Mining & Indigenous Rights: the emergence of a global social movement

Anyone who has seen the massive 900-page book entitled The Gulliver File (1992) will undoubtedly concur that for better or for worse anti-mining activism is a global social movement. This book lists mining projects and their parent companies around the world in alphabetical order and gives background history and environmental impact information (albeit from a particular activist perspective) about each project. A remarkable feature of this compendium is that so many of the listed projects involve indigenous peoples. While mining sites are geologically determined and hence the typical environmental justice arguments may not be so easily applicable to this observation, the disproportionate impact of mining on indigenous people deserves further attention and understanding.

The somewhat ambiguous title of this book refers to a speech made by Charles Barbour, the erstwhile President of the American Mining Congress, who referred to anti-mining activists in the following terms: "Like Gulliver, the mining industry is a robust giant held down by a million silk strings." (Annual address to the American Mining Congress, 1981) Barbour estimated that activists had tacked an extra 15 cents onto the cost of producing every pound of refined metal in the United States. (Moody, 1992) The Gulliver File was the product of collaborative efforts among some 90 groups around the world that are working on anti-mining activism -- many of whom have strong indigenous support even though the goals of indigenous communities are not often aligned with those of environmentalists.

Almost a decade after the book's publication, mining activities on and around indigenous lands continue to grow while amicable and equitable agreements between indigenous communities and mining companies are still few and far between. Instead of applying generic political theories to this phenomenon, we need to understand the unique characteristics of both mining and indigenous communities in order to find a way forward.

How is Mining Different from Other Industries?

Mining can be classified as a kind of "windfall development" similar to the establishment of a casino in an impoverished neighborhood, ushering in a sudden influx of wealth to a community. Mining, however, represents a kind of windfall development very different from other projects (such as casinos, stadiums, or army bases) because of its inherent obsolescence. Most mines have a lifetime of a few decades or less. Furthermore, mining companies can often have monopsony power over their areas of operation (a monopoly implies one seller of goods or services, while a monopsony entails a sole buyer of goods or services). In other words, mining companies have tremendous leverage in their areas of operation because they are often the only source of stable employment and infrastructure development.

Whether or not environmental and human rights concerns should be means to an end or ends in themselves is a timeless normative debate. The consequences of corporate behavior, however, can -- and should -- be evaluated on their own merits, without insinuation of motives.

That being said, we must still recognize the historical conduct of mining companies on a global scale and not deny the offenses that have led to their contemporary caricature. Perhaps the most persistent negative image of mining companies emanates from the narratives of mining life in Southern Africa where the institution of Apartheid was too often used to the benefit of mining companies, and vice versa. The management strategies of large multinational mining companies, most of which have had operations in Africa, were often quite secretive, thus fueling conspiracy theories. In the words of one De Beers executive: "We stride across Africa in a very satisfactory way in all sorts of strange places. Part of the secret is we respect confidences. We don't talk much." (Kanfer, 1993)

While many of the misgivings about secrecy and human rights violations by mining companies have diminished over the years, examples recur of notably disturbing ventures -- though multinational mining companies are not always involved in these cases. The civil war in Sierra Leone, for example, is largely a resource war between rebels (who control much of the diamond mining in the east of the country) and the democratic government. The same is largely true of the strife in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with its diamond and cobalt mines, and the continuing civil strife in Angola (one of the most resource-rich countries in the world).

Even the recent war in Kosovo has been described by a notable New York Times reporter as being largely about mineral resources surrounding the Stari Trg mining complex. (Hedges, 1998) According to the mine's director, Novak Bjelic, "The war in Kosovo is about the mines, nothing else. This is Serbia's Kuwait." Greece's support for the Serbian government may also be predicated on a mining contract. In May, 1998, Mytilinaios SA signed a five-year contract worth $519 billion with the state-owned RMHK Trepca and the Serbian agency of foreign trade in which Mytilinaios will forward one third of the mineral production in the international market and also upgrade mining equipment and facilities. (Drakopoulos, 1998)

In other cases, activists argue that civil strife may be suppressed by rogue governments. Since mineral resources are a direct source of economic gain for governments, there is often collusion between companies and public authorities and a perpetuation of the old-world colonial infrastructure. Perhaps the most striking example of the perpetuation of colonial control over mining is the continuation of French rule over the island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific despite vociferous protests and rebellions by the Kanak indigenous population. New Caledonia has among the largest concentration of nickel reserves in the world and still has not been granted independence (probably for this reason), though a referendum is scheduled for 2014. (O'Neill, 2000)

There are also some mining companies with particularly troubling environmental and human rights records, such as Freeport McMoRan, a New Orleans-based company that has been the subject of several lawsuits because of its impact on the lives of the Amungme tribe in Papua, Indonesia (see articles by Abrash and Cook in this issue). While the citizen-action lawsuits against the company have been dismissed in the United States (most recently on appeal in March, 2000), the firm Continues to fall under fire from environmentalists and indigenous rights activists. The firm's controversial involvement with the Indonesian military in suppressing rebellion was even profiled as a full-page story in The Wall Street Journal. (September 29, 1998) With such stories making their way to the front pages of business newspapers, it is not surprising that many social observers and the general public regard mining companies with suspicion. A survey conducted by the Engineering and Mining Journal in 1997 found mining to be the industry least favored by the American public -- even less favored than the much-reviled tobacco industry. (prager, 1997)

Such public disapproval is somewhat surprising given modern society's enormous reliance on minerals. There is a growing realization, however, that despite the urgency and expediency of mineral extraction, there are important roles and responsibilities for such firms, particularly when operating on the lands of indigenous peoples, who have already endured tremendous exploitation in the past.

Understanding and Meeting the Needs of Indigenous Communities

In order for mining development to take place in the best interest of indigenous communities, it must in the long run be coupled with some other development strategy, otherwise the result is the scourge of many pristine landscapes: the proverbial "mining ghost town." The mining sector can only provide an opportunity for sustainable development if it is viewed as a proximate solution to day-to-day technological necessities, and not an end in itself. Primary resource extraction industries have historically been considered sacrosanct by many governments and have received numerous subsidies. This practice clearly has not provided mining companies an incentive to diversify and think in the long run about alternative services they could provide: recycling and investing in alternative material science research that employs renewable resources.

Mining is often a "leading sector" in its area of operation, and should therefore be used to encourage other businesses to invest in the region. Since mines are usually located in remote parts of the world, it is difficult to get other manufacturing or service businesses into the area. The usual proposed solution is to develop a tourism industry (often in its most green incarnation as "ecotourism"). This is of course limited to the kind of terrain where the mine is located and is often unfeasible. Perhaps a preferable way of approaching this question is to first study and evaluate the lifestyle of the people before mining activity begins -- to review social and economic development plans they may have in place -- and to see how their lifestyles could be improved without the windfall development. Such an analysis would highlight some of the limiting factors preventing a more sustainable yet inchoate sector from developing. Like other economic activity on indigenous lands, mining must not take place in a vacuum and should be a catalyst rather than a reactant in the synthesis of development.

Most importantly, companies operating on indigenous lands must not begin with the presumption that just because an ore body is found, there exists an inherent right to mine it. Rather, deference must be given to the indigenous inhabitants of the area for whom the resource may have non-monetary value. In some cases, resource extractors must accept that the prospect of mining may be non-negotiable. The distinction between consultation and negotiations is thus critically important: the latter term implies a formal engagement in reaching agreement as an equal stakeholder.

Mining and Indigenous Cultural Survival

Mining activity often poses a tough and divisive dilemma for indigenous people and their communities. On the one hand, mining activity and its associated social and environmental impacts pose a threat to indigenous ways of life and livelihoods and to important cultural and spiritual sites. On the other hand, indigenous communities have in some instances welcomed mining as an avenue of regaining economic self-sufficiency in the face of the enormous impacts of colonization.

Indigenous claims, whether vehemently opposed to mining projects, cautiously seeking partnership, or seeking redress for violation of rights and environments, all connect to one key concept: self-determination. At the heart of many claims to self-determination (or self-government) is the demand that indigenous peoples be effectively consulted on any projects or initiatives that will impact on their lives. Indigenous people worldwide are seeking the power and ability to control their lives, sustain their economic and cultural existence, and protect their environment.

Respect for this inherent right to self-determination is the key to building relationships between indigenous communities and other parties, whether they be governments or commercial interests such as the mining industry. Adherence to the principle of self-determination means providing adequate and meaningful mechanisms for veto or for substantive economic outcomes such as community infrastructure, jobs, profit sharing, and royalties.

Powerful economic interests are accustomed to government concessions facilitating their ongoing ventures. Particularly in the current climate of economic rationalism and increased freedom of trade, multi-national corporations are made to feel less and less responsible for any infringement of human rights or environmental damage caused by their projects. Globalization makes it less and less likely that such corporations will respect the rights of indigenous people, particularly their inherent right to self-determination, and conflict caused by mining interests will only increase.

The articles contained in this issue attempt to present from different perspectives the challenges in reaching agreements on mining. While indigenous communities are usually the protagonists in these articles, the aim is not to portray other stakeholders, such as mining companies, governments, or environmentalists, as antagonists. Instead we have tried to assemble an array of perspectives while recognizing that the onus for reform is largely on the stakeholders who have greater political leverage and control.

References & futher reading

Barbour, C. (1981). Annual address to the American Mining Congress.

Drakopoulos, P. (1998). Tapping into Greece's Mineral Treasure Chest. Athens News Agency. 

Hedges, C. (1998, July 8). Below It All in Kosovo, A War's Glittering Prize. The New York Times. Pp A4.

Kanfer, S. (1993). The Last Empire: De Beers, Diamonds and the World. New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux.

Moody, R., et al., eds. (1992). the Gulliver File: Mines, people and land: a global battleground. London U.K.: Minewatch.

O'Neill, T. (2000, May). New Caledonia: France's Untamed Pacific Outpost. National Geographic.

Prager, S. (1997). Changing North America's mind-set about mining. Engineering and Mining Journal 198:2, pp 26-44.

Waldman, P. (1998, September 29). How Suharto's circle and a mining firm did so well together. The Wall Street Journal. Pp. A1.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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