MAC: Mines and Communities

REVIEW: Dark Underbelly of Mining

Published by MAC on 2008-07-28
Source: Latha Jishnu, Business Standard (Delhi)

Over the past six months, the one global development that has eclipsed the news of rising crude oil prices has been the attempt by BHP Billiton to take over its rival Rio Tinto, both Anglo-Australian mining giants. This would have created a behemoth valued at $320 billion and made the combined entity the world's largest producer of copper, aluminium and, possibly, uranium and the Number 2 producer of iron ore. Consolidation has been the name of the game since the beginning of this decade thanks to the soaring demand for certain minerals that have pushed up prices and made companies cash surplus - and eager to expand empires.

The underlying factor is the state of mining worldwide. The easy-to-exploit high-grade deposits have all been mined and what's left are the lower grade resources that are pretty difficult to mine. As the companies see it, the answer is Big Mining that can tackle these challenges more ‘efficiently' and get developing countries to open up their resources to the their ‘wider experience'. It is the coming challenge that Roger Moody, one of the best known researchers and campaigners on this subject, analyses in Rocks & Hard Places.

The book is pretty clear in its aim. It intends to tell you exactly how dirty the industry is - and in every which way. From the degradation of the environment, to the subversion of laws and the number of children affected by the worst mining practices, this book has enough examples and just the right statistics to prove its many points. The author does not pretend to be neutral in this dirty war. He is an active campaigner who is a frequent visitor to trouble spots in Asia, including India. Wisely, however, he uses data from unimpeachable sources such as UNDP, the ILO, and Worldwatch to put together a damning indictment.

Among the issues he raises, not all of them new or startling, is the slow rates of growth in countries with a high rate of dependence on mining coupled with the declining quality of life for people depending on extraction for their livelihood. Another is the sharp decline in the mining workforce which lost over 5.5 million secure jobs between 1990 and 2000 while the proportion of underpaid and disempowered contract workers shot up.

Moody though has more fascinating revelations to make. One such is the various stratagems employed by the industry to portray itself as both green and good to counter the increasingly shrill and well-documented accusations of exploitation and disregard for the environment. Millions of pounds were poured into a campaign to sidestep efforts by UNCTAD to impose a code of conduct on these corporations. Instead, Big Mining used initiatives such as Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development (MMSD) which has little to offer by way of an enforceable programme but is widely acclaimed thanks to the backing it received from NGOs and politicians. NGOs such as World Wide Fund for Nature, CARE, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Moody shows, have been co-opted by the mining industry to promote its so-called conservation strategies at the cost of indigenous peoples whose lives and livelihoods are devastated by mining operations in their resource-rich territories.

Mining companies are not the only offenders. Internal colonisers like India, China and Russia, which have large and diverse mineral resources, have also been singled out for exploiting this wealth at what Moody calls an unacceptable social cost. It is not surprising that these countries collectively "suffer most insidious ambient air, water and soil pollution on the planet", due in part to mining and the processing of minerals. In this grim catalogue, there appears to be little that can be done to make mining sustainable. Moody does offer a glimmer of hope by offering a simple set of markers. The world must decide what to mine (no more gold because there is enough piled up in bank vaults), how to mine (distinguishing between dirty technologies and less damaging methods), where (leave territories of indigenous people alone) and by whom. Each one is a controversial point but if mining giants - and nations -mean what they say about sustainability then they ought to listen to Moody who brings passion and objectivity to the debate.

Roger Moody
Zed Books/Books For A Change
Pages: 213; Price: £10.99


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