London Calling the shots on Vedanta - and some British banksPublished by MAC on 2009-09-27
There seem to be few new tactics that may adopted in the seemingly interminable battle to force mining companies into being both honest and just.
However, on September 22nd, what some have described as a "unique event" took place in one of the global cradles of corporate obscurantism and obduracy.
A leading London-based extractive corporation was put firmly in the dock before a group of its own financial backers, by a bunch of activists, lawyers, and several NGOs.
We can divulge that this event was a "Workshop on Vedanta", and hosted by Amnesty International UK. But we must keep mum about the people who attended.
This is because (despite an initial murmur of dissent) participants agreed to run the meeting under the so-called Chatham House Rule. The "rule" allows reporting of a meeting's content, but precludes identifying anyone who turns up for it, or attributing what they said.
You might well think such a rule was designed to protect the "guilty." To an extent you'd be right. Unfortunately, it's virtually certain that none of the banks would have put their heads above this particular parapet had the Rule not been imposed.
A company denying its very existence!
In any event, the guiltiest party of all - Vedanta - didn't deign to show.
One of the workshop's co-organisers (a European NGO that vets the dubious plays of global investment banks) emailed and telephoned the company several times during the week leading up to the event.
Not only did Vedanta ignore these mails. It even denied its own existence when phoned the day before the meeting on its officially-registered London number. Finally, a company employee was found who did acknowledge their master's identity.
Then the line went dead.
Ironically, if Vedanta had in fact attended, under the Chatham House Rule we couldn't name it. (Nonetheless, if we were to refer to "a notorious London-based band of resource-grabbers, operating in India, Zambia and Australia", there'd be little doubt who we were talking of).
Impervious to reform
Such contempt for an audience which included a dozen representatives of eight current or putative investors in the company, along with an equivalent number of critics, was not lost on the general assembly.
One Dutch bank announced that it had already disinvested from Vedanta. It had been persuaded (as was Norway's pension fund two years ago) that Anil Agarwal's massive mining vehicle was beyond reform - and totally impervious to the mere slapping-on of another parking ticket or two.
Not surprisingly, most of those on the well-heeled side of the workshop table weren't - as yet - prepared to take this view.
Nonetheless, after four hours, the bankers left the room clearly impressed (if not stunned) by the amount and degree of well-researched and well-presented evidence running counter to Vedanta's "corporate responsibility" claims.
All the legal and "civil society" presentations confirmed a long-held view that Vedanta is, indeed, a serial offender. The company would require a quasi-Pauline conversion before doing what's right - whether by the beleaguered Dongria Kondh of Orissa, its workers in Zambia, hundreds of villagers in Goa, or by the people of Armenia.
And by just about everyone else.
Whether or not the bankers were persuaded to this analysis remains to be seen.
At past meetings of this kind, those up against the firing line have usually confined themselves to asking a few polite questions. In contrast, last Tuesday's conflab saw most of the bankers keen to offer up their own assessments of how the company behaves - none of which was particularly complimentary.
True, the "suits" generally fell back on soliciting ideas as to how the company's modus operandi might be changed for the better, though not appearing sanguine that they'd actually achieve this.
Was the meeting an unalloyed success? No - that would be setting it too high.
True, one bank has since apparently pledged not to back future Vedanta exploits in developing countries.
However, several banking representatives were junior (one, from a leading European global investment bank, was very junior indeed). They'd hardly be able to exert much influence on their higher-echelon bosses.
Worse, the three global investors providing the biggest slabs of UK finance to Vedanta refused to attend.
Fortunately - and precisely for that reason - we can name these offenders: Barclays plc, Standard Chartered, and Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), now owned to the tune of 70% by British taxpayers.
So, there you have it.
A London meeting, conducted under a get-out clause, convened in the offices of a global human rights organisation, focuses on the highly dubious record of a leading British company.
The company doesn't even appear, and the event is disregarded by some of its key investors who go about their multi-million dollar business just a mile or two away.
The workshop may not, in all respects, have been "one of a kind."
Displaying such contempt most certainly was.
[London Calling is published by Nostromo Research, London. Opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by anyone else, including editors of this website. Reproduction of this column is welcome (and not governed by the "Chatham House Rule"!), provided full acknowledgment is given to Nostromo Research.]