Extracting minerals from the earth is a messy, albeit lucrative business, and the disputes that plague the industry tend to be equally challenging. As the center of international trading of mining company stocks, London is regarded by some watchdog groups as a hub of multinational mining companies that they say tends to disregard the environment and human rights.
Forced evictions, property damage, mining protected land, death threats, violence and even assassinations are some of the charges that have been leveled at international mining companies. Given the value and potential profit associated with the industry, it can nevertheless provide a welcome boost to a country’s wealth, creating many jobs and economic growth. Prominent examples include Guinea, in West Africa, where a quarter of the country’s income comes from mining.
However, without strict regulation and monitoring, industry watchdogs say, mining businesses are prone to bending rules and regulations if not disregarding proper health and safety or sustainable development policies. Even Pope Francis has noted that the global mining sector requires a “radical paradigm change” to improve how the industry affects the planet and the poor.
The two main forms of mining, surface mining and underground mining, are problematic for different reasons. The first involves strip mining, quarrying, landfill and open-pit mining. These methods can be particularly damaging to the environment as they can destroy ecosystems and habitats, pollute water sources and release toxic fumes or chemicals into the atmosphere. Underground mining involves building tunnels or shafts in the earth to reach deep ores, typically used to extract coal. This type of mining tends to have less of an immediate impact on the surrounding environment than strip mining, but it can produce huge amounts of toxic waste. Known as “tailings,” these byproducts are often not disposed of responsibly and contaminate local water sources.
Richard Solly is the coordinator of the London Mining Network, a nonprofit organization that aims to hold the mining industry to account. Supported through grants from human-rights foundations and composed of 32 affiliates, the network has been scrutinizing and protesting the actions of mining companies based in and operating from London for the last eight years.
Solly, a longtime campaigner for human rights and the environment, started his career volunteering with indigenous populations in the Americas. After witnessing how “resource development” hurt the land of indigenous people, he returned to Britain, where most nonprofit groups working on indigenous rights were concerned with the effects of the mining industry.
In this interview with him, conducted in August 2015, Solly discussed his personal views of the industry (which do not necessarily reflect the views of PassBlue). The interview, done by email, has been edited and condensed for length.
Q. Why is London a popular base for large mining firms, and how does this concentrated placement influence the industry as a whole?
A. London is a major center for raising finance. It is very prestigious, well placed geographically in the center of the world’s time zones, and mining companies can list on UK exchanges with little scrutiny of their human rights and environmental records. This point was made by the UK Parliamentary Select Committee on Business Innovation and Skills inquiry into the impacts of UK extractive companies last year. Scrutiny of companies’ human rights and environmental records is inadequate once they are listed here as well, although companies are expected to report on such impacts in their annual reports. To get them to do so is a task in itself; the law firm Client Earth, with the help of London Mining Network, complained about Rio Tinto’s corporate reporting in 2010 to the-then Financial Reporting Review Panel, which called on Rio Tinto to report more fully on the impacts of their practices.
Q. How does London Mining Network monitor associated human-rights abuses and environmental impact of mining?
A. We are not in a position to monitor the whole of the world’s mining industry or even all the operations of companies based in, listed in or financed from London. We are a campaigning network that can simply point to examples of bad practice, mostly where we as a network are working with affected communities, and call for justice, respect for local people and for mine workers and for better regulation to prevent such poor practice. We work with communities who are struggling to stop mining projects [from] going ahead or to get justice from mining companies. Such social struggles might involve all manner of protest forms, including blockades and land occupations, judicial actions or political campaigns. In addition to publicizing what is going on through our website, we have assisted in advising lawyers taking judicial actions and various groups making use of nonjudicial remedies, such as the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] complaints mechanism. We speak to members of Parliament and have advocated changes in the law to ensure stricter oversight of London-listed mining companies. We also monitor the media for information about mining and try to be aware of where damage is being done even where we have no local contacts — but we are more wary of taking a firm view on matters where we do not have direct links with the affected communities.
Q. Why does mining still tend to disproportionally impact indigenous populations despite the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, passed in 2007?
A. I suspect that in areas where indigenous peoples have been driven [out], mineral deposits have been more extensively mined than areas which are still inhabited by indigenous peoples. Of course, indigenous peoples are also subject to the force of racist repression and the denial of their rights, even in countries that have signed up to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. There are also those countries which, having signed the declaration, then dilute it with so many reservations that they effectively deny indigenous peoples control of their own land. The imbalance of power is a huge problem. Companies have technical expertise and access to money and lawyers in a way that communities rarely do. However, neither mining companies nor governments seem willing to address these issues. I have even heard mining company executives say that only governments and mining companies should be allowed to provide information to communities during processes of consultation because information provided by independent bodies would only confuse them!
Language can also be a problem: a mining company might produce a huge environmental and social impact assessment in English or Spanish or French and there may be neither money, nor willingness, nor time to translate it into the languages of the people whom the project will affect most directly. In any case, there may be a yawning gap between concepts which have meaning to mining companies — money, engineering, technical ways to mitigate environmental damage — and the values of indigenous land-based communities, including views about the sanctity of land and sacred sites.
Q. Most miners around the world are men, yet certain mining practices often have a negative effect on local women. Why?
A. Among organizations working on the impacts of mining on women is a London Mining Network member, Latin American Mining Monitoring Program (Lammp), and the South African-based WoMin, which has posted its research. My understanding of WoMin’s findings is the following:
• Women are producers of food; 60 to 80 percent of food in sub-Saharan Africa is produced by women. Consequently, when land is grabbed, it has a disproportionate impact on women.
• Women mostly work in service sectors in mining rather than in industrial mining. However, in South Africa the law stipulates that women must make up 10 percent of the mining workforce, including deep mining. This brings up chauvinism and violence, including gang rape and the murder of women workers underground. This is not an issue outside South Africa, but women in other regions are involved in artisanal mining (small-scale operations where the worker is generally self-employed), especially in West Africa. Until recently, we have not seen mega-industrial mines in West Africa like those in South Africa, but now there is a lot of displacement of artisanal miners.
• Women are often exploited through unpaid labor.
• There are often constraints on women participating in decisions on development.
• Health is impacted by mining. Transactional sex is very common in extractives areas and can lead to social disruption and disease. There are also poor public services in rural areas, and polluted water means women have to walk further to find safe water.
• Violence against women is commonplace in mining areas. Extractivism is a violent process against ecosystems and people, so it is unsurprising that women get caught in the violence of the industry. There is the use of gang rape against female artisanal miners and in communities resisting mining; for example, in Zimbabwe, in the Marange diamond field, more than 280 women were gang-raped by the military and miners.
Q. Has the London Mining Network (LMN) had any long-term success in persuading mining companies to adopt better environmental policies while adhering to UN human-rights standards?
A. It is not yet possible to answer this because LMN has only existed for eight years, and I would not say this is “long-term” yet. I do believe that there have been improvements in corporate behavior as a result of pressure that organizations, such as ours, bring to bear. In the Cerrejón mine in Colombia, both corporate executives and community members have told us that the company, Cerrejón Coal Company (owned by mining giants BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Glencore), has changed its behavior as a direct result of our persistent presence at the annual general meetings of its multinational owners and other forms of pressure which, in alliance with the affected communities, we have been able to exert.
Q. Although many of the largest mining firms in the world are based in London, actual mining is concentrated in parts of the developing world in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. Where do you find the worst examples or communities hurt the most by the mining industry?
A. This is a difficult question to answer because there are so many examples of appalling practice. The mine on which I have done most work is the Cerrejón coal mine in Colombia, which has been called by Colombian NGO Indepaz “the best mine in Colombia.” Yet even this mine has been responsible for brutal forced evictions of indigenous communities, loss of livelihoods, inadequate relocation agreements, loss of water access, negative impacts on human health and local ecosystems. What about other mines? Many have been associated with massacres or selective assassinations of mining opponents or unionized mine workers. Canadian mining companies are gaining a reputation for outstandingly bad practice, particularly in Latin America. There are so many examples, mentioning only a few does a disservice to the truth!
[This article was updated on Aug. 27, 2015]