South Africa’s Ba-Phalaborwa Indigenous Community is demanding justice from Rio Tinto for years of mining without the community’s consent and for its planned exit from the Palabora copper mine without paying adequate compensation for loss of lands and livelihoods.
London-based Rio Tinto owns 57.7% of the South African-listed Palabora Mining Company Limited (‘Palabora’). London-based Anglo American owns 16.8%, and it too is pulling out, on the grounds that the mine is ‘no longer of a sufficient scale to suit Anglo American’s investment strategy.’
Rio Tinto’s website says that ‘Palabora operates a large copper mine, smelter and refinery complex managed by Rio Tinto in the Limpopo Province of South Africa employing approximately 2,000 people. Palabora produces about 80,000 tonnes of refined copper per year, supplying most of South Africa’s copper needs and exporting the balance. The refinery produces continuous cast rod for the domestic market and cathodes for export.’
The legacy of environmental damage created by the company’s operations is such that in 2004 the area was chosen for the launch of the South African Environmental Observation Network, SAEON (see The Ba-Phalaborwa community, which suffers most from this damage. complains that it sees little of the wealth produced by the mine.
Rio Tinto has been mining on the community’s land for over fifty years. Community member Ralph Manyaka declares: “I am 44years of age and I have not seen any significant change in the living standards of our community. I have not seen industrial development for job creation or development; neither have I seen our generation being employed in great numbers in their operations.”
It is not that the community opposes mining as such. Manyaka continues: “Our forefathers mined, smelted, manufactured by-products and traded locally and with the outside world long before colonialism and land invasion. Copper was our means of livelihood and subsistence. It was our economic activity: we created the technology of that age from it. Now the very same copper has made us poor because we don’t own it, neither does it benefit us.” Colonialism, and then apartheid, has meant that traditional miners were displaced to make way for large mining companies.
In a letter sent on 20 August 2012 to the Regional manager of the Department of Mines and Minerals of Limpopo Province, the community asserted: “We have been forcefully removed from our lands and territories without our free, prior and informed consent and there was no agreement on just and fair compensation and redress. Millions of Dollars were made and [are] still made with no compensation. Today there is development on these areas that originally belonged to us, worth or amounting to multi-billion dollar investment, but we the original OWNER and OCCUPIER had to go away with nothing and [are] poorer than we were when we still exploited Iron and Copper Ore on our Lands. Today as we speak we are worse off in terms of development, poverty reduction and wealth creation, but our resources are shipped every day out of our Lands still without our prior approval.”
Now the community is demanding control and ownership of its own resources in order to pursue its own freely chosen path of development for its own benefit. It wants to resume its own mining tradition to create wealth which will be invested in other economic enterprises and in education and social projects. It wants financial independence.
The community is claiming its rights as an Indigenous People under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But community representatives complain that South African government officials with whom they have met appear unaware of the content of the Declaration, which community members believe establishes that their own Indigenous rights have been violated by Rio Tinto. At a meeting with Palabora on 8 August 2012, company representatives also told them that they could not deal with Indigenous rights.
The community is organizing locally and seeking allies in South Africa and elsewhere to enable them to obtain justice from Rio Tinto.