Monday, February 11, 2008

Mining is bad! Or is it…

This last Saturday, there was the annual ‘Business and Human Rights’ conference of Amnesty International in Toronto. It was an inspiring event. The turnout of 150 activists and interested citizens was quite amazing (given it was a Saturday, with piles of snow and freezing temperatures in Toronto…) and was vivid proof of business ethics issues being at the core of what ‘normal people’ worried about this day and age.

The day focused on the mining industry, one of the strongest part of the Canadian economy. Canada has the biggest number of mining companies in the world most of which are active in developing countries. Amnesty International (AI) is in no short supply to provide examples of blatant environmental disasters and human rights abuses committed by these So it came to no surprise that our panel, next to a Schulich professor, featured an activist from a Canadian group, Mining Watch, and Ulises García from Peru whose father was assassinated six years ago while leading a campaign against a project by the Canadian mining multinational Manhattan Minerals Inc. (check out his movie 'Tambogrande - Mangos Murder Mining').

In a situation like this it becomes overly obvious that there are no easy answers to most business ethics questions. The activist’s presentations left little doubt that the ethical record of the mining industry is pretty dismal. It appears, that most of the commodities extracted within the last decades from, in this case, Latin America have been dug out largely without any concern for the environment, property rights, health, economic development and safety of local communities. So, the diagnosis was pretty clear, but what were the solutions presented?

The predominant feeling in the room appeared to be that mining is intrinsically bad and should be stopped – period. However, to call for this sitting in a spanking new and shining conference centre in Canada most of which is in some way or the other a result of mining is somewhat, say, daring. It is certainly elitist, given the fact that most of the living standard of countries in the Global North is based on mining in some way or the other. Refraining from mining then would not only be somewhat impractical but would also deny any economic development to the Global South, where mining often is the only potential source of income for local communities.

Ulises’ suggestion was to allow mining only if the mines are wholly owned by the workers. As brilliant as it sounds, this is ridden with problems as well. After all, mining is high tech business and – loathe it or hate it – multinational mining companies are the only ones who have that technology. This became overly clear in the context of the newly elected Bolivian president attempting at expropriating western oil multinationals a couple of months ago. So corporations – as in many other areas such as pharmaceutical research or environmental technology, have a role to play.

But which one? Here comes the point where you always feel a bit flaky as a business ethicist. In a complex, globalized world there are no easy solutions! For starters, NGOs like Amnesty and others are vital in drawing attention to what corporations do and to put them under pressure. Without this pressure, nothing will move and we need more of it. It is encouraging to see how multifaceted their approach is – from direct action, over shareholder activism up to global education and campaign initiatives: there is an entire arsenal of approaches to address these issues. We also need more aware and socially conscious managers; many of these corporate decisions are taken at office desks in the Global North without any awareness of the ethical, social and environmental impacts on the ground.

But we also still need strong and accountable governments. It is frustrating to see how little, for instance, the Canadian government seems to care about regulating and holding to account their domestic companies. It is very unlikely that these companies will leave Canada if the government stepped up its regulation – the more it is incomprehensible why the government acquiesces in this situation. And there need to be more pressure on host country governments, as many of these ethical problems often occur because local governments are corrupt and disregard the interests of their people.

There are many more things which could be done. Why dont you tell us your ideas on this issue!

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