Ignatius Kamwanje on the Extractive Industry from a Human Rights Perspective

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Mining – an Extractive Industry from a Human Rights Perspective

By Ignatius Kamwanje

Human rights issues are very complex and sensitive as far as mining is concerned because of the unique environment it exists. Serious violations of human rights are the order of the day in mines operated by mining companies although they claim to operate under international standards.

Although efforts are being made by mining companies to be accountable to social responsibilities within the communities which they operate, there is need to devise measures that will serve as a model. Of late, we have witnessed an upsurge in human rights reporting which is now mandatory in the London Stock Exchange (LSE) listed companies and also initiatives that incorporate the Social Responsibility Index (SRI) which are being implemented in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) listed companies. This is being done to improve the performance and accountability of mining companies in terms of human rights issues. It is interesting to note that although these initiatives have been made, only a few or a handful of mining firms have reported about the challenges they are facing in terms of human rights issues worldwide and yet they are a key aspect of sustainable development in areas of operation.

Suffice to say, any company or a project that is deemed large, for example our multimillion-dollar Kayelekera Uranium Project (under care and maintenance), the anticipated Kanyika Niobium Project, Songwe Rare Earth Project, the Malingunde Graphite Project, just to mention but a few are bound to have human rights implications and it depends on how these companies handle and address such challenges.

In most African countries where mining occurs, the challenges which the community or mine workers face in terms of human rights violations include reprisals arising from freedom of speech, lack of protective equipment, racial discrimination, limited or no job protectionism, ethnic conflicts, lack of knowledge on labour laws by the communities, inferiority complex, blockades, competition for business just to mention a few. It must be borne in mind that poor human rights practices by these mining companies bring negative effects to both the workers and the communities since extraction of such valuable resources can bring about environmental pollution thereby affecting the health and livelihoods of the surrounding community in the long run.

Sometimes most governments where these companies operate are perceived to be playing a blame game by the communities because mining companies are easily politicized. It must also be borne in mind that local people may have little ability to influence the government but they have a big ability to influence the mines through means of activism. This is because governments sometimes fail to provide legal mandate for people to hold these mining companies accountable and by the end of the mine life, it is the community that is left with nothing but empty promises that were made during the signing of Development Agreements. This is a serious human right violation because government is the first line of reference in any country and is supposed to bear the primary responsibility in making sure that mining companies respect and uphold human rights. In Malawi, legal and policy reforms in mining are characterized by weak political will and some agreements occur in secret and yet it is said that mining is one of government’s Key Priority Areas in economic development. Our National Assembly (Malawi) should have a separate Parliamentary Committee as it does with Agriculture which will have a mandate on Extractive Industry. We should borrow a leaf from what other countries have done like Tanzania and this can be a driving force towards a speedy formulation of mining laws and policy frameworks in the mining sector for the common good of the country.

Human rights can influence mining companies to fulfill their Social obligations while also creating value for the communities. Therefore, mining firms should develop a pro-active and effective understanding of human rights issues in a country. Although most mining companies do not ascribe themselves to the Equator Principle framework i.e. the International Finance Corporation Performance Standards on Social and Environmental Sustainability, 2006 (which is used by commercial banks to manage social and environmental issues in financing a project) and is more of a ‘Social Licence to Operate’, it has proved that if companies could follow its approach in terms of human rights, it would be very easy for such mining companies to secure finances from the bankers or lenders since their financial performance is achievable by using operating standards provided as benchmarks. Such companies would have enjoyed steady relationships with the communities. This has a long lasting competitive advantage in the sense that the workers or communities themselves avoid such actions as unnecessary strikes, unnecessary fines from the government, legal actions, blockades, kidnaps, activism etc.

There are many legal reference points internationally that look into the performance standards of labour and working conditions like the International Finance Corporation (IFC), The European Union Dodd Frank Act, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) just to mention a few. All these embrace human rights conditions and some mining companies have used articles from them and proved very effective in their areas of operation. Of interest is the European Union Dodd Frank Act with reference to conflict on minerals which covers the United Nations duty to protect, the CSR to respect, and the need for greater access by victims to effective remedy. This is called Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework and provides high level guidance to businesses on how to ensure they respect human rights in partnership with States’ duty to protect them.

The future for the mining industry is bright in Malawi though it is not all that easy for mining companies to practice human rights on the ground. The industry must strive for innovation and reinvest in the communities to generate positive change. Coupled with the right level of commitment as directed by human rights activists, these companies can really get on board and finish the life of mine without any interference.

The Author, Ignatius Kamwanje, is a Consulting Geoscientist with experience in Mineral Exploration, Mining Geology, ESIA, Ground water Resources and Occupational Safety, Health and Environment. He can be contacted on [email protected] – 0999216869


This piece was initially published in Malawi’s Mining & Trade Review Issue Number 53 (September 2017).

The full edition is available for download here. This monthly publication is edited by Marcel Chimwala.


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