Is 'Responsible Mining' an Oxymoron?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 5/26/2014 02:00:00 AM
Like other extractive industries, mining elicits much hand-wringing among leftists about labor exploitation, environmental degradation, and the decimation of indigenous cultures in mining communities. As a more practical sort, I appreciate how mining makes modern life possible, from the computers leftists design their accusatory banners with to the cell phones they use to organize the overthrow of bourgeois capitalist scum with. In urbanized societies, there is a squeamishness about where our food comes from (slaughtering animals) and where the raw materials that make modern life possible come from (mining) since we are removed from these activities. Animals bleed and die. Mounds of earth are dug up and disposed to gather tiny nuggets of copper and gold. Deal with it for it's always been that way as we fill the earth and subdue it. I certainly do not doubt there are flagrant violations of acceptable mining practices here and there, but I am not convinced that there is a real alternative to mining at the present despite all its problems. While bleeding hearts leftists always target big, evil MNCs, it also bears remembering that small-scale wildcat miners tend often get a free pass despite having similarly questionable practices since they are "indigenous."

Just recently, I was sent a notice by Elsevier about a new journal of their focusing just on mining-related issues, The Extractive Industries and Society. Reading the first few articles, there is a definite leftist slant to the submissions. Still, Robin Broad offers a fairly interesting take on the whole idea of "responsible mining." Is it a contradiction in terms, or is it something we can actually achieve? She offers a number of different conceptions of the notion before offering her own:
  1. The neoliberal definition - 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. The idea is that this formula will work to make everyone better off and in the most efficient way. This, of course, is what neoclassical economic theory tells us. In terms of social benefits, this is deemed ‘‘responsible’’ because the economic benefits will – again, in theory – 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.
  2. The corporate social responsibility definition - A second use of the term ‘‘responsible mining’’ is a slight variation to the neoliberal definition, with the mining firm stating a clear commitment to that other buzzword: ‘‘corporate social 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, the Canadian/Australian mining company OceanaGold has committed to ‘‘responsible mining,’’ a pledge which translates into planting trees at nearby sites, contributing to medical missions, and supporting community programmes in education and other areas.
  3. The structuralist definition - A third definition of ‘‘responsible mining’’ focuses on ‘‘responsibility’’ from the perspective of who receives the economic and financial benefits of mining. Just as the first definition builds on mainstream economic theory, this third is modern-day structuralism a` la Raul Prebisch (Prebisch, 1950). Structuralists focus on how to generate maximum economic benefits for the South (be it a specific country or the South in aggregate terms) rather than the North. This ‘‘paradigm’’ of responsible mining focuses on increasing the taxes that corporations pay to the Southern government (or doing away with tax holidays). 
  4. The fourth The final definition of ‘‘responsible mining’’ is what, in my view, 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 d consent’’ of local communities, especially before any corporate ‘‘contributions’’ are made 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 all possible environmental impacts of the mining. This includes an assessment of the impact of all chemicals proposed to be 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. 
It's all quite interesting from the perspective of language games, but I am as always more concerned with action than rhetoric. Then again, you might take a constructivist stance is stating that rhetoric surrounding "responsible mining" actually shapes mining practices.