Better known for her support for asbestos, why is Julie Bishop fronting an African mining conference beside uranium miner John Borshoff, who ran Paladin Energy into insolvency and called Fukushima a "sideshow"?
NO DOUBT, tall tales and cocktails will both flow at this week’s Africa Down Under mining conference in Perth, an annual event that sees Australian politicians join their African counterparts alongside a melange of miners, merchants and media.
But it is unlikely that too many of these will be the stories of corruption, dirty dealing and corner cutting that are so common in the world of resource extraction, especially in the developing or majority world.
Earlier this decade the Human Rights Law Resource Centre found that many
'Australian companies, particularly mining companies, can have a severe impact on human rights throughout the world, including the right to food, water, health and a clean environment. Despite this, successive governments lack a clear framework of human rights obligations for Australian corporations operating overseas. This is particularly problematic in countries with lax or limited regulations.'
The operations and impacts of one embattled Australian miner highlights the point. For years, Paladin Energy was a bullish uranium promoter, now in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster it has joined the zombie companies — the walking corporate dead.
Borshoff was clear in his rationale stating that the
"Australians and the Canadians have become over-sophisticated in their environmental and social concerns over uranium mining — the future is in Africa."
The contested mine was a focus of sustained criticism from community and civil society groups before being placed into extended ‘care and maintenance’ following the collapse in global demand and the freefall in the uranium commodity price that followed Fukushima.
Borshoff termed the Australian uranium fuelled Fukushima meltdown a "sideshow". Not true, although Paladin were always clowns. But never funny ones.
The company is now in administration and a complicated planned bailout involving a Chinese takeover of a shrinking Namibian uranium project has failed. So now, as the creditors circle, who cleans up after the party? What priority will be given to addressing the disrupted and damaged country and communities around Kayelekera?
All good questions to ask John Borshoff, who is presenting Africa Down Under in a session with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. But don’t hold your breath. This year he will wear a different hard hat. Paladin is the past and the future now is Deep Yellow — a junior miner with ambitions in Namibia. The caravan moves on with scarcely a glance behind.
Paladin’s ambition and appetite always exceeded its capacity and competence and now the gap between its inflated promises and its profound under-performance is absolute.
''The promises never last, the problems always do."
There is no question that economic and wider benefits can and do flow from extractive operations in Africa. But so too does great damage and inequity. The challenge is simple to state and very difficult to deliver – how to maximise the widest benefit and minimise the adverse impacts.
The official Australian line, strongly promoted by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is that
'... mining offers African countries an unparalleled opportunity to stimulate growth and reduce poverty. If well managed, the extractives sector can drive innovation, generate revenue to fund critical social services and upgrade productive physical infrastructure, and directly and indirectly create jobs.'
Yet another three little words that can make a world of difference: 'if well managed'.
Expanding the extractives industry in regions with major governance, capacity and transparency challenges is a concern for communities and civil society groups in both Australia and Africa. The absence of a robust regulatory regime in many African countries can see situations where Australian companies are engaged in activities that would not be acceptable practise at home.
Paladin’s boom to bust case study is a further clear example of the lack of independent scrutiny of the uranium sector that also reflects poorly on the activities of Australian miners operating in nations with limited governance and regulatory capacity.
The mining sector always makes a difference, but it is not always a positive one. Especially given that many of the Australian company’s active in the African mining sector are juniors with limited capacity, scant accountability and little or no operational experience or proven compliance history.
“... very strong perception that when Australian mining companies come here they take every advantage of regulatory and compliance monitoring weaknesses, and of the huge disparity in power between themselves and affected communities, and aim to get away with things they wouldn’t even think of trying in Australia."
There are too many examples of Australian mining activities in Africa ending in corruption, environmental damage or community disruption for us to simply accept pro-industry rhetoric. There is a clear need for increased transparency, responsibility and support for affected communities. And a clear need for independent proof, not industry promises.
Africa Down Under cannot be allowed to be an uncritical platform for Plunder Down Under.
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