04 July 2006

Sustainable mining?

WE SPENT the whole day yesterday in London, meeting with people who, as a colleague described, are "big guns." Indeed they are: one is a former leader of the Labour party (which has been in power here in the UK for close to a decade now under Tony Blair) during his time; another is a world-class academic who is a trustee of the Ford Foundation, among others; and yet another is a former ambassador and permanent representative of the US to the United Nations.

But the one I found most interesting, at least from where I stand, is a bland corporate guy named John Groom who seemed to be a square peg in a round hole during the panel discussion. Throughout his career, Dr. Groom has been heavily involved with the mining industry through his company as well as their international industry association, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM).

The sustainable development framework through which ICMM operates calls for a quadrilateral partnership between the mining industry, the government (local, regional and national), civil society (grassroots, local, national and international), and the local communities hosting mining operations. I found this interesting because the framework explicitly recognizes the important role of NGOs like the Ateneo de Naga University-based Institute for Environmental Conservation and Research (INECAR) and its own national and international network in the whole debate regarding the ongoing mining at Rapu-Rapu, Albay.

Now, this will rile the local governments in Albay who instinctively distrust NGOs, but the whole point of civil society participation in this ongoing debate is predicated on the relatively weak position of local communities in the whole power equation. The framework assumes these four groups of stakeholders to be working, engaging and interacting with each other on equal footing, but in reality they do not; most often, local communities are drowned out in the debate and end up holding an empty bag.

In the long run, better governance structures and practices will play a key role in balancing things out, but this will take time. With a national government never more distrusted in our history, and critical decisions being made in the dark corridors of power, a healthy skepticism towards those exercising it, as suggested by one of the panelists, is now critical more than ever.

NOTE: Three days later, there is still only one internet-enabled PC serving the needs of 60-plus IFP fellows. So I had to wake up at 4 am if only to make sure I will get unfettered access without anyone breathing down on my neck. If there is one huge pockmark to an otherwise pleasant experience, this certainly would be it.