Of the three largest mining companies with London AGMs, (the other two being BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto), Anglo American is perhaps most adept at managing criticism and containing dissent.
Faced with a large delegation opposing the Pebble project in Alaska, the company ensured that Native Alaskans who favour the project were also present, and company Chair Sir John Parker stressed differences of opinion in the state as justification for proceeding with studies to enable people to make decisions based on ‘facts’ rather than ‘fears’. He also took all questions and comments on the Pebble project in one go and offered one inadequate response to all, preventing any further discussion of the matter. Native Alaskan critics, pointing to a documented 80% opposition to the project in the area around Bristol Bay, whose pristine waters and salmon fishery would be threatened if mine development went ahead, asked what level opposition had to reach before Anglo American CEO Cynthia Carroll kept her promise not to go ahead with the project if a majority opposed it. This question was dodged.
More surprisingly, both the Chair and the CEO announced in their introductory remarks that the company would assist former miners in South Africa who are ill with silicosis and tuberculosis and who are suing the company for health care costs. Refusing to admit any liability, the company said that as a humanitarian gesture it would propose to the claimants’ lawyers that it would pay for existing claimants’ health care, as far as independent health checks establish that they are suffering from silicosis or silico-tuberculosis, until the court case is completed. This was apparently because of the company’s concern for the wellbeing of claimants in a case that has been dragging on since 2004. It may also have had something to do with a press conference held the day before in South Africa, which received massive coverage in the South African press and threatened to cast the company in a very unfavourable light; and with a letter to the company the day before that from British Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Avebury and others.
Challenged on the conduct of the company’s Cerrejon Coal joint venture with BHP Billiton and Xstrata, the Chair and the Chief Executive of Anglo American’s thermal coal operations were vacuous, asserting that community relocations were occurring according to international standards in the face of reports from the communities that they are not.
Sir John Parker began the AGM by thanking Nicky Oppenheimer, now retiring as a non-executive director, for his 43 years of service on the board. The Chair said that the legacy of Nicky’s grandfather Ernest Oppenheimer lives on. [Anglo American is insistent on presenting its history of profiting from apartheid as a lengthy, enlightened struggle to abolish apartheid and to forge the new South Africa. It is happy to take credit for its contribution to a post-apartheid legacy that has included the rise of a new Black moneyed class and the perpetuation of massive inequalities between rich and poor.]
The Chair then praised the heroism of Anglo American workers and management in Queensland, where metallurgical coal workers had helped in the rescue operations during the New Year floods, and in Chile, where help had been given in rescuing survivors of the 2010 earthquake and in rebuilding schools.
He spoke about improvements in mine safety and said it showed that the goal of zero harm is possible.
He talked about the company’s work on climate change and water scarcity. In addition to increasing production of coal, [which, when it is burnt, will of course make an enormous contribution to damaging climate change] the company is, he said, working on Carbon Capture and Storage, the use of platinum in clean fuel cell technologies, and the use of algae to produce sustainable fuels.
He also spoke about the company’s commitment to the UN Global Compact, the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative, the Investment Climate Facility for Africa and the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, and its new partnership with NGO International Alert.
Pebble project, Alaska
Jeweller Greg Valerio asked how the company would prevent the spread of controversy around the Pebble project to the company’s other projects, implying that the move among jewellers to boycott any gold produced at a future Pebble Mine may be widened. Several speakers pointed out that significant investors have pulled out of the Pebble project and that 80% of people in the Bristol Bay area oppose it. Native leader Bobby Andrew said that CEO Cynthia Carroll should honour her publicly made promise not to move forward with the project without the support of the Bristol Bay communities. Another speaker said that Section 404c of the Clean Water Act would close the project down. Bob Waldrop of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, representing most of the Bay’s commercial fishermen, asked whether Anglo American would pull out of the project if studies showed that it would have a damaging impact on salmon. Bonnie Gestring of US organisation Earthworks said that the Federal Government is assessing the appropriateness of the development and asked whether the company would honour its promise to abandon the project if there were damage to salmon.
Other speakers, from Native communities close to the site of the Pebble project, said that there were many people in the area who had not yet made a decision, and did not accept the right of others to speak for them. One said that it was irresponsible to circumvent due process because of opposition from jewellers from outside Alaska. This was a violation of Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Communities close to the possible mine site are economically depressed and want the right to control their own resources, and some favour mineral development. The Alaska Peninsula Corporation, involving five Native villages in the Bristol Bay region, takes the view that Section 404c of the Clean Water Act, which mine opponents hope may halt mine development, may also ban Native people from developing their own resources, and therefore violates their Indigenous rights. They believe that the National Environmental Policy Act will protect the salmon. They do not wish to swap salmon for mining but want to have all the information before making a decision for or against mining.
Sir John Parker, replying to all questions and comments in one go, said that the company was listening to people’s views. The company wants the project to enhance life in local communities. Alaskans are welcome to visit any of the company’s operations elsewhere, for instance in Chile, to see the way in which the company conducts its operations. Pebble is still an exploration project. No mine is planned yet. A pre-feasibility study is needed before the board could approve a mine plan. Pebble lies on land designated by the Alaskan government for mineral exploration and development. Alaska has protected 174 million acres, an area five and a half times the size of England. The Pebble project team is 75% Alaskan. The company wants to hire and train Alaskan people. They want the Alaskan people to judge the project on facts, not rhetoric or scaremongering. They are employing some of the best scientists in the world to establish the facts, and will give the Alaskan people, and not just the government, full access to their scientific findings and to the mine plan. There is a long process before any plan is approved. It needs to obtain sixty different kinds of permits from state and federal agencies. Fish and mining can coexist. Good examples are at the Red Dog, Fort Knox and Greens Creek mines. The Fraser River shows that fish and industrial activity need not threaten each other. This year, 35 million sockeye salmon returned to the river, despite the presence of largescale copper mining. The Pebble Partnership can design a mine which can bring benefits to all.
[Sir John did not refer to the precautionary principle. No mine can ever be failsafe. Bristol Bay’s waters are pristine. A single major spillage would end that. But it is clear that the company is not willing to accept the judgement of 80% of the people in the area, and will continue attempting to persuade them that its mine plans will be infallible.]
The Cerrejon coal mine, Colombia
Richard Solly, of Colombia Solidarity Campaign, spoke about community relocations around the Cerrejon mine in La Guajira, Colombia. Anglo American owns one third of the mine. Richard had met two weeks previously with representatives of Cerrejon Coal to learn about the company’s plans for mine expansion and the process of community consultation. He was concerned about how people could feel free to express opinions about the mine in the context of human rights abuses and impunity. Mine workers have suffered because of attacks on the mine by some armed groups, and critics of the mine have been threatened by others.
There is also concern about the existing relocation process for communities affected by current mining operations. Cerrejon Coal’s account of the process differs from the account given by the communities involved. They speak of divisions in the communities caused by the pressure to move quickly. The community of Roche has been split between those who have moved to the new site and those who want their concerns about economic security dealt with before they move. Economic projects are not yet in place and there is insufficient land in the new community for people to keep their cattle, so a move will lead to loss of livelihood. The company frequently cuts the electricity supply to the village and is threatening to close the school and the health centre as a way of pressuring residents to move. What was meant to be a collective relocation has degenerated into family by family removal. Families without title to their land will lose what they have without being provided with anything in the new settlement. The company has now stopped paying independent advisors, Indepaz, and the communities lack the advice they need.
What will Anglo American do to ensure that Cerrejon Coal improves its handling of the distressing process of relocation?
Sir John Parker stated that Anglo American worked closely with the other two shareholders, BHP Billiton and Xstrata. Mine management has worked to improve security. Head of Thermal Coal, Norman Mbazima, said that Anglo American does exert influence over Cerrejon’s operations. He said that relocations had been going on for some time. Some communities were moved before the current consortium took over, and remedial work had to be done. Discussions at Roche have taken place over several years and relocations will occur in accordance with international standards. The Independent Third Party Review will sign off with regard to communities still to move. He said that communities would have more land than they had before.
[If what Mr Mbazima says is true, then Cerrejon Coal has been spectacularly unsuccessful in communicating it to many villagers facing relocation. But it is also possible that Mr Mbazima has been misinformed. Accounts given by the company and by community representatives continue to diverge widely.]
South African former mineworkers with silicosis
Rachel Nkumanda spoke on behalf of Alpheos Blom, one of the former mineworkers suing the company for health care costs. She asked for confirmation of two points. The Chairman had suggested that changes in the exact nature of the claims being brought against the company would mean that they would take longer to resolve. Was this the case, and if so, does the company have no influence in this matter? And was the company really committing to a humanitarian response regarding the financial cost of medical help for the duration of the court process?
Sir John Parker repeated that the legal position had not changed but that the company had been influenced by the speech given at the 2010 AGM by Ms Nkumanda on behalf of Alpheos Blom, who was present on that occasion. The company had agreed on purely humanitarian grounds that Anglo American would offer to help the 24 individuals who had claimed to date. The company would pay for an independent medical check and would meet medical bills arising from it until the court cases were settled.
Other shareholders’ questions
In response to a lengthy question about acquisition strategy, the Chair said that few ‘transformational deals’ were available. The company had looked at Riversdale’s Mozambique operations but was not willing to pay what Rio Tinto paid for them, partly because of problems with transportation. The company was expanding its nickel operations and actively interested in copper deposits in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A tribute to the Oppenheimer family led to a question about what might happen to the family’s shareholding in the company. The Chairman would not comment.
And finally, one shareholder called for better refreshments after AGMs, particularly the serving of wine from the company’s South African vineyard. There was more audible support for this than for protection of the waters of Bristol Bay, or the livelihoods of Colombian farmers, or the health of former mineworkers dying of silicosis in South Africa.