A Review of Stuart Kirsch’s Mining Capitalism


Mining Capitalism
The Relationship Between Corporations and Their Critics

By Stuart Kirsch

University of California Press, 2014

Review by Al Gedicks

Mining is the single most destructive assault on the environment. Mining moves more earth and produces more toxic waste than any other industry. “As a result,” says Stuart Kirsch, “mining projects have become the target for unprecedented conflict on almost every continent.”

Review-1Kirsch is uniquely qualified to examine the relationship between mining corporations and their critics—he spent two decades as an anthropologist doing ethnographic research and participating in an indigenous political movement opposed to the Ok Tedi copper and gold mine in Papua New Guinea. The first half of the book describes his experience in working with an alliance of indigenous peoples, environmental activists, and lawyers in an international campaign to stop the Ok Tedi mine from dumping their waste into the local river system.

This campaign included a 1994 lawsuit in Australian courts against one of Australia’s largest mining corporations (BHP) brought on behalf of 30,000 people living downstream from the mine. The case established the important precedent that mining companies are liable for damage claims when their mining pollution deprives people of their subsistence practices such as fishing or farming.

Kirsch’s participation in the campaign against the mine provided critical access to both sides in this highly charged conflict, from local villagers to BHP corporate executives in Melbourne, Australia and to activists with environmental organizations on several continents. Kirsch provides great insight into the political strategies of transnational action networks seeking greater accountability from mining companies as well as the corporate counterpoint to the strategy and tactics of the opposition. Up until quite recently, the industry has been able to avoid responsibility for the costs of its destructive activity by shifting the burden of human and environmental costs onto society.

That era came to a close in the 1990s, when indigenous peoples and their allies in the environmental and human rights community mounted successful campaigns to resist ecologically destructive mining projects like the proposed Crandon metallic sulfide mine in Wisconsin. These campaigns coincided with the emergence of an international environmental justice movement, took the industry by surprise and created a “crisis of confidence” among the largest and most powerful mining corpor- ations.

Kirsch traces the rise of these social movements and shows how the global mining industry has been forced to develop new social control technologies to manage their relationships with the public and allow their continued access to mineral resources. For example, the mining industry has promoted the idea that mining contributes to sustainable development by creating economic benefits that last beyond the life of the mine. Critics counter this assertion with evidence that resource-dependent communities experience higher rates of poverty and lower rates of economic growth than non-mining communities. Economists call this the “resource curse.”

The second half of the book examines how the mining industry uses and manipulates science to convince its critics that the problems of the mining industry are being addressed without the need for additional oversight or regulation.

Kirsch refers to the manipulation of science as part of the new politics of time. Mining companies seek to delay public awareness of the serious environmental and human health effects of their operations. This makes it easier for the industry to obtain mining permits and to delay lawsuits seeking to limit pollution damage. At the same time, transnational action networks enable activists to challenge corporate claims by sharing information about the track record of the global mining industry. The new politics of time allows indigenous communities and environmental organizations to prevent environmental damages from mining by shifting attention to the period before mining begins.

One of the most important resources in the politics of time is the growing recognition of the indigenous right of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) before any mining projects are allowed on indigenous land. After decades of lobbying and political organizing by indigenous people and their allies, the United Nations passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, which mandates the principle of FPIC. Similar to FPIC, but not limited to indigenous communities, is the idea of a “social license to operate” which goes beyond permitting requirements to assess how much the local community supports the mining project. The failure to obtain such a social license raises the political and financial risks of the project and can often lead to the defeat of a mining project by widespread community opposition.

The last part of the book examines the growing social movement in Latin America to use local democratic votes (referenda or consultas) to express opposition to new mining projects. State officials have criticized voters for taking democracy into their own hands and passed legislation criminalizing acts of peaceful mining protest. Mining activists all over Central and South America have been violently assaulted by both state and private security forces employed by mining companies.

Despite the coercive tactics of the mining industry, Kirsch is optimistic about the ability of social movements to challenge the industry in new and creative ways. If you think that large-scale, destructive mining projects are inevitable, this book will make you think twice.

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Al Gedicks is the author of Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations.