We need a real “Alternatives to Mining” Indaba

By Farai Maguwu and Christelle Terreblanche. Originally posted by Pambazuka News

You could be forgiven for thinking you were attending a side-event at Cape Town’s glitzy annual Mining Indaba in early February, when the opening panel of a civil society meeting repeatedly stressed how crucial mining is for Africa’s ‘development.’

The challenge, many inferred, was merely to close the tax gaps that have led to massive illicit financial outflows, secreted away to offshore banking centres by looting corporations. Another concern was to ensure that affected communities get a bit more bang for their buck.

Not justice for the dispossessed, not radical measures to head off a climate emergency driven by fossil fuel mining; not an end to systemic violence (reflecting capital-state power, society-nature exploitation and patriarchy), and certainly no word about alternatives to mining. At a time of extreme crises in the mining industry – including 90% declines in stock market values of industry leaders Anglo American, Glencore and Lonmin – this was the moment to strike the Achilles Heel of minerals capitalism.

After all, the 7th Alternative Mining Indaba (AMI) speakers were talking on behalf of millions of Africans alienated from their land and livelihoods in an unprecedented scramble for Africa’s resources, mostly aided and abetted by corrupt local elites.

The outflow of non-renewable mineral wealth is said to be offset by attracting ‘much needed’ foreign direct investment, boosting national ‘growth’ (Gross Domestic Product) and creating jobs. But mining takes a massive toll on the prospects of future generations, on the environment and especially on already poor communities in the here and now.

This is a net outflow of wealth accompanied by an entrenchment of the structural violence that had torn the continent’s people apart for centuries. Above all, as the local elites are pocketing millions that fall from corporate tables, governments in Africa have slowed down on productive and sustainable sectors of their economies such as agriculture, renewable energy generation and manufacturing.

In most cases, that means rural communities are forcibly removed, ill-compensated (if at all), and suffer violent repression of protests and countless mining externalities such as dust, bad air, blasting and toxic water. Displaced from access to their reproductive resources, including growing food, women often bear the brunt of the violent dislocation. They live as the bottom layer at the edges of squalid mining towns where they render unpaid and devalued care work, but swell the increasingly feminised ranks of refugees on the continent.

Cheap migrant labour, after all, had cemented South Africa’s minerals-energy complex. This structural fault line creates poverty and inequality, on behalf of profits for transnational companies who were enticed to the African Mining Indaba by, among other things, golf days and music soirée treats.

So where were the countless African communities adversely affected by mining? A few were present among the 350-strong AMI delegates, but the event was dominated by NGOs, liberal funders and the faith community. The AMI programme contained fewer than a third of speakers who were community representatives. They were mostly given five-minute speaking slots to describe complex, multiple layers of dispossession.

A few more affected voices were heard in the side-sessions. As one woman from Mokopane in South Africa’s North West province, where the community had been fighting a seven year battle said: “When a woman loses land, (the family) can’t eat, we can’t produce”.

There are plenty of reasons for wondering what happened to a potential ‘alternative’ forum to garner much-needed solidarity action and justice for marginalised groups, while exposing mining atrocities – much like the World Social Forum is to the World Economic Forum.

Beyond this year’s less-than-ambitious AMI agenda, three trends were particularly indicative of this ‘alternative’ potential gone astray.

First, the opening remarks betrayed a certain apologetic tone. Almost every official speaker indicted mining as harmful. Nevertheless, all argued that mining must continue and can be reined in: mining is good for Africa because Africa needs development and must grow.

This is despite over 60 years of imposed development schemes that had left much of the continent more export-dependent and depleted than before, structurally skewed into uneven enclaves and politically captured by transnational corporations.

Across town, the mining corporates were consolidating their growing power over the continent’s resources, striking deals for big infrastructure and off-set schemes with governments – all of which lead to further land, water and ‘green grabs’ – resources enclosed purportedly to mitigate climate change that actually lead to further devastation and enclosure.

But all this is framed as ‘development,’ even ‘green’ development. The corporate AMI counterpart even had it’s own ‘sustainability’ day for the public this year, though few mining houses comply with environmental requirements.

The mining-for-development paradigm is increasingly questioned among progressives worldwide, especially in the Global South, given the role of fossil fuel and energy-intensive mineral extraction in escalating inequality, climate change and other socio-ecological problems.

The narrative of ‘mining ourselves out of poverty’ is now banal propaganda: from government, from big corporates and sadly, from civil society – which seemed to sing the same tune in Cape Town despite mounting evidence that this is a fallacy.

It is the ‘development’-at-any-cost mindset that underpins the African Mining Vision, of which the AMI only said: let’s ‘domesticate’ the corporate vision, through engagement and better consent and transparency mechanisms.

This already alludes to the second problem: the AMI once again failed to ‘connect the dots’ from mining to climate, electricity and economy, as Patrick Bondcommented after the 2015 AMI gathering.

The conference unnecessarily shied away from critical discussions over the intersections between the energy crises (from South Africa’s crunch, coal addiction and nuclear ambitions to the fact that less than half of Africans have access to electricity), the escalating looting of Africa’s resources, its deepening poverty and food insecurity and especially its disproportional vulnerability to global warming.

Why were these burning issues not prominent on the programme? Where are the‘alternatives’ –from food sovereignty to post-extractivism to ‘zero waste’ and solidarity economy pathways? Where are the discussions about real jobs that could also ward off catastrophic warming of the continent? Why does gender remain a side issue?

We can think of countless reasons why the climate change-mining link should have been a prominent theme of the 2016 AMI. Given AMI’s close relationship with the faith community, surely there was reason to take note of last year’s mea culpa intervention by the Pope’s ‘Encyclical’ on climate change that has quite a lot to say about mining impacts.

Then, the world watched in astonishment as the United Nation’s COP21 Paris climate talks condemned Africa to an almost certain ecocide. And we are acutely aware of the drought that is crippling farmers across southern Africa, the water crisis and the billions of dollars ‘fleeing’ the developing world as the capitalist financial crisis deepens.

As conference attendees sweltered in an unprecedented heat wave, how could the connection between extraction and climate not be centre-stage?

Lastly, the most disconcerting question: why is the AMI failing to follow through on its own resolutions? In 2014, the civil society gathering resolved to ‘name and shame’ transgressing companies. In 2015, it went further, resolving to hold aMining Tribunal to hold companies accountable.

We are still waiting. Not that there has been lack of opportunity. It would have been easy enough to slot into a growing movement that held a Third International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature at the December 2015 Paris COP21, with mining corporations prominent among the indicted – and the event presided over by respected Cape Town lawyer Cormac Cullinan.

Indeed, it is unfortunate that no space has been created at the AMI for reflection on previous resolutions: progress, setbacks and the worsening trends in dispossession and inequality since its first meeting in 2010.

These omissions only reinforce a growing perception that the ‘alternative’ is just a space for victims of mining to blow off steam, while they are taught how to scrounge a few more crumbs from the looters’ banquet, via civilizing-society NGOs.

The mute tone at the opening session was also evident in this year’s communiquéto the main Indaba, with rather polite suggestions that governments do the things they already should be doing to reign in transnationals and protect their own people.

Sadly, the AMI’s narrative can hardly be distinguished from the official big boys’ Indaba – that Africa’s hopes of economic growth are inextricably pinned to extraction and export of raw minerals – an optimism negated by the history of mining in Africa.

There was no ‘thinking outside the box’ about what else Africa can do apart from destructive mining. No discussion on commodity price volatility, China’s economic slowdown and its effect on African economies that heavily rely on mineral extraction and export.

For instance, the price of iron ore has slumped from $150 per ton in 2013 to $65 per ton in February 2016; coal and platinum are not far behind. Several mining companies are slowing production and sending workers home to cope with the commodity prices slump. Many will be placed on care maintenance for a couple of years to come, thereby drilling holes in the minerals-for-development narrative. Vast chunks of mining land are now un-economic, to be scavenged –terribly dangerously – by gangs of desperate, informal artisanal miners.

But mentioning this harsh reality – the decisive end of the commodity super-cycle –would have dampened the optimism of believers: both those who genuinely and innocently believe mining to be a panacea to Africa’s development crises, and those NGOs paid to sanitize mining in the civil society sphere.

Africa needs alternatives to mining and fossil fuels even as basic or minimal mining would remain necessary. Even keynoters at the official Mining Indaba screamed out for ‘diversification’ thanks to the crash of commodity prices. Not every mineral in Africa must be extracted NOW. We need alternatives to development-as-ecocide. We need solidarity against both the Western imperialist and BRICS-sub imperialist New Scramble for Africa.

In short, we need a conference on ‘Alternatives to Mining’, and even more coordinated resistance and solidarity.

After all, Africa gave rise to one of the most innovative solutions to both the capitalist and climate crisis: “Leave the Oil in the Soil, the Coal in the Hole, and the Fracking Shale Gas under the Grass!” This philosophy was catalyzed by the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and eight other activists by the Nigerian government at the behest of Shell Oil 20 years ago, because they organized hundreds of thousands of people to peacefully protest the oil-extractive destruction of the Niger Delta.

The concept of avoiding a Resource Curse by leaving ‘wealth’ underground, has animated activists globally. Why could it not be discussed, let alone owned, in Cape Town in 2016? The NGOs’ failure of nerve and the neglect of mining communities’ interests so that mining-as-development rhetoric can continue, are reasons why the AMI steers dangerously close to becoming a ridiculous distraction, not a space for counter-power.


Farai Maguwu is a doctoral candidate in Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is also the Founding Director of Centre for Natural Resource Governance in Zimbabwe, a member group of the YLNM Network.

Christelle Terreblanche is a doctoral candidate in Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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