Mining if necessary, but not necessarily mining

A message from Jamie Kneen to the Alternative Mining Indaba, Cape Town, February 10, 2015

"Mining if necessary, but not necessarily mining"

Jamie Kneen Communications and Outreach Coordinator responsible for: strategic research, social media, and public engagement; our Africa program, environmental assessment, and uranium mining.

Inclusive, Sustainable and Resilient Development: The Role of the African Mining Vision and Its Implementation

Presentation by Jamie Kneen to the Alternative Mining Indaba, Cape Town, February 10, 2015

I’d like to start by congratulating the organisers on a successful event and thanking them for the opportunity to speak. I wish I could be there with you, but instead I am stuck with -20 degree temperatures and crisp snow and will just have to do my best to enjoy the skiing, tobogganing, and ice-skating.

To begin to address the question of large-scale mining and development, much less ‘inclusive, sustainable, and resilient’ development, I think it’s critical to put mining in its place. Mining is productive but it is also destructive: of the environment, of communities, and of the health of workers and communities alike. It is called extractive, not because it is extracting economic value from rocks, but because it is extracting ore from the earth, and once it is extracted it cannot be put back. 

Therefore mining can only really be considered, in the best-case scenario, to be a bridge to sustainability. The activity, products, and revenues generated by mining must be carefully managed in order to not just squeeze out the maximum benefit for the greatest number of people, but to do so in a way that moves away from dependency and builds a diversified and self-sufficient economy. 

Of course this includes trying to minimize and mitigate environmental impacts instead of destroying entire drainage basins and aquifers, or not displacing and dispossessing tens of thousands of people at a time, but it goes far beyond that. It means accounting for the true costs of mining development, ensuring that a robust policy, legal, and regulatory framework covers all these aspects. 

Most importantly, it means overturning the power imbalance between the workers and farmers and the communities affected by mining, on the one hand, and on the other, the transnational mining corporations. It means putting people before profit, it means putting clean water before profit, and it means putting productive land and viable livelihoods before profit.

We are already facing a deficit in several dimensions. Most of the richest and easily accessible ores have already been dug, and the toxic environmental and social legacies of that process are still with us, and in many cases getting worse rather than better over time. The mining industry that profited massively from this activity and the governments and agencies that colluded with them – domestically and internationally – must be held accountable. Most importantly, the damaging practices need to stop. For all the fine language in corporate social responsibility reports or ICMM discussion papers, it would be more meaningful to stop polluting, stop bulldozing peoples’ homes, and stop shooting people.

This is a long, but I think necessary, introduction to the topic at hand: the Africa Mining Vision and its implementation. Just to be clear, I am not going to describe the process of development and implementation of the AMV by the AU and member states. I want to focus on situating the AMV and its implementation in this larger context of inclusive, sustainable, and resilient development. As I’ve commented elsewhere, the problem with the AMV is not in what it proposes but in what it omits, and how it is used, by governments and civil society alike. 

The AMV doesn’t pretend to be a comprehensive development vision, yet unless it is explicitly linked to an Agricultural Vision and an Industrial Vision, and constrained by them, then governments will inevitably focus on mining as the route to development. No other sector offers the same opportunity for massive foreign investment and export earnings, not to mention personal enrichment, with negligible effort on the part of government. Yet it actually requires significant investment in planning, regulation, and enforcement, and a robust commitment to democratic governance and respect for people’s rights, even as it builds powerful political and economic interests that are inimical to such strengthened governance.

The AMV provides a thoroughly researched and thoughtful prescription for economic and fiscal policies to ensure that mining really does contribute to development, not just to the wealth of the few. But it does not consider the political constraints, that is to say the power relationships that create, promote, and protect the policies of pillage.

It’s a simple observation that the contradictions of imposing conditions/demands in face of industry pressure are too much for many governments, especially when the power of the industry is backed up by the multilateral institutions and development finance agencies. As Alhassan Atta-Quayson observed at a previous People’s Indaba, it’s telling that the only aspect of the AMV that governments have really picked up on is to increase mineral royalties. The more complex economic measures just require too much work and investment.

I don’t want to trivialize the importance of actually collecting royalties, or of fiscal reform more broadly. It is crucially important if the governments – and the people – of, let’s say, Zambia, or Guinea, are to benefit meaningfully from existing mining activities and capture some of the value of the minerals they are losing. But it is only one element in the AMV’s larger policy panorama, which itself is only one element of a more comprehensive development strategy. And the vociferous resistance from the industry and its allies to even such basic reforms, and the difficulty in implementing them, is telling.

The AMV itself does not address environmental protection, cultural or ecological no-go zones, or the rights of communities or Indigenous peoples any more than it addresses the need to protect productive agricultural land and water supplies. That’s not the end of the world, because social pressure and sensitive implementation plans can include these aspects. Rather, the key weakness is the failure of the AMV, but also of governments and civil society alike to draw a line in the sand and say, “enough, no more.” 

I’m not saying that no new mines should be built, or that mining should stop today, although I don’t think those are inherently ridiculous demands. But allowing mining to continue, and new mines to be built, without first satisfying the most rigorous conditions, or at least developing and committing to a comprehensive and viable transition plan, is to perpetuate and facilitate the abusive relationship mining capital has with the rest of us. This is not to say there is no mutual interest, but there is a huge imbalance in who gleans the benefits and who bears the costs. Strong measures are needed to redress that imbalance -- and strong legal and public mechanisms to ensure that those measures are not eroded and corrupted.

It is here that we find a real contradiction. Technocratic governance, even with full transparency, is not the same as democratic governance and self-determination. While it may be possible to design policies and regulatory structures to fundamentally change the relationship between mining investors and host communities, they will not hold up under political and economic pressure unless they are firmly rooted in popular processes. All principles of participatory democracy and development aside, politicians and civil servants cannot be expected to withstand such pressure on their own.

In other respects, the AMV seems perhaps inevitably wedded to state-based politics. The contradictions are overwhelming in parts of last year’s Country Mining Vision. That document was developed under the auspices of UNECA with the participation of some very good people, but for example, it uses Morocco’s phosphate industry as a case study for successful resource-driven development when a significant chunk of “Moroccan” production actually comes from illegally occupied Western Sahara.

Despite the AMV’s commitment to making mining serve Africans, not just foreign investors, it’s remarkable that it perpetuates the neoliberal commitment to foreign investment and “free” trade simply by default. Large-scale mining is massively capital intensive, but it doesn’t need to be so extreme, and for-profit corporations are not the only way of building and deploying capital. Likewise, the so-called ‘free’ market, which in reality is subject to massive manipulation by large economic entities, whether countries or corporations, is not the only mechanism for marketing minerals. Yet the AMV maintains the neoliberal framework that makes States the owners of natural resources only for the purpose of facilitating their extraction, not to participate directly in their extraction, processing, or purchasing. 

The Freedom Charter calls for the nationalization of mineral wealth. It doesn’t say in what form, and there are lots of alternatives to choose from to try to optimize investment, public control, and public benefit. Likewise, if large corporations, cartels, and wealthy countries can stockpile commodities and manipulate their pricing – legally or not – why it should be impossible for poorer countries to do the same? The objectives might be different, to maximize and stabilize employment and wages, for example. But neoliberal orthodoxy cannot be allowed to constrain our policy horizons.

Advocacy and activism on mining need to make full use of the AMV, but must keep it situated in the context, one where people’s needs and the integrity of natural systems set the priorities, not the insatiable greed of transnational capital or self-serving politicians. At the community level, people rarely say, “We need a mine.” They say they have wide range of needs, and desires, and even dreams. A mine hardly ever figures in them, yet they are given a mine, even when it will not give them what they need, and even if it will destroy the possibility of ever realizing their own ideals. And sad to say, in many cases it is our own organizations that do not support them in standing up for their rights, saying, “The decision is already made elsewhere. All we can do is argue for mitigation and compensation.”

And yet the mineral deposits won’t go rotten if they are left intact until we can make better decisions about extracting them. That decision might be ‘no’, or ‘yes’, but it is irreversible. We have to take it seriously.

Thank you.