MAC: Mines and Communities

London Calling! September 27 2002

Published by MAC on 2002-09-27

London Calling! September 27 2002

London Calling! lifts a few lids on corporate partnerships

Joining the Kew

By the end of this year, UNESCO will consider which government-nominated sites to add to the prestigious World Heritage List. The British government has nominated Kew Gardens - that curious, if not bizarre, remnant (and in some respects, replica) of the British empire which cultivates some rare and exotic plants, on which it undertakes some benign research.

All to the good, you’d think. We can’t preserve too much of world heritage and this is one example where local inhabitants won’t kick up a stink at not being able to hunt or gather, once the warning signs go up. But Kew Gardens doesn’t stop at Britain’s M-1 motorway. For some years the institution has been part of a major programme to map the flora of West Papua , sponsored by the Freeport and Rio Tinto mining companies. One of Kew’s key study areas is the Lorentz national park that has already been encroached upon by the two companies.

What’s more, earlier this month Indonesian legislators recommended a breach of prohibitions on mining in protected forests. One of the projects now given their go-ahead (Citra Palu in Sulawesi) is in the hands of Rio Tinto.

Well, it is - and it isn’t. If you believe the evidence of local people and the Indonesian NGO, JATAM, then a company employed by Rio Tinto has certainly been in the area within the past three years. If you believe Rio Tinto chair, Sir Robert Wilson, it hasn’t. In any case, Wilson recently stated “There’s not going to be a Rio Tinto gold mine [in Palu]”. That’s alright then.- except that Indonesian legislators now want Citra Palu to proceed. And Rio Tinto hasn’t repudiated the project, nor sold it off..

Having one’s cake and not eating it seems par for Wilson’s course. The quote above is taken from a recent debate between him and BBC-World TV programme “HARDtalk”, shot at the Johannesburg summit.. Interviewer Tim Sebastien launched off with Rio’s highly controversial Jabiluka uranium prospect in Australia..
SEBASTIEN::…[Y]ou appear deaf when it comes to the clear opposition of the Mirrar Aboriginal community against the plans to [mine] Jabiluka in… Kakadu National Park….Why would they accuse you of not listening to the community?

WILSON: …Within months of acquiring Jabiluka I announced publicly that there would be no development of that without the consent of the traditional owners, the Mirrar People.

SEBASTIEN: But you haven’t said you won’t develop in the future

WILSON: …No development without their consent. And that’s what I’ve said repeatedly for two years.

Indeed he has!! Although the Mirrar have been clamouring for a return of ther ancestral domain since before Rio Tinto took over North Ltd (the Jabiluka site “owner”) in 2000, Rio Tinto hasn’t heeded their voice. “Make me chaste lord, but not yet!” pleaded St Augustine, as he contemplated the daunting prospect of a sexless future. “Of course we’re responsive to your wishes” Sir Robert tells the Mirrar. But we won’t do a thing until the time is ripe for us.

The subtext is surely transparent. Only when Rio Tinto has sorted a profitable buy-out of Jabiluka, limited its liabilities for desecration of the site and sussed the long-term market for uranium, will it hand the territory back if then. In the meantime, to quote a Subanen opponent to the company’s recent forays in the Philippines, “They are dialoguing us to death!”

So, here we have it. As Rio Tinto finances Kew Gardens to save forest species, the company continues trespassing on forest habitats elsewhere. It alsot refuses to clear out of a proposed World Heritage site in Australia, where it has allegedly damaged its ecology. British powers-that-be nominate venerable Kew itself for World Heritage status. And the good folks at the Gardens withhold their protest. It’s not too late for them to bite back at the hand that feeds them. But don’t let’s hold our breath.

Biting the apple

No doubt Her Majesty’s government is also pondering what site to nominate next for World Heritage status. Given this September’s arranged marriage between the IUCN (whose responsibility includes classifying such sites) and the ICMM (whose leading light is Robert Wilson), perhaps it’ll be the Eden Project in Cornwall. This is Britain’s biggest single new tourist attraction and, like Kew Gardens, it sets out to recreate tropical conditions so that those who never get beyond Lands End can glimpse life as experienced (say) in the highlands of West Papua or the forests of Sulawesi.

Rio Tinto has bought its way into Eden too, with a partnership deal that’s a fitting addition to the foundation funding it provided several years ago for the “Earth Galleries” at London’s Natural History Museum.

Perhaps not so fitting, however - when we consider that Cornwall is not only Britain’s most mining-devastated county but also one of its most economically depressed - and for which Rio Tinto must bear some of the blame. Depression first set in during the nineteenth century as cheaper sources of copper and tin displaced the home-grown varieties. Cornwall’s expert underground miners were forced in large numbers to projects overseas (some later managed by Rio Tinto) . Even though many workers sent earnings back home, this was truly a “diaspora”, long before the term was coined..

A little recent history…

Rio Tinto was attracted back to Cornwall in 1979, when the tin price showed signs of improvement and the company’s huge smelter at Capper Pass, on Humberside, greedily demanded new feed. Within a short period Rio was producing 80% of the country’s supplies of the metal. Alas, six years later, the International Tin Council and the market price for tin dramatically collapsed. The Thatcher government offered generous multi-million loans to Rio Tinto to hang on down West. To give the company its due, for nearly three years and without drawing on this hefty sweetener, it did indeed remain. But, meanwhile, cheaper output was coming on-stream from its Canadian mine in Nova Scotia. Rio extricated itself from Cornwall by suddenly sacking the workforce of the Wheal Concord mine and cutting back on its wages bill elsewhere in the county.

For four years Rio kept crucial pumps running at the flooded Wheal Jane mine, until it and the government withdrew their funding and the pumps were switched off by the independent management, one January night in 1992. The consequence was the biggest toxic tailings disaster in British post-war history. Twelve million gallons, laced with arsenic, zinc, cadmium and mercury,, surged up the shafts, burst over the dam, plunged into a nearby creek and smothered the Fal river and its estuary.

Cement in partnerships

A term used with mind-numbing regularity these days is “green washing”. It conjures up an image of companies dishing out money for worthy projects in order to mask their misdeeds and re-invent their reputations. In fact, the process is a lot more subtle and arguably insidious.

First (as a corporate) you broker one or more local arrangements with an NGO, aimed at reducing the likelihood that it won’t probe too closely your other operations .

When this works, you offer it a “Type Two” partnership, not just in a local projects, but in your broader operations. This is designed to prevent your NGO ally from questioning your politics too closely - even while allowing some debate on your practices. Preserve frogs and build health centres, by all means! But, at all costs dissuade the NGO from disputing your “right” to be operating in the first place.

Finally, when tucked up in bed with your sleepy partner, you may even hand them the comfort blanket, inviting some form of “certification” of the socio-environmental worthiness of your company itself. The risks of failure are admittedly great. The rewards can be measurably greater.

The WOOF and the warp

Examine for a few moments the March 2000 arrangement between WWF, the world’s largest publicly-subscribed conservation organisation (affectionately known as “woof! woof!”) and LaFarge, the worlds biggest cement company. This is, claims the company, the first deal of its kind: “…a new, truly transparent way of working, in constant dialogue with the exterior (sic)”. Between them the parties have drawn up a list of environmental performance indicators, setting improvement targets against an agreed schedule. The indicators cover energy consumption, waste materials recycling, environmental audit s and above all, greenhouse gas emissions..

What’s wrong with this? First, WWF seems to be taking over the regulatory role which, many would argue, governments should perform. It’s not necessarily a cover-up but it does at least confuse. Especially when WWF ostensibly supports those NGOs which, in Johannesburg, declared that voluntary compliance is no longer a creditable game..

Second, the agreement doesn’t cover major social and health impacts of cement production, as experienced and attested to, by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide (The cement industry’s Batelle Sustainable Development Initiative has at least made a modest commitment in this direction).

Third, even where the squeeze is applied by WWF, the pressure can be maladroit and even irrelevant. The NGO first became involved with LaFarge when it sought to advise on quarry rehabilitation. And the parties are still at daggers drawn over LaFarge’s intention to mine the Scottish Isle of Harris. But WWF’s main target is the reduction of carbon dioxide pollution, to which the cement industry is a world-class contributor.. Unfortunately, Lafarge itself is far from sanguine that any major carbon cuts can be made. Indeed, as cement demand increases globally, so overall emissions are likely to rise “Cement is cheaper than bottled water” recently commented Christopher Boyd, Lafarge’s senior vice-president (Doubtless an inadvertent comparison, given France’s corporate determination to put a market price on water all around the globe).. In other words, so long as cement is cheaper than alternative construction materials, Lafarge will continue to deliver it regardless..

Expanding the waste line

Cement producers are now boasting their ability to chuck just about everything no-one else can profit from, into their their kilns, adding animal feed, to the dioxins-delivering chemical wastes, rubber tyres and other junk they’ve long been employed. This is likely to save them money and carries the additional “green” bonus of being passed off as recycling., dubbed “co-incineration” But what will be the long term impacts of using kilns as blazing municipal and industrial dustbins?

This week a coalition of opponents to incineration lobbied the World Bank against promoting the technology, claiming that its output of dioxins, PCBs and heavy metals, “…pollute and endanger nearby communities with a host of health impacts including cancer. These chemicals can also be transmitted long distances and already threaten public health globally”

The coalition isn’t primarily a middle-class urban phenomenon. (Although , citing the New York Times, it says that World Bank President James Wolfensohn in 1999 donated US$50,000 to a campaign against basing a mixed hazardous waste incinerator near his holiday home in Wyoming. This - even as his institution was dishing out millions of dollars to promote the practice elsewhere around the world).

On the contrary, the movement includes organisations from many “lesser developed” states, such as Kenya, India, Mozambique, Uganda, Nigeria and the Philippines. Does WWF oppose increased incineration of which cement manufacture is the biggest single industrial utiliser? Is the issue even on their agenda? No doubt many communities would like to know.

Lafarge’s Mr Boyd, in an August 2002 interview with the Financial Times, seemed quite happy about the WWF partnership, despite their tiff over the Isle of Harris mine. “. Paradoxically” says the FT’s Vanessa Houlder “this disagreement may have strengthened the relationship.” Christopher Boyd thinks it demonstrates to LaFarge managers that “the company was not caving in to every demand from environmentalists” LaFarge and WWF “…share a common interest in improving Lafarge’s environmental performance” . “We want to be a leading performer for business reasons”, says Mr Boyd.” They want us to be a leading performer so we can help the environment.”

Burning a cocktail of wastes and dishing out dioxins… Expanding output and failing to rein in CO2 emissions… Requisitioning ever more land on which Indigenous peoples depend, to increase construction of motorways, viaducts, power plants big dams, from which they may never benefit… All this “development” weighted with potentially heavy socio-ecological costs. This, then is “performance helping the environment?”

Apart from the one million-odd Euros which WWF got from LaFarge for its “Forests Reborn” project on degraded land (robbing Peter to pay Paul?), the conservation organisation may come to regret its corporate deal.

And find it’s dropped a great concrete block on its own foot..

[Sources: Transcript BBC World HARDtalk with Tim Sebastien, Interview with Sir Robert Wilson 27/8/02; Roger Moody “Into the Unknown Regions: The hazards of STD”, SSC and International Books, London and Utrecht, 2002; Philip Payton “The Cornish Overseas”, Alexander Associates, Fowey, and Marina del Rey, 1999; “Plunder”, Partizans and Cafca, London and Christchurch, 1991; “Sustainable Cement” website of the WBCSD Cement Sustainability Initiative (; Jatam study on Citra Palu minerals (; Financial Times, London, 23/8/02; “Stop Bankrolling Polluting Technology”, Essential Org. statement, Washington DC, 24/9/02]

Home | About Us | Companies | Countries | Minerals | Contact Us
© Mines and Communities 2013. Web site by Zippy Info