MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Metals traders address mining's "moral conflicts"

Published by MAC on 2008-02-08


Metals traders address mining's "moral conflicts"

8th February 2008

Triggered by recent reports of attacks on Xstrata's copper mine in the Philippines, the world's leading metals' trade journal, the Metal Bulletin, last week carried a lead article which could easily have been written by an editor of our own website.


Is the price of mining too high? - asks minor metals trader Anthony Lipmann

Metal Bulletin, London

29th January 2008

A career in metals, 29 years so far, is time enough to ponder some of the moral conflicts associated with this industry, writes Anthony Lipmann of UK minor metal trading house Lipmann Walton & Co.

Are we - the beneficiaries of hauling resources from God's earth - doomed always to be exploiters? Will there ever be a way to share equitably the benefits of the riches below the surface?

MB's cover story on January 7 gave such pause for thought.

Rebels attack Xstrata's $1.9bn Tampakan copper-gold project

Guerrillas oppose the "destructive operations of big foreign miners".

It could have been a headline from 1988. For that was the year when rebels finally forced the closure of Bougainville, RTZ's copper-gold mine in the South Pacific, bringing to an end 17 years of mining. The indigenous fishing communities finally banished the miners that had been responsible for poisoning the rivers with toxic tailings, destroying the ecosystem and taking numerous lives in the process.

Those bad days should be long over. And yet almost anywhere you find a mine in a third-world country, you will see the same battles being fought; in the Philippines, in Ecuador, in Brazil, in Africa.

One of the short-listed books for this year's Man-Booker Prize, Lloyd Jones's Mr Pip, tells the story of the last white man on the island of Bougainville who, with the civil war all around, gathers the children of one village and begins to teach them, aided only by a battered copy of Dickens' Great Expectations.

Metal Bulletin readers will recognise the landscape. The unpopularity of mining imposed on rural communities. The mercenaries sent to quell locals, the local communities robbed of their young men who disappear to fight the outsiders, the reprisals and violence.

Here is one extract:

"Just before Christmas, two more babies died of malaria. We buried them and marked their graves with white shells and stones carried up from the beach. All night we listened to the mothers wailing.

"Their grief turned our thoughts back to a conflict few of us kids properly understood. We knew about river pollution, and the terrible effect of the copper tailings after heavy rain. Fisherman spoke of a reddish stain that pushed out far beyond the reef into open sea. You only had to hate that to hate the mine."

As we who make money from metals know only too well, the world needs copper and other metals all too badly. But at the end of the book you will ask yourself only one question about a subject we all know a lot about - price. And you will ask whether the price of mining, in too many cases, is not too high?

[MB is keen to solicit opinion on this subject. Do local communities pay too high a price for mining development? Send us your views using the box below, or by emailing editorial@metalbulletin.com]

Comment received on this article, from a US trader:

As a trader for Mn ore I often think about the implications western companies impose on mostly third world societies. But in the end, we have to stop thinking about that as our main concern in our job is to keep costs low and profits high, as in every business. I really like the idea that we think about the places we exploit and a publication like MB raises this question.

But in the end it is the industry which decides what happens. It is not like, that Miners, traders and all companies involved in the biz are not able to give something to the communities.

Everybody knows what the big companies are making. It is up to us to change that, nobody is stopped from investing in social projects or environment protection, just talking and feeling bad does not help.

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