Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

The Africa Mining Vision: A Limited Field of View?

Notes for a presentation at the 14th meeting of the African Initiative on Mining, Environment, and Society, held in Accra, Ghana, August 13-15, 2013

Jamie Kneen, MiningWatch Canada

I was asked to present a critical assessment of the Africa Mining Vision as a platform for advocacy and activism. Before doing so, it’s important to underline the impressive quantity and quality of the research, analysis, and advocacy that have gone into developing the AMV. It represents a very thorough and thoughtful package of proposals that, taken together, constitute a powerful framework for mining policy reform.

But that’s all. Amid larger struggles around development models and priorities, economic justice, environmental justice, and social justice, the AMV addresses only mining. It does not attempt to address the place of mining and extractivist development strategies in this larger context. Our work towards mining justice should use the AMV as a valuable tool, but clearly recognize its limits – or use it as a lever to open more fundamental and radical debates about the limits and role of extractivism, even reformed, as a development strategy. At the same time, the AMV itself, as a comprehensive package of complementary and interdependent measures and conditions, must not be allowed to be picked apart according to the predilections of the powerful, implementing only those measures they find tolerable, and only to the extent they find them useful.

I would point to:

First, the priority given to economics over ecology, and economic development over social and cultural development; the absence of consideration of environmental liabilities; and the absence of community consent as a key objective;

Second, the failure to recognize a larger framework of considerations of mining versus other land uses and other development options: agriculture, pastoralism, fisheries, even hunting and gathering; this includes the assumption that natural capital – non-renewable resources – only have value when they are exploited; and,

Third, the assumption that mineral consumption, sales, and revenues can be relied on over time.

I’ll address these briefly in reverse order so as to deal with the more specific issues first.

Can we rely on growth in mineral sales as an economic driver?

Mining, as a globalized extractive industry, is very much dependent on global demand, and even a modified extractivist (still capitalist but less predatory) development agenda is still rooted in this dependency. The current slowdown in the mining industry, including a drop in both prices and quantities shipped, a contraction in operations, thousands of redundancies, and tens of billions of dollars in corporate writedowns, points to the fragility of mining as a revenue source and a potential generator of broader industrial development. The AMV does not address this instability, which seems to be growing over time, and there is still an assumption that world, and specifically Chinese, demand will grow constantly and indefinitely, or at least over the term of decades necessary to implement the AMV.

The only force potentially strong enough to stabilize and compensate for this volatility is state intervention, either at the national level through nationalization and price stabilization, or internationally through the regulation of markets and global price stabilization. The AMV does not contemplate any of these, even at the more feasible national level.

Is mining really the ‘highest and best’ use of land?

One of the ideas that emerged in the late 1990s and gained some strength through the debates around the “Rio +10” 2002 Earth Summit in Johannesburg (including the Mines, Minerals, and Sustainable Development process) was that of “no-go” zones, where mining would be excluded based on ecological, economic, or cultural sensitivities. There was a recognition that not all mineral deposits can or should be mined; that in some places there was simply no way that the destruction and disruption of mining could be justified. After that, with metal markets booming, the industry forgot it had ever taken this idea seriously, but is still an important concept.

While it may be unfair to criticize something called a Mining Vision for not including sectors other than mining in its analysis, there is a pronounced tendency on the part of governments everywhere to ignore other sectors when the mining industry shows an interest. After all, it promises massive investment and a range of shiny objects for decision makers, and asks little of government – in fact, it asks government to stay out of the way while it extracts ore and delivers development, or at least a bit of temporary employment. It is distressingly rare to find mining development debated as part of a larger discussion of development options. Even though local communities often try to include other sectors, official processes from project assessment to policy development often ignore or marginalize them.

So while the AMV provides important tools and criteria for mining development, it does not ask whether mining is the most appropriate use of land based on a broader range of criteria and interests. We should resist the hegemonic idea that Africa’s – or anyone’s – economies must embark on a path of commodity-based industrialization. The economic and social roles of pastoralism, farming, fishing, small industry, or even heavy industry must all be considered, but there are also cultural and ecological considerations, including practical questions such as water use but also spiritual ones like grave sites and sacred places. Given the fundamental conflict between mining development and other land uses (and water needs) this is no small matter.

Expectations of an extractive-driven economic agenda, including the AMV, should therefore be clearly limited to those that can be accommodated within a framework of integral rural and industrial development.

How does the AMV, as a modified extractivist agenda, relate to global efforts to move beyond extractivism?

Human beings are part of our planet’s ecology. Our actions affect ecological relationships and we distort and manipulate them inadvertently and on purpose to serve our own ends. Mining represents a major intervention and disruption of natural relationships, and yet we are often oblivious to the extent of its impacts. Going beyond the issues of competing interests and sustainable development that I’ve just raised, there are broader questions of whether we collectively understand the implications of our actions for the well-being of the planet. The words “pollution,” “contamination,” “rehabilitation,” and “liability” do not occur in the AMV, and yet, as we have argued, and some in the mining industry have acknowledged, mining is fundamentally a waste management industry, as the amounts of wastes are tens, hundreds, or even thousands of times greater than the marketable products, and in many cases will remain dangerous for centuries if not for millennia.

There are immediate practical implications; the requirement of financial securities or closure bonds for mining projects is becoming more widespread, but at the same time there is still a limited understanding of the environmental legacies and there is simply no way of accounting for projects that require “perpetual care.” The AMV covers the strengthening of environmental protection, but does not consider the actual environmental costs of mining. Some aspects of mining operations can be readily rehabilitated, but other aspects may impose a serious liability on future generations, altering our relationship with the land and water for generations to come.

Likewise, while the AMV considers measures to protect human rights with respect to mining activities, it does not tackle the more fundamental issues of public participation in decision-making and community consent. It would still allow the forced relocation of communities, which itself is a brutal disruption, and does not include the protection of land rights and community integrity. It does not contemplate the role of mining interests in conflict zones and under repressive regimes, where they can easily encourage, reward, and/or benefit from repression and violence by both state and non-state actors. This risk could helpfully get some regions designated as another kind of no-go zone.

In response to civil society pressure, the latest AMV implementation plan makes reference to community consent for industrial development and the Free Prior Informed Consent of Indigenous peoples, but it is absent from the AMV itself. People have relationships with each other in their communities, but they also have a relationship with their surroundings, and these are increasingly being recognized explicitly for Indigenous peoples, but also in a more generalized way for all rural communities.

In many parts of the globe, indigenous and community consent have been gaining strength as a core element of the challenge to extractivist development and the efforts to define and move towards a post-extractive economy, one based on more inclusive principles, based on gender equality and respect for indigenous cultures and self-determination rather than the interests of investors and nation-states.

Conclusion:

These are not necessarily failings of the AMV, but rather limitations. Using the AMV as a platform for policy change therefore brings an obligation to recognize and address its limitations. Reform of the mining sector must be undertaken in relation to national and local development objectives, not to mention global questions of extractivism, the use and consumption of energy and materials, and climate change. Creating the AMV and getting official support for it is an important achievement, and it is a valuable platform for mining policy reform, but that reform must take place in the context of the larger questions that mining is only one part of.

At the same time, there is a reality of struggle on the ground in each country that concretely demonstrates the successes and failures of policy change, and which we engage with directly as a matter of solidarity and common cause. Policy reform must address those struggles, bring the voices of the affected communities into the discussion, and bring them justice.