Monthly Archives: February 2012

Developing a principled position on the mining issue

The impacts the mining sector has on developing countries should interest all Canadians. In some Southern communities when residents hear of Canada they think of the mining company operating nearby rather than the country. As a Canadian development organization named Engineers Without Borders, we should especially be concerned with this issue. We should develop a principled position on the mining question, and organize public outreach and political advocacy campaigns around it. EWB, with its large member-base and outreach capacity, has the ability to significantly affect the shape this issue takes.

More than 60 percent of publicly traded mining companies are based in Canada. While most of these companies are small exploration outfits, many of the largest extraction companies in the world also call Canada their home. The conduct of many of these companies routinely comes under scrutiny.

Large-scale mining has the tendency to be tremendously damaging to the environment, and if proper precautions are not taken this damage can translate into health problems for people in nearby communities. Many social problems have also been connected to the sector. While mining companies create jobs, and pay royalties and taxes, the benefits provided by these often bypass poor host communities and are captured by elites who are politically connected. Contamination of drinking water, displacement of communities, heightened risk of conflict, and increased political corruption are some of the various problems that find themselves attached to the mining sector.

Dubbing themselves “socially responsible”, Canadian mining companies tell us that regulation which restricts them from carrying out activities that harm vulnerable communities in developing countries is not required. They say that they can abide by high enough ethical and environmental standards without being regulated. There is plenty of evidence, however, to suggest that this is not the case.

Although there is a considerable amount of interest in this issue within EWB, the organization does not have an officially articulated position on it. There does exist something of a tacit position, however, which is tied to EWB’s advocacy of “global engineering”. We see our role as promoting good behaviour within the mining sector by encouraging people who work within it to be conscious actors.

We seem to have the idea that decisions made by employees of mining companies are a matter of lifestyle choice, rather than being overwhelmingly determined by institutional forces. We presume that if employees of mining companies can be convinced to not make decisions that harm communities in the developing world, then the problems associated with the sector will be a good way along in getting handled.

Unfortunately, people’s “goodness” is not something we can rely on to make sure vulnerable communities are not harmed and/or unfairly taken advantage of. There are institutional forces which allow even “good” people working in the sector to contribute to bad conduct. The first of these forces is competition. It drives companies to cut costs wherever they can to maximize profit margins and stay ahead of other firms. Cutting costs can lead to the thinning of safety and environmental standards, along with providing incentive to engage in corruption.

Secondly, there is regulation. Regulation, primarily when it is enforced, acts as an oppositional force. Currently, however, regulation in this sector tends to be very weak. Hence, it does not stop companies from cutting costs to such a degree that their operations cause harm to poor communities.

Finally, there are the specialization and hierarchy that exist within companies. Employees generally work on component parts of large projects and are often not aware of the full impact their work has. However, even in a case where an employee is aware of impacts which she is not entirely pleased with, it will be easy for her to justify doing her work. In her mind she will shift responsibility of the negative impacts onto those above her who have assigned her the work. She will likely also note the fact that if she was not doing the work someone else would do it. One or both of these two justifications will work through the minds of all the individuals who are not wholly satisfied with foreseeable negative impacts, and the project will go on.

Along with all this, we must remember that proximity breeds loyalty, which can often be blinding. Those who work in the mining sector may become conditioned in such a way that they are not able to see its faults; just as Canadians can come to easily overlook their country’s faults.

Even those who have “global engineering values” instilled within them, hence, will likely not be able to affect the course of actions taken by the companies they work for. A more effective approach is to realign the institutional forces pressing on the actors in the sector. Regulation should be enacted which requires companies to implement certain levels of environmental and safety standards, and prohibits them from taking part in, or allowing their work to facilitate, corrupt and criminal behaviour.

There are some that take the view that although regulation and enforcement will ultimately have to be relied upon to make sure mining activity does not harm poor communities, these may take a long time to implement and in the meantime it may also be worthwhile to promote the adoption of voluntary good conduct among mining companies. Framing the approach that seeks to bring about the enactment of regulation as “working from the outside”, we are told that some should also “work on the inside” to create change. Following this line of argument, we are told that EWB’s “inside” global engineering approach is complementary to the approach taken by organizations “working from the outside”.

While it may be well-meaning, promoting the idea that companies can unilaterally improve their behaviour gets in the way of getting regulation in place. In order to stall the enactment of regulation, mining companies themselves argue that they can voluntarily abide by high ethical standards. Not only are there, as demonstrated earlier, severe limitations in trying to promote behaviour change within the mining sector’s existing institutional structure, trying to do so impedes progress by creating barriers for those “working from the outside”. The “inside” and “outside” approaches, in this case, conflict with each other. It is also worth noting that the “outside” approach seeks to make systemic change, which is, especially recently, EWB’s avowed method of solving problems.

It is surprising that an issue of such importance, and one which would easily align with the values and work of the organization is officially avoided. It is often stated that EWB is a “ground-up” organization; ideas and issues which concern general members make their way up to become official policy, rather than the other way around. Bearing in mind claims of this nature and the fact that so many members are interested in this issue, it becomes even more difficult to understand why it has not become a part of what the organization focuses on.

Perhaps more effort needs to be exerted to move it up from the ground. University chapters across the country should adopt this issue as a focus in their activities; conduct research, and develop content for internal learning and external outreach. Along with this we should lobby for the development of a principled official position on the issue at the national level. Hopefully a sustained effort of this kind can finally make this issue a proper part of EWB’s official agenda.