British mining monopolies: looting and destruction

Miners in South Africa demand better pay and conditions from Anglo American

Within 10-11 years humanity must reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, halt biodiversity loss and rapid ecological breakdown, and move away from the current extractive model of economic development. Extractivism, the extraction of finite natural resources such as metals, minerals, fossil fuels, land and water, relies on the exploitation and forcible displacement of local communities, mainly in underdeveloped nations, to produce raw materials for commodities and profit, mostly by multinational corporations based in imperialist countries. This imperialist plunder is accelerating climate change, and is responsible for increasing inequality, poverty and human rights violations. CHARLES CHINWEIZU reports.

British imperialism and mining elites

Britain and the City of London are central to the global mining industry. The world’s biggest mining companies are incorporated in the City, with shares traded on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) and the London Metal Exchange (LME), the world’s centre for industrial metals trading. British multinational mining companies are polluting the environment and destroying the livelihoods of communities near mines across Latin America, Africa and Asia. A War on Want report, ‘The Rivers are Bleeding: British Mining in Latin America’, provides a snapshot of 56 destructive and exploitative, extractive mining projects in Latin America, tied to British mining companies, all of which are listed on the LSE, including Anglo American, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Glencore. Japanese mining companies are also heavily involved.

There are over 250 mining­related conflicts in Latin America over many issues: environmental degradation, water theft, fraud, corruption, land dispossession, and the repression and criminalisation of community opposition. British mining companies work in alliance with racist, right-wing and corrupt Latin American governments whose security forces kill human rights defenders and others highlighting the devastating social, cultural, economic and environmental impact of these projects. These monopolies are seizing control of, and contaminating, local water supplies through spills and the dumping of toxic waste into rivers.

Their board members are assuredly part of the British ruling class: Baroness Shriti Vadera, a Director of BHP Billiton, Non­Executive Director of AstraZeneca and Chairwoman of Santander UK, was formerly a Minister in the Departments for International Development, and Business, Innovation and Skills under Gordon Brown’s Labour government. Sir John Parker, Anglo American’s chair until October 2017, is a former senior Non­Executive Director of the Bank of England. Other Anglo American board members are Sir Philip Hampton, chairman of British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, and Byron Grote, a Non­Executive Director of Tesco and Standard Chartered bank. Anthony Hayward, a Non­Executive Chairman of Glencore is a former CEO of BP, and so on.

The major shareholders behind BHP Billiton are BlackRock Investment Management, advised by former British Chancellor George Osborne, and Legal & General Investment Management Ltd, investment firms Aberdeen Asset Management and Norges Bank Investment Management, the body that manages the ‘ethical’ Norwegian state oil fund. Glencore’s major shareholders are Qatar Holding (Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund), BlackRock and Norges. Behind Anglo American is Vedanta Resources, another British mining company that operates in Zambia.

British mining in Latin America

Anglo American

Anglo American, one of the world’s largest mining companies, with revenues of $4.1bn in 2017, operates eight mines, mainly copper or nickel, in Peru, Chile, Colombia and Brazil. The company was fined $4.5m in 2014 and $6.2m in 2015 by Chile’s environmental regulator SMA for water pollution, failure to fully preserve and relocate vegetation, causing ‘irreparable’ damage to a nearby agricultural valley in Los Bronces, ineffective wetland conservation plans and water management, and a lack of environmental monitoring.

According to local activists: ‘Public meetings to deal with Anglo American activities have been marked by the presence of heavily armed police... Peaceful community demonstrations are suppressed by a disproportionate police force...’

BHP Billiton

BHP Billiton, the largest multinational mining firm, is Anglo-Australian, and made $8.9bn profit in the year ending June 2018. BHP operates five mainly copper mines in Chile, Peru, Brazil and Colombia. Brazil’s worst­ever environmental disaster occurred in November 2015 when the Fundão dam to hold tailings waste at the Samarco mine collapsed, killing 20 people, making 700 homeless, destroying the village of Bento Rodrigues and spewing 50m cubic metres of mineral waste into the Rio Doce, killing fish and aquatic life along the length of the river and polluting vast swathes of agricultural land. BHP and the foundation it set up to pay compensation, have ignored many of those affected and failed to ensure any meaningful participation in the decision­making about the cleanup and compensation. BHP had been aware of chronic structural problems at Fundão since 2009 and could have acted to prevent the collapse, but instead focused on cutting costs and increasing production. In October 2016, the Brazilian prosecutor’s office charged 26 people for their roles in the crime.

On 25 January 2019, a tailings dam, Brumadinho dam, owned by Brazilian firm Vale, at the Córrego do Feijão iron ore mine, collapsed, releasing toxic waste, leaving a trail of devastation and killing over 200 people. A significant part of the Paraopeba river ecosystem has been contaminated. Vale receives significant capital backing from British banks Barclays and HSBC.

BHP and Rio Tinto’s copper mine in Escondida, Chile has been extracting water from local water systems, causing damage, such as the disappearance of animals and insects that support life in the driest desert in the world. BHP and Glencore’s copper mine in Antamina, Peru has covered the area in a dust cloud that’s left nearby communities with toxic metals (lead, cadminum and arsenic) in their blood and urine.

Glencore

Glencore made $14.8bn in 2016 and operates 19 mines in Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina. Glencore’s mines use up to 100 million litres of clean drinking water a day, but dump toxic, heavy metal-laden effluent into rivers, such as Sali­Dulce river basin in Argentina, and river Calenturitas in Colombia. Argentine and Peruvian police violently attack demonstrators protesting against the mines with live ammunition, rubber bullets, tear gas and dogs, using stress positions, and racist abuse.

Glencore, BHP and Anglo American’s coal mine in Cerrejón, Colombia, uses 17 million litres of water a day and has polluted nearby rivers and streams making the water unfit for human consumption. From 2008­16, 4,770 Wayúu children died of thirst, malnutrition and preventable diseases. In 2015, the UK imported 20 million tonnes of coal for power stations, 37% of which came from Colombia.

British mining in Africa

Zambia

In 2015, 1,826 Zambians took Vedanta Resources and its subsidiary, Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) to court due to numerous and ongoing toxic waste discharges into rivers and the environment from KCM’s mining operations. Vedanta is one of the largest mining companies in the world, and KCM is the largest copper miner in Africa. In April 2019, London’s Supreme Court ruled the Zambians had the right to sue Vedanta in the English courts. In May 2018 police shot dead 13 protesters in Vedanta’s copper smelter in Tuticorin, India.

Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone is an important source for imperialist nations of diamonds, titanium, bauxite and gold, and has one of the world’s largest deposits of rutile, a titanium ore. Yet 60% of the population lives below the poverty line. The main cause of the country’s 1991­2002 civil war which killed 200,000 people, was diamond mining. Over 80 years of mining has brought no tangible benefits to the working classes in the country. Only 13% have access to proper sanitation; there are frequent outbreaks of waterborne diseases like cholera, hepatitis A, typhoid and malaria, attributed to poor sanitary conditions and contaminated water. British mining companies are polluting those water sources in the country.

In March 2018, over 2,500 people around mining communities in Tonkolili district filed a lawsuit against British iron ore firm African Minerals Limited (AML) for tailing sludge pollution, polluting swampland and water sources and violation of environmental laws. Forcible relocation of communities by AML left the communities with no access to land, and inadequate compensation. British firm London Mining, Australian firm Sierra Rutile, French company Bollore and Israeli diamond company OCTEA have also been accused of destroying the environment and forcible relocation in Sierra Leone.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

The DRC has the second largest copper reserves, half the cobalt reserves and about 70% of reserves of coltan (columbite­tantalum), critical and strategic raw materials essential for mobile phone and wireless technology, aviation and nuclear energy. DRC, the third poorest country in the world, also owns huge deposits of gold, uranium, diamonds and cassiterite (tin oxide), but it is demand for cobalt (the metal used in the lithium­ion batteries that power electric vehicles), that is set to increase, as lithium­ion batteries are predicted to make up 62% of all batteries by 2020, with cobalt in 75% of all lithium­ion batteries. What is more, 60% of cobalt production is a by-product of copper mining. DRC produced 67% of the world’s cobalt in 2017.

British company Glencore is the world’s largest cobalt mining company, and the operations of its subsidiaries (such as Katanga Mining which holds controlling stakes in joint ventures with Gécamines, the state-owned mining company), result in air and environmental pollution, water pollution, child and forced labour, smuggling of materials, repatriated profits, tax evasion, violence against activists and human rights protesters using apartheid-era security firms. In 2012, BBC’s Panorama found evidence of dumping of acid into a river from a copper refinery at Luilu, and children as young as 10 working in the Tilwezembe mine, where 60 miners died in 2011. The children climbed down hand­dug mineshafts 150ft deep without safety or breathing equipment to dig copper and cobalt for those environmentally friendly cars. Apple, VW and Samsung also use cobalt in their batteries which has been mined by hand by artisanal miners (including children). Mine owner Chemaf resisted giving workers safety equipment ‘because they would sell it’.

British and US imperialism were behind the war in 1996­2003 to weaken DRC and pillage its resources for the benefit of its mining giants. Rwanda has invaded DRC at least six times and maintains a permanent military presence in the east of the country. A UN Security Council report in October 2002 described theft of DRC’s gold, timber, coltan and diamonds, and transfer of at least $5bn from the state mining sector to western companies, including 18 British firms such as Anglo American, De Beers and Barclays Bank (Observer, 6 February 2005). DRC found in 2008 that all mining contracts signed between 1998 and 2006 were fraudulent, including those with British mining giants CAMEC and Anglo Gold Ashanti. A new mining code was signed into law in June 2018, met with vigorous opposition from Chinese, Australian and British firms led by Glencore, Randgold Resources and Anglo Gold.

South Africa

Mining dominates South Africa’s political, social and economic landscape. Control of vast mineral resources was central to British support for apartheid. South Africa is among the largest producers of coal, gold, diamonds, platinum group metals (PGMs), vanadium, rutile, iron ore, chrome, manganese, vermiculite, zirconium, uranium etc. South Africa produces 70% of global PGMs, used in the automobile industry as autocatalysts to reduce exhaust pollution. British firms are involved up to their necks including Lonmin, Glencore Coal South Africa, De Beers, Anglogold Ashanti and Amplats (Anglo American Platinum), the world’s biggest producer of platinum. A 2016 South African Human Rights Commission report showed these British companies and others were depleting and polluting water sources, polluting the air with coal and tailings dump dust, leading to respiratory illnesses, forcibly evicting mining communities from their land, and providing inadequate housing and compensation. A 2015 study by the South African Medical Research Council found association between living proximity to mine dumps and prevalence of chronic respiratory diseases. An estimated 1.6 million people live near mine dumps in South Africa, the most unequal country in the world, with 31 million people living below the poverty line.

This record shows that there can be no movement against climate change worth its salt that does not confront imperialism, and especially British imperialism given its wilful destruction of the environment in developing countries. Future articles will address the role played by agribusiness and by the hydrocarbon industries in promoting eco-destruction and global warming.

FIGHT RACISM! FIGHT IMPERIALISM! 270 June/July 2019

 

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