“This is our struggle now…we are all connected” Benny Wenda, activist in exile from West Papua.
Last night London Mining Network held an event at Amnesty International UK’s office to raise awareness about the human rights and environmental issues linked to large scale mining projects, to garner support and create a plan of action. Six mines, five continents, two companies. This was the observation of John Vidal, the chair of last night’s ‘Stories of Resistance’ event. He introduced six speakers from the US, Mongolia, West Papua, South Africa and Colombia, each with their own ‘reports from the frontline’ of the social, economic and environmental devastation at the hands of Rio Tinto and Anglo American, and each asking for support in their campaigns of resistance.
Vidal, the Guardian’s environment editor began by noting the influence of Thatcherism and the free market economy, pointing out that while mines were being closed by Thatcher in the UK in 1985, others were being opened in the Colombia in the same year. The irony of this juxtaposition of dates, and that of last night’s event and tomorrow’s funeral, was not lost on the speakers or the audience.
Each speaker represented a country, a community or an organisation and spoke for 5-10 minutes. Julio Gomez, President of the Federation of Communities Displaced by Mining in La Guajira (FECODEMIGUA) in Colombia, spoke last and aptly pointed out that he little left to say that didn’t repeat the first five speakers. For this reason I won’t go through each presentation in detail.
There were themes that resurfaced with each and it is these that I want to touch on to give you an idea of this continuous and various struggles being endured today around the globe against multinational mining companies.
Both the Mongolian representative, Sukhgerel Dugersuren from organization OT Watch, and the US representative, Roger Featherstone from the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, described how Rio Tinto claims that the mine in question in their countries was the largest of its kind and would have zero impact on the surrounding environment and surrounding communities. These outright lies are a strategy of mining companies. Dugersuren said this tactic was part of the ‘culture of Rio Tinto’.
The social impact is of course clear with any mine. Both the communities in the area and the miners themselves fall victim to human rights violations by the mining companies. The displacement of communities is common. Featherstone also noted Rio Tinto’s socially divisive strategies of bribery, ostracising the resisting individuals, and ‘rendering them useless’ by destroying their livelihoods.
The lack of compensation was another recurring theme last night. Dugersuren outlined how Rio Tinto was planning to build a mine on the pasture land of Mongolian nomads. Rio Tinto said there are too many for them to be considered as indigenous peoples (a ploy for them to avoid the legal obligation to obtain free, prior and informed consent) and too many to fully compensate. Their offer to these families is a school scholarship for just one of their children and a part-time road sweeping job for the breadwinners. This illustrates their utter disregard for the traditional livelihoods of these communities.
The South African representative was Peter Bailey, National Chairperson for Health and Safety at the National Union of Mineworkers. His anger at Anglo American and despair for the international community’s lack of action was palpable. Hundreds of thousands have died, he said, many from the lung disease, silicosis. Most who fell ill did not receive compensation and none of their families did because dependents are not eligible for compensation. He implored the international community to ‘dig deep’ into our conscience and to join the struggle.
The environmental destruction by mining companies was, of course, a concern for each speakers. The West Papuan representative, Benny Wenda who lives in exile in the UK, spoke of the struggle for independence from the Indonesian government occupying West Papua and from Rio Tinto. He described the destruction of rivers, a sacred mountain, animals and forests- ‘the supermarket’ for the 250 tribes living there. He asked for international ‘people power’ to put an end to the destruction.
Alexandra Thebert, from Save the Wild U.P. located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, reiterated this. In addition to the lowering of the water table and the upturning of wetlands there may be a presence of uranium the water in the surrounding area. Also, Rio Tinto are planning the construction of a sulphide mine next to Lake superior which could potentially contaminate this lake.
We heard a similar story in Colombia. 12,800 hectares of forest were lost to the El Cerrejon mines and despite promises from Anglo American to replant these trees, only 2000 hectares have been replanted. It is this fraction of land that is used for publicity videos by the company.
The longevity of each struggle- 5, 10, 50 years etc.- shows just how long multinational mining companies are willing to, and can afford to, wait. All 6 speakers called for our help, your help. ‘There can be no neutrality in class struggle’, Bailey said, ‘Injustice strives when the righteous remain silent’. This is true. Turning our backs on the communities, families, and people in trouble will create an even more selfish world than the one in which we live. The human rights violations and environmental destruction must be stopped.
You can be a part of the resistance against these mining companies and the governments that allow such behaviour. The World Development Movement has outlined six actionable steps to be taken by you against complicit UK companies. Demand transparency in the UK financial sector; to find out more visit www.wdm.org.uk/take-action. Move your money to sustainable financial alternatives: www.moveyourmoney.org.uk. Join the solidarity movement of communities resisting fossil fuel projects: www.wdm.org.uk/carbon-capital. Demand the rules to be changed: www.publishwhatyoupay.org. End impunity in our legal system for companies and their executives: www.stopcorporateimpunity.org. Demand that the British government set a better example: www.platformlondon.org/oil-the-arts/fossil-fuel-finance.
There will also be demonstrations outside the Annual General Meetings of both Rio Tinto, this Thursday 18th, and Anglo American this Friday 19th. Find out more: http://londonminingnetwork.org/cat/events/.