepared to “stretch the law, as they used the “ends to justify the means”. This would be laughable, were it not ludicrous, and the boots not so firmly on the other feet. Mr Sandbrook - and anyone else with an hour to spare - can find compelling evidence of recent corporate lack of transparency (Freeport-Rio Tinto), political manipulation (the assault on Indonesia’s 1999 Foresty Act) and flouting of international law (the recent UN team reports on miners in the Congo).

Trade offs

At the core of Sandbrook’s presentation was the well-worn, but chimerical, proposition that big corporations raise global standards, so pressure groups shouldn’t level their most damaging accusations against the multinationals. But Sandbrook then got hoisted by his own petard when he counselled the industry’s critics to accept “trade offs” (a favoured term in the MMSD lexicon). Asserted Sandbrook: “[It's] not currently practicable to apply standards in the developed world to countries that are still developing”.

Some conference delegates may well have squirmed on hearing this. For haven’t they been arguing (or at least presenting for public consumption) the view that universal best standards must, and can, apply across the board - albeit voluntarily?

Perhaps, by serendipity, Alan Dalton is now pondering Sandbrook’s words. In which case he too will bridle at this betrayal of a principle he held dear.

Today, in Britain, the term “environmentalist” seems to have finally yielded up its true meaning.

[Sources: Life and death of Alan Dalton: Guardian, London 16/12/2003; Rory O’Neill posting on the IBAN (International Ban Asbestos Network) website, 15/12/2003; AJP Dalton “Comments on Review of Agency’s Position and Policies on the use of substitute fuels in cement and Lime kilns” see; Dr Murray and Rio Tinto, “Plunder” Partizans and Cafca, 1991; Richard Sandbrook’s presentation to the Mines and Money World Congress; quoted in Mining Journal, London, 12/12/2003]

[“London Calling” is published by Nostromo Research, London. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of any other individual, organisation or editors of the MAC web site. Reproduction is encouraged with full acknowledgment]

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