Buzzwords and Fuzzwords — terms that became popular but mean vastly different things to different people. We’ve had a long list: development, sustainability, good governance, civil society, accountability. “Corporate responsibility” should certainly be on that list. And the avalanche of new buzzwords and fuzzwords continues: emerging markets, inclusive growth, resilience.
But today’s buzzword winner is: responsible mining. Meaning what exactly? Well, not surprisingly, as is the case with most buzzwords, it means whatever the user wants it to mean. So, let me try to distinguish among the top four uses of “responsible mining.”
To most corporate mining executives and, alas, also to many government officials, mining is responsible if it focuses on maximizing economic growth which, in turn, maximizes economic profits, which will make everyone better off and in the most efficient way. This, of course, is what neoclassical economic theory tells us. Socially, this will be responsible because the economic benefits will multiply and trickle down to the poor. In terms of environmental impact, the “environmental Kuznets curve” purportedly proves that, at least in theory, as a country grows in economic terms, certain environmental pollutants decrease.
Current examples of governments seeming to define “responsible mining” along these lines include Guatemala and Honduras, which have significantly increased the number of licenses with global mining corporations, and also numerous governments across Africa. Most mining firms embrace this argument: “An engine of growth & prosperity” announces the OceanaGold sign that greets me and other visitors at its Didipio gold and copper mine in the Philippines.
A second use of “responsible mining” presents a slight variation on this, with the mining firm stating a clear commitment to that other buzzword: “corporate responsibility.” Typically, this does not involve changing the production process itself. Rather, the corporation commits to using some of its profits to do something “good.” So, for instance, in the Philippines, Australian-headquartered OceanaGold has committed to “responsible mining” that translates into planting trees at nearby sites and contributing to medical missions and supporting community programs in education and other areas.
“Responsibility” is in the eyes of the beholder, or buzzword user. Indeed, OceanaGold’s open-pit Didipio gold/copper mine received an official rebuke by the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights in 2011. Citing OceanaGold’s forcible and illegal demolitions, the harassment of residents by the police, and the indigenous community’s right to culture, the Commission recommended the revocation of OceanaGold’s mining license.
A third definition of “responsible mining” focuses on “responsibility” in terms of who gets the economic and financial benefits of mining. Just as the first definition builds on mainstream economic theory, this third is modern-day structuralism à la Raul Prebisch. Structuralists focus on how to get maximum economic benefits to the South (be it a specific country or the South in aggregate terms) rather than to North. This “paradigm” of responsible mining focuses on increasing the taxes that corporations pay to the Southern government (or doing away with tax holidays). So, for instance, the Philippine government is currently deliberating revising its mining law to increase the taxes paid by mining companies and therefore government revenues from mining. A more “progressive” version of this structuralist definition focuses on the distribution of such tax revenues within the mining country, by looking at the amount of tax that stays on a local (municipal or provincial) level versus what goes to the federal government.
The final definition of “responsible mining” is what, at least in my mind, it should really mean: a more comprehensive notion of economically, environmentally and socially responsible mining. Socially, as I have witnessed in the Philippines*, Guatemala, and El Salvador, the presence of mining corporations invariably brings conflict and death to previously peaceful municipalities. Responsible mining should require the free, prior, and informed consent of local communities, especially before any corporate “contributions” to local officials or communities. Environmentally, responsibility involves careful assessment – based on full information and by a knowledgeable and objective party other than the mining corporation — of possible environmental impacts of the mining. This includes all chemicals used in the mining process (typically cyanide used to separate gold from the rock), the toxins released by the mining (for example, arsenic is often released in El Salvador and elsewhere) as well as overall “acid-rock drainage”, and the broader environmental impacts and risks.
If this sounds like pie in the sky, it is not. A notable case of using this broader definition of “responsible mining”: the government of El Salvador has not issued new mining licenses since 2008, primarily because the key watershed that would be affected is the watershed for the majority of the country and is already severely polluted. So too, in this fourth definition, economic benefits (wages, taxes, etc.) from a mine’s limited life are weighed against social and environmental impacts. This is actually what the Salvadoran government attempted to do through what it called a Strategic Environmental Review, overseen by both the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of the Economy.
In sum, all “responsible mining” is not alike. It is important to ask: “responsible mining” for whom and by whom? The first sentence of the website of a gold-mining firm that is suing the El Salvador government over a mining-license that the government denied might make you think you have landed on the home page of a rare responsible mining corporation: “Pacific Rim is a mineral exploration company … committed to excellence in environmental stewardship and social responsibility.” Buzzword alert. Indeed, in El Salvador, as in the Philippines and elsewhere, grassroots communities and a handful of elected officials are trying to give deeper meaning to the definition of “responsible mining,” so that it is no longer a buzzword or fuzzword.
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* See Robin Broad and John Cavanagh’s upcoming (September 2013) YES! blog on their August 2013 trip to OceanaGold’s Didipio mine in the northern Philippines.