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 the talk I gave in Edinburgh this week

I recorded the talk I gave to the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh this week and you can listen to it here:

I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk to such an interesting crowd and got some great questions (which aren’t included). I have high hopes we can get some future research collaborations with folks up there.

Mining industry says mining is good for development

Taking a leaf from the playbook of ‘Dogs Pro Walking’ and ‘Turkeys Against Christmas’, the ICMM has today launched the 3rd edition of its Role of Mining in National Economies report which highlights how “mining can be a major driver of sustainable development.”icmm-romine-cover
To be honest, this may well be a very good report, and I am sympathetic to the notion that mining has an important role to play in a countries development … if managed correctly. I’ve not looked at this report long enough to make a judgment as to its true strengths and weaknesses. What it does remind me of, however, is how I saw their report on the role of mining in Zambia ridiculed at a conference about mining while I was in Zambia in 2014. At that conference a respected Zambian academic told the audience that the best use of the report was as toilet paper. The comment was met with laughter, rueful nodding and zero contradiction. I know people at Oxford Policy Management who were involved in writing the report and am sure they worked hard and well. The simple fact of the origin of the report precluded it ever being taken seriously in Zambia.

So here’s my question, who is swayed by a report from the mining industry about how great the mining industry is? I would really love to know.