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.

British Academy Emerging Powers Conference – a few tidbits

I was at the British Academy conference on emerging powers this last Wednesday to hear about the panels’ perspectives on natural resource extraction and environmental issues.

The sessions were very interesting and saw some leading lights of the academic, policy and business worlds discuss key issues. There was a tendency for the discussion to centre on China in Africa but there was more to it than just this. A few interesting tidbits:

  • Tom Wheeler from Saferworld talked about the changing CSR practices of Chinese extractive comapanies. One of Tom’s points was that Chinese companies are facing a two-fold pressure to up their CSR game. The first was pressure from HQ to cause reduce conflict surrounding their operations, the second was pressure from local communities – the responses to both tended to be quite state-centric.
  • There was quite a lot of pushback around Chinese extractives being ‘worse’ than western companies. Amusingly, one panelist pointed to Shell’s poor record in Nigeria as evidence of this – fair point. My own experience from Zambia tells a different story – Chinese mining companies have been responsible for the worst conflicts and have a poor track record of managing relationships with local communities and their own workers. Most Zambians haven’t really gotten over the fact that a Chinese company was responsible for the worst mining disaster in Zambia’s history; which, given that it’s been going since the 1920s, is quite an achievement. It could be my knowledge is of just one country and that the overall story might be different but I am a little skeptical that the problems surrounding Chinese extractives in Africa are communication problems or the result of media prejudice rather than some pretty poor practices. That said, Prof. C K Lee‘s recent research seems to be pointing to increasing pressure on Chinese companies to not rock the boat as much as they have in the past.
  • The discourse of CSR as a risk management strategy is spreading. I’m not quite sure what to make of this as I’ve not really figured out the consequences of this approach, but I suspect this view of CSR is here to stay. I want to come back to this in a later post.
  • Prof. Ian Taylor did a fantastic job of demolishing recent upbeat discussion of Africa’s development prospects. Simply put, African economies are not growing nearly fast enough and the long term structural position of African in the global economic system has not improved in recent decades. If anything it’s got worse with and increased reliance on natural resource extraction. Take oil from the mix and growth has been pretty flat for the continent.
  • Added Poor Numbers to my reading list. Lots of interesting discussion about this book – sounds like a must for any self respecting researcher of Africa.
  • The outlook for climate change looks really bleak. I guess we all sort of know this, but having a bunch of heavyweights from the world policy stage explain this really brings it home. It is a real shame that austerity politics has pushed climate change down the international agenda. Nick Stern was resolutely ‘we can do this’ but I left wanting to buy a house on top of a big hill.

I’ll be working on a short working paper for my ESID project in the coming weeks which I’ll be sharing. This should also give me an opportunity to explain the other comparative research project I’m engaged in.