Brexit, mining and CSR

All this recent news about Brexit has reminded me of this article in The Times (behind a paywall – apologies). It tells the story of one of the areas which voted for Brexit. As we now know, these were often rural areas which are relatively poor for whom foreign labour threatens wages, jobs and services. This article was one of many in the weeks following the vote where the London-centric media tried to figure out what the hell had just happened to them by dispatching unsuspecting correspondents to far flung corners of the nation (to which they never then returned, but it’s the thought that counts, right?). What stood out to me though was that this story was based in the formerly prosperous (and oddly famous) town of Grimethorpe, South Yorkshire. Prosperous that is, until the mines closed.

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The Grimethorpe Colliery Band

The story of mine closure leading to decline and poverty, as friend of the blog Dylan McFarlane tweeted recently, is a global one. Dylan was pointing to a recent article on The Conversation telling the story of mining towns in Guinea. These towns had seen limited prosperity and a great deal of inequality as the benefits of Bauxite extraction had not been widely shared.

So far, so familiar. Mine closure, it turns out, is one of the thorniest issues facing mining companies looking to improve their social and environmental impact. One answer I saw in Ghana is the creation of foundations which pay a percentage of company profits into a fund a proportion of which only pays out when the mine closes. Even these, I suspect, will only slightly soften a very sharp drop in economic prosperity.

In Europe, sudden drops in economic prosperity have historically been associated with a shift towards populist, nationalist leaders and rhetoric that we are currently witnessing. As surprising as Brexit was for London-based elites, its seeds were sown in the industrial and mining policy of the 1980s. This all raises the question of what difference might have well managed closures made? If today’s best practices had been adopted 30 years ago would things be different? Would Grimethorpe be prospering and actually in need of foreign labour? (My inner pessimist makes me think this is unlikely, CSR seems only to be able to do so much)

For those of us interested in mining and CSR, the Brexit vote should renew attention on the long term political consequences of mine closure. The effects of mine closure and decline are an important but under-researched area. The mining industry has just seen a marked global downturn as the decades-long commodities boom came crashing to a halt. Hundreds of thousands have been laid off and many mines closed. As a result, telling the story of Grimethorpes around the world is more pressing than ever.

Image from The Guardian.

The modern way to regulate the mining industry

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This recent story about Miningwatch Canada attempting to sue the Mount Polley Mining Corporation and the British Columbia Government, has caught my attention. Their claim is that “it has now been over two and a half years since the Mount Polley disaster happened and yet, despite clear evidence of violations of Canadian laws, no charges have been brought forward by any level of government.” Indeed, last year the company has been allowed to resume operations at the site. Effectively, Miningwatch are using a private prosecution to goad the state into action – and the state is responding by trying to get the case stopped.

There are a few things about this that are interesting. The first is that for many actors in the field, the best way to increase pressure on mining companies to improve their practices is through the courts. There is a steady drip drip of stories of mining companies headquartered in the developed world being sued for the behaviour of legally separate (but often wholly owned) subsidiaries in developing countries. This is obviously not the case for Mt Polley – a Canadian mine being sued in Canadian courts – but this shift to the courts is telling. Acacia and Vedanta are being sued in UK courts (and as I pointed out on twitter, UK lawyers meeting their clients in Zambia in the Vedanta case was last week were subject to some pretty serious hassling) and Hudbay is being sued in Ontario courts. Monterrico Metals settled out of court before a verdict was reached in 2011. My own research shows that these cases are being “very attentively watched” by the industry.

One particularly interesting (for me, at least) finding from my research was that these cases often draw on the voluntary standards mining companies have adopted. Unlike the Miningwatch Canada/Mt Polley case above, these are often civil suits based on the tort of negligence. In essence, those suing the mining companies are accusing the companies of being negligent in their behavioiur. In order to establish what is negligent, the cases need to establish a ‘standard of care’ – a standard against which the mining companies can be said to have been negligent. In the past, this was often done using internal company policies. Now, however, with many companies signing up to international voluntary standards it’s these standards that are being used to establish standards of care. If mining companies have signed up to standards, and the courts establish that following these standards would have avoided the human rights abuses companies are being sued for, then the companies will have been negligent. The financial penalties of this can be enormous – just look at BP. BHP Billiton is hoping to sign a $1.55bn agreement with the Brazillian federal prosecutors to avoid $47.5 billion civil suit following the Sanmarco tailings disaster, having already settled with federal and state governments. All of a sudden, the vague sounding pledges of voluntary CSR and environmental standards have teeth.

In my own research, these cases, amongst a range of other pressures, are creating a new regulatory landscape for mining companies. Courts, bringing together hard and soft regulation, increasingly appear to be a modern way to regulate the mining industry.

Photo of Mt Polley disaster from Al Jazeera

Listen to my PE3C talk on the ‘political ecology of the firm’ from July

So I realise I never uploaded this talk I gave in July. Which is a shame as I think it was quite good. It is, however, unashamedly theoretical and niche – it’s for researchers who are interested in political ecology theory, rather then the broader audience of mining and CSR that most of my blog is for. You can listen to the talk here:

Listen to my talk on politics, CSR and development

Following the success of my last podcast I’ve decided to record my talks and stick them on this blog. So, here is the audio for my talk ‘Talking about politics: corporate social responsibility and development in Ghana, Perú and Zambia’ at Mining and Communities Solutions 2016, University of British Columbia, 5-8 June 2016.

Despite this being my first talk at a mining industry conference, it went down really well and provoked quite a bit of discussion. Listening again I hear it mainly as a masterclass in saying ‘erm’ a lot (I was rather nervous) but I did get my main points across quite well. I had little reason to be nervous it seems as my message – that we need to talk about CSR as a political intervention into host countries and communities – was broadly well received. This conference was a gathering of people who really do what to improve the impacts and benefits of mining for local communities and therefore very encouraging. I’ll be posting about my ‘take homes’ in the coming days.

Do let me know what you think.

Samarco tailings disaster: this changes everything?

The recent collapse of a tailings dam at the Samarco project in Brazil has caught widespread attention. It was clearly truly awful and exposed, in connection with the Mt Polley dam failure last year, a key weakness in the the mining sector’s efforts to clean up its act. A good source to read on this is Saleem Ali’s blog over at The Conversation. One quote that caught my attention however was this tagged on to the bottom of an interview with Stuart Kirsch about his book on the OK Tedi mine published last year:

 

“the response to the Brazilian disaster suggests that the default assumption now seems to be that corporations are responsible for their environmental impacts, at least when they are caused by sudden events. This is very different than the way BHP dragged its feet for more than a decade after the problems downstream from the Ok Tedi mine became well-known”

 

The times, they are a changin’. What BHP could get away with 10 years ago it can’t now. The mining industry needs to up its game. This strikes me as very similar to Hevina Dashwood’s argument that in the 1990s the mining industry found itself thoroughly out of step with a new discourse of sustainable development. The industry was forced to up its game or lose influence and investment.

 

Of particular note is that this was no frontier cowboy junior operation, this project was co-operated by two of the worlds largest mining companies. Companies that really should know better. The usual excuses do not apply. If these two companies can’t build a facility that doesn’t dump sixty million cubic meters of down a valley, wiping a village off the map, killing at least 13 people, and destroying a river, who can? What hope does the mining industry have when its leading lights cause these kind of catastrophes?

 

These questions may explain quite how many press releases the ICMM has put out in the last few weeks, a remarkable 5 since the beginning of December, including, importantly, a global tailings management review. If nothing else, the industry needs to be seen to be taking this issue seriously. However, if history is anything to go by (and, in all honestly, it may not be) the industry will drag its feet. I think more than any other issue, if the mining industry fails to get tailings management right, it will never stop being the global whipping boy for environmental mismanagement.

Mt. Polley triggers Canadian soul-searching on how to regulate the mining industry

Dead in the water?

The Mount Polley catastrophic tailings spill of last summer in western Canada has led to a new round of news stories, discussion and debate in Canada about how to regulate their mining industry.

The Mount Polley spill was one of the worst mining spills in the history of Canadian mining and raises questions of whether the current ‘light touch’ regulatory regime really works. Search warrants for Imperial Metals were carried out last week following the report from an independent panel which found evidence of design flaws but said it could not conclude anything about management culpability.

Particularly damaging for advocates of self regulation, the Mining Association of Canada refuses to release details of the self-assessment the Imperial Metals gave itself before the spill, no doubt because it shows they gave themselves a clean bill of health. The report was effectively just about the paperwork and not whether the plans were actually being followed and not checked by independent parties.

The consequences of this investigation could be very wide ranging and affect mining worldwide with increased requirements for third-party verification and more stringent tailing management in coming years. Industry commentators in Canada are already working hard to argue that regulators should not overreact.

One take home from all of this: CSR in the extractive sector starts with effective environmental management. Without this, CSR is dead in the water.

Image from CBC.

What is the politics of CSR?

I had the pleasure of hosting our departmental seminar last week where we had Dr. Dinah Rajak from the University of Sussex speaking. Dinah has written a very interesting book, In good company, which gives an ethnographic account of CSR in Anglo American from their London HQ to their platinum operations in Rustenberg.

To cherry pick from a rich and stimulating book, one of the most interesting parts of this is her argument about how the global expansion of CSR reconfigures the power and politics of business’ activities in the developing world. CSR increases the power of companies by expanding their influence to new spheres and allowing them to access new resources such as expertise and relationships with political groups while simultaneously deflecting criticism of their operations.

At Manchester, Dinah was speaking to some of her more recent work which looks at scholarship programmes promoting entrepreneurship implemented by Anglo. Here, Dinah argued that these competitive training schemes helped diffuse the potential political tension and challenges of operating a high tech mine with a small labour force surrounded by a large population of unemployed. A political move that was highly problematic in the ways it shifts responsibility for poverty and unemployment on to the individual away from, say, the state, or the mining company for that matter.

All food for thought about the political role of CSR in mining. This is, of course, central for many criticisms of CSR which argue it should be seen as ‘greenwash’ or a ‘smokescreen’ deflecting criticism of the disruptive effects of mining and little more. Of course, despite industry protests to the contrary, CSR is frequently a political intervention (otherwise it couldn’t be sold as ‘risk management’ as it so often is). Companies operate in a (often, highly) political context and CSR is one tool they use to manage this. But can we say a CSR programme is a ‘good thing’ if it has potentially regressive political effects? We clearly have to be careful of this but I think balance that needs to be struck is between critiquing these possibilities (while not assuming that they are so – surely CSR can stimulate criticism as much as it can placate it?) and supporting companies to find potentials for progressive politics in their CSR initiatives. Helpfully, Dinah offers an approach and language for engaging with the political dimension of CSR critically without defaulting to total rejection of mining company efforts. A welcome intervention indeed.