The Responsible Mining Index is not a responsible mining index

The Responsible Mining Index came out a few weeks ago and it’s a very interesting read and resource. It’s already helped me in my research and I am very glad for it’s existence. If you’ve not yet checked it out, do. It’s well thought through, gathers lots of information which is attractively presented and in so doing makes widely accessible useful and interesting information. So far, well done.

It is not, however, an actual index of how responsible mining companies are. The key sentence in their methodology report is this:

“RMI will not undertake systematic mine-site visits to verify the accuracy of information provided on the minesite indicators”

Translation: We didn’t actually check to see if these companies are ‘responsible’ on the ground.

I feel the problem here is self evident – if you wanted to know if I was good neighbour, would you just ask me if I played loud music late at night, or would you also ask my neighbours?

While the RMI is not 100% another example of the mining industry marking its own homework, the majority of the information does seem to come from mining companies. This is then supplemented with other information in the public domain, followed by an unspecified ‘expert review’. I’m not the only one to note flaws in the information reported. The usually sympathetic mining.com chose to run with a headline criticising the paucity of the self-reporting by the mining industry.

This is not an isolated problem. The vast majority of research and work on CSR by companies in developing countries fails a simple test: did you check if it was true? There is so much research out there which basically analyses the easily accessible data about CSR (the reports and what companies themselves produce) but does not actually seek the perspectives of those living with operations and CSR programmes in the developing world or seek to measure outcomes rather than outputs (i.e. not ‘how many people did you train?’ but ‘how much did people’s benefit as a result of the training?’). There are good reasons for this. Gathering this data is expensive, challenging and cumbersome. It is, however, critical if we are to make any kind of valid estimation of whether a company is ‘responsible’ or not. Without it, any picture we have has glaring absences. The perspectives of those who live with mining operations cannot be ignored in any objective assessment of responsible behaviour. To do so, and claim that an objective assessment of responsibility has been made, is irresponsible.

If looking at the impacts and CSR programmes of large mining companies on the ground has taught me one thing, it’s that the reports produced by mining companies selectively represent a much more complex reality. Mining operations are complicated, sprawling and dynamic affairs. CSR and community relations programmes are often also equally complicated, sprawling and dynamic. They exist in environments riddled with contradictions, conflicting interests, sharp political cleavages and, often, acute poverty. Acting ‘responsibly’ in such settings is tremendously challenging and I’ve yet to find a company that doesn’t have some areas where they fall short of the mark of being a ‘responsible’ organisation (I’m looking at you, resettlement programmes). By the same token, all the companies I have seen have areas where they have gone above and beyond what could be reasonably expected of a ‘responsible’ organisation – often without this being recognised or getting the commendation it deserves.

We need an index which captures more of this complexity. And we need an index that includes the voices of those who do not work for mining companies but live with them. If the RMI could bring together all the data they already have with a methodology that included people who live with mining company operations, it would be a lot closer to being a responsible mining index.

I’m giving a talk at Ryerson next week

On my current trip to Canada I’ll be giving a talk at Ryerson University’s Institute for the Study of Corporate Social Responsibility on ‘What’s the political impact of CSR? Evidence from the mining sector in Zambia, Ghana and Peru’ 12–2pm Tuesday May 22nd. More details and a link to the livestream for those interested but unable to attend can be found here. I’m pretty sure they archive the screencasts too so you can watch them later if you wish. I’ll be mainly presenting this paper, but also some of my more recent thinking on the topic of CSR and politics.

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.