Native Reluctance to Join Mining Industry Initiatives: activist perspective

Mining, more often than not, is a significant strain on native peoples and nature. From its human impacts (social, cultural, economic, spiritual) to its ecological impacts (biodiversity loss, energy consumption, air pollution, water contamination and loss) mining is a devastating assault on people and place. This scenario has been documented time and again, from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada to the island of Bougainville, on every continent except Antarctica.

Mostly, it is the lived experience of first peoples. The mining industry targets landed indigenous populations generally perceived to be economically marginal and politically weak, and therefore more susceptible to "being mined." The relative proportion of mineral extraction on native lands even in the United States, Canada, and Australia -- a clear majority -- compared to the amount of land controlled by those countries' first peoples is a measure of this proactive policy by the mining industry.

The mining industry, however, thinks that its only problem is that it is misunderstood. "Despite the efforts of companies and industry associations, the mining, metals, and minerals industry has fallen into increasing public disfavor. It is seen, at best, as a necessary evil. It has become accepted thinking that the industry is incompatible with sustainable development," wrote Sir Robert Wilson, Executive Chairman of RioTinto, in a recent newsletter (8:3) of the International Council of Metals and the Environment.

In response to the "gulf between the industry's self-perception and how it is seen by others," RioTinto and a group of other mining companies have begun a public relations offensive. This collaboration is part of a broader Global Mining Initiative (GMI) of the world's largest mining houses. The process in question, in terms of professional ethics, lacks even procedural -- let alone consequential -- equity. Spawned by the GMI of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) through the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development (MMSD) initiative describes itself as an "independent process of participatory analysis aimed at identifying how mining and minerals can best contribute to the global transition to sustainable development."

Looking first at this mission statement, we have identified the following problems:

- No process is independent that relies on $5 million or more from the very companies whose activities it is trying to analyze. This is the ultimate case of co-optation for those of us trying to tackle the industry meaningfully.

- No analysis is participatory that tries to take in the scope of issues created by mining, in terms of its sustainability or otherwise, in two years or less without considering the case of many of the world's most mine-impacted communities.

- The space for indigenous participation on various levels of the multimillion-dollar bureaucracy created by the IIED has been tokenistic at best; and ignorant and insulting at worst.

- A large-scale boycott of the process (because it appears to have a pre-determined outcome) by mining-related environmental and human rights non-government organizations discredits the IIED's MMSD even amongst the public policy elite.

- And then there's that old red herring, sustainable development: if one subscribes to the Bruntland definition, mining clearly cannot be it -- resource extraction is the depletion of a non-renewable resource.

Looking beyond the words to the deeds of the companies involved, one sees how troubling this process really is. RioTinto, for example, which Sir Wilson leads, has left a trail of tears around the globe for more than a century. It is now up to its neck in unsustainable activities like trying to engage in uranium mining over the wishes of traditional landowners inside Kakadu National Park in northern Australia (see article by Strelein and Behrendt, this issue), It is 12.5 percent invested in (and therefore at least an eighth responsible for) the Freeportrun Grasberg mine in Papua, Indonesia, the locus of documented human rights and environmental concerns (see articles by Cook and Abrash, this issue). That's not to mention the pollution caused by the Capper Pass tin smelter and endured by the citizens of Hull, England -- where the company has recently settled for a ground-breaking compensation deal with workers and local families. Nor did we mention the beset island of Bougainville, where poor environmental management by Rio Tinto's predecessor CRA led to ignited separatist tensions with Papua New Guinea, and, ultimately, a civil war that claimed 10,000 lives in the last decade.(1)

We don't want to single out Mr. Wilson and his company, Rio Tinto; any one of the other movers and shakers of the Global Mining Initiative, a group of nine companies (Anglo-American, BHP, Codelco, Newmont, Noranda, Phelps Dodge, Placer Dome, WMC), have similar records. The goal of the effort by these companies is to remake their image without acknowledging and dealing with their own histories.

We regret that the World Bank and U.N. Environment Program have recently announced their new joint effort with the IIED. The purpose of this collaboration is allegedly to create a forum to consider questions of the sustainability of the mining industry and its impacts on people worldwide. It is at least equally bereft of the meaningful involvement of these very people as was the initial MMSD process run by the IIED.

That the World Bank would participate in such an endeavor is no surprise to those following that institution's effort on the part of civil society. The Bank has been looking for a safe forum to evaluate its investments in r mining, oil, and gas since these have become something of a cause celebre for World Bank watchdogs demanding that it abandon the corporate welfare stemming from these portfolios. Such a venue as the MMSD may greenwash the industry enough to justify continued investment.

For the U.N. to enter into the fray, however, especially after the General Assembly rejected the mining industry's approaches at the Earth Summit in 1992, is particularly disappointing. There are many more legitimate places for this institution to spend its time and energy supporting communities struggling with the environmental and social ramifications of mining development. Indigenous and other grassroots organizations gather often to discuss these issues and work out ways to resolve existing conflicts.

We know society will continue to choose to mine in order to source some of its material needs (though many could be met through re-use, recycling, and substitution), but the where, when, and how of mining should be decided by those most affected. The companies that have made a business out of stealing the wealth of communities through large-scale mines are not appropriate arbiters of how mining should take place. Nor should they decide which techno-fix or other strategy will make mining "sustainable." NGOs and others will resist the Global Mining Initiative and look for critical thinking and support when the public is told that corporate specialists have worked out how to achieve "sustainable mining."

(1). Prime Minister's estimate at the start of peace talks in 1999.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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