MAC: Mines and Communities

Review: Examining the CSR mining mantra

Published by MAC on 2010-03-24

Earth Matters: Indigenous peoples, the extractive industries and corporate social responsibility

A review by Xavier Dias

Author: O'Faircheallaigh, Ciaran;
Author: Ali, Saleem (eds.)
Publisher: Greenleaf Publishing Ltd., 2008, ISBN: 978-1-906093-16-7, 272 pp.

What Matters: For two centuries the Extractive Industries (EI) were known by their generic name ‘mining companies/corporations’. It was prior to, and in preparation for, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio in 1992, that this change of name took place- a strategy to transform the industry’s bad-boy image and create a more respectable identity: that of corporate citizens.

Interestingly, 1992 was declared to be the International Year for the World's Indigenous People(s). Before this, Indigenous Peoples were better known by their anthropological names, which they resented. They considered them derogatory. By recognising their distinct identity, the UN began a process of acknowledging their political rights. Few at that time saw a correlation between these two moves. But a decade and a half later, we can say that these initiatives by the UN and the mineral industry were neither coincidental nor unintentional. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed uprising of Indigenous Peoples for the right to self-determination, and revolts in particular against the mineral industry/corporations.

Even though these demonstrations seemed isolated from one another at that time, the phenomenon was global. It was also a time when the markets forecasted increased demand for minerals. Facing mass, militant, political resistance, a worried industry panicked. Stopping short of any apology, they decided to reinvent themselves. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) became the mantra of an industry desperate to metamorphose into a new avatar.

The thirteen chapters in Earth Matters address three approaches to the debate on CSR: the ‘cynical’ one; a second, which believes that CSR is necessary for corporations to have a ‘social licence to operate’ as an ‘integral part of a strategic approach to maximising profits’; and the third approach, which ‘emphasises that CSR must involve activities that would not be dictated by purely selfish calculations of corporate interest’ (Introduction, pg. 2). Twenty eminent scholars from as far afield as Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia study the dynamics of mining corporations in places as remote as Russia, Surinam and New Caledonia. The book presents a varied analysis of a complexity of problems faced by the EIs as they redefine themselves through CSR. Each of its chapters dissects the strengths and weaknesses of CSR as a theoretical model and in actual practice. The good and bad are considered from a perspective that is at times sympathetic to the situation of the Indigenous Peoples.

Generally, however, the authors as a whole, using a wide range of state-of-the-art research tools, sound more like apologists for the EIs and CSR than objective critics. Sharman Haley and James Magdanz in Chapter 2 use the tools creatively to analyse the ‘social effects of increasing integration in the cash economy’ (P. 29) in respect of the Indigenous Peoples, and they produce some illuminating results. Of particular interest is the chapter on Indigenous women, by Ginger Gibson and Deanna Kemp in Chapter 6, which argues that ‘Mining communities and sites are constructed as male landscapes’ where ‘segregated gender roles’ go to ‘maintain the capitalist mode of production’ (P. 111).

It would have been interesting if they had elaborated in greater depth on the question of why modes of production in the mining sites, in particular, are more ‘macho’ than those of the non-mining industries. Catherine Coumans, in ‘Realising Solidarity’ (Chapter 3), documents in considerable detail the NGO ‘collaborations’ ‘with indigenous peoples (who) have provided some NGO’s with a chance to deepen their understanding of power relations and human rights in the complex political contexts’ (P. 44).

Missing from this list are the political organisations that the Indigenous Peoples have organically developed. Considering that it was in response to their massive, militant, and global resistance that corporations were compelled to go in for this strategic shift, mentioning them would have helped to get beyond the conventional view that over-credits NGOs and civil-society initiatives.

Apart from its persistent use of the lower case to refer to Indigenous Peoples (the only place where the capital ‘I’ and ‘P’ are used is in some citations, although this could well be a fault of the publisher), the book’s weakness lies in relying heavily on a Euro-American frame of methodology and understanding. Indigenous ethos and genius are treated in a matter-of-fact way, rather than as something more valuable than the minerals that lie beneath Indigenous ancestral land. In many of the solutions or suggestions presented in this volume, the onus seems to be put on the Indigenous communities and NGOs to upgrade their skills and information about a system that is weighted against them.

The book is largely devoted to CSR and on this topic it is a very good reference source, both for scholars and for Indigenous Peoples organisations. It will specifically help the latter to understand how the other side thinks. It is a mine of information on the subject and there is much that can be extracted from it for further research. However it should be noted that much of it has been written during the past five years, the boom-time of the mineral economy. It remains to be seen in the coming years of economic slowdown whether CSR will be affordable for the corporate world- or else the avatar and its mantra CSR may also go the same way as its predecessor, the now defunct Mines & Minerals for Sustainable Development (MMSD) initiative.

Xavier Dias is Editor of Khan Kaneej & ADHIKAR (Mines Minerals & RIGHTS)

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