By Richard Solly, Co-ordinator, London Mining Network
It was standing room only at the Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) of Beowulf Mining plc in London this morning. Mind you, it was a very small room. There were only fifteen people there including the company’s board and the registrar, but not enough seats for all of us to sit down.
The purpose of the meeting was to get shareholders to approve two resolutions which would enable Beowulf to go ahead with acquisition of Finnish graphite company Fennoscandian and raise enough funds to continue its efforts to begin iron ore mining at Kallak in Sweden.
The Kallak iron ore project is smack in the middle of the area in which indigenous Sami people graze their reindeer. There have been protests against the project in the past and local Sami have made it clear repeatedly that it threatens their livelihoods.
In December 2011 there was a Sami protest against the company outside the annual ‘Mines and Money’ conference and the following year two of us from London Mining Network attended the Beowulf AGM to raise concerns on behalf of Sami communities. Sami representatives attended the Beowulf AGM in 2013 to reiterate their opposition to the Kallak project.
So the Swedish Sami National Association asked London Mining Network to attend today’s Beowulf EGM to make clear yet again the level of opposition to the company’s plans. The company’s Notice of Meeting warned that if the proposed resolutions were not passed, the company may breach the terms of the Acquisition Agreement with Fennoscandian and may not be able to fund its proposed upcoming expenditure. No assurance could in that case be given that it could continue as a going concern. Well, frankly, that might be good news from the Sami point of view. So I went along.
The Chairmen of the two Sami villages most affected by the company’s activities and the Swedish Sami National Association had put four specific questions to the company in advance of the meeting. As I went in, company CEO Kurt Budge informed me that he had answered the questions a couple of hours earlier. In the meeting, he explained what he had done to draw the questions and answers to shareholders’ attention, including posting them on the company’s website.
Now, Kurt Budge struck me as a decent sort of chap (though he has previously been involved with both African Minerals and Rio Tinto so however decent he may be, he has kept some pretty dodgy company). His predecessor, Clive Sinclair-Poulton, was a colourful character, and his legacy may well not be easy to live with. But despite a marked change of style, Mr Budge is offering precisely the same as Sinclair-Poulton: he wants ‘dialogue’ with the Sami.
Given that the local Sami communities have repeatedly, and vociferously, made clear that they oppose the mine, the only thing to dialogue about, surely, is the manner and timing of the company’s departure? But that’s not what the company is suggesting: it wants a dialogue about how to mine in a way that respects the Sami’s wishes. There’s a bit of a disconnect there. I drew attention to it at the EGM – though it must be as plain as the nose on shareholders’ faces. I quoted the letter that I had received from the Chairmen of the Jåkkågaskka and Sirges Sami communities, Jakob Nygard and Jan Erik Länta, and the Chief Executive of the Swedish Sami National Association, Jenny Wik Karlsson: “Sami communities will never accept a mine and will pursue the issue legally, nationally and internationally.”
The point was not entirely lost on other shareholders. I am 56, and I hope other shareholders will not feel offended if I say that it was clear that I was very, very much younger than most of the others. One of them, sitting in the front row (there were only three rows) said that he had been attending company AGMs for five years now and there was always talk of reindeer wandering through the area and still no official go-ahead for the project. He asked how long it was going to be before iron ore production began. He looked rather glumly round at other shareholders, clearly worried that none of them would see any return on their investment before they were no longer in a position to enjoy it.
Company Chairman Bevan Metcalf and CEO Kurt Budge agreed that if approval was granted by the Swedish government the project could begin producing in four or five years’ time. I am not sure that the questioner was greatly comforted by this. When was the government going to approve it? The point was made that the Finnish graphite mines could be producing profitably much more quickly – in only three or four years’ time. This seemed more welcome news.
Bevan Metcalf attempted an explanation of the delay in approval. The local Jokkmokk municipal council is preoccupied with resettling 5,000 refugees from Syria and elsewhere. The national government is also taken up with the refugee crisis, but is in addition concerned about the difficulties through which the mining industry is passing and the financial problems of a number of small mining companies in Sweden – smaller than Beowulf, that is, so don’t start worrying about that. (Mr Metcalf did not dwell on the catastrophic fall in iron ore prices or the impact of the high production policy of the larger producers, which is driving smaller companies into bankruptcy.) Plus, apparently, there are ‘teething troubles’ between the government coalition partners, the Greens and the Social Democrats.
It was not clear that shareholders accepted this explanation.
When it came to a vote on the resolutions, I was the only person in the room voting against them. There were umpteen million proxy votes in favour as well, so the board got the result it wanted.
After the meeting I got into conversation with Kurt Budge. Like Clive Sinclair-Poulton before him, he was very keen that I should tell my Sami contacts – as he had told them himself – that he wanted dialogue. I recounted the experience of indigenous communities in the Philippines opposing Rio Tinto’s mining plans some years ago. They told colleagues of mine that they felt ‘dialogued to death’ because every time they told the company – very clearly – that they did not, under any circumstances, want mining on their land, the company would ask for further dialogue. And in the end, Rio Tinto pulled out because of the strength of community opposition. A shareholder who was part of this conversation said that the mining project was inevitable and that the Sami would get more out of it if they entered into dialogue and came to a reasonable agreement with the company. I noted, referring once more to the Philippines, that three other massive global mining companies – Anglo American, BHP Billiton and Glencore – had also pulled out of projects in the face of unrelenting community resistance. Corporate victory is not inevitable.
So, we’ll see what happens. At London Mining Network, we will continue to offer our solidarity to our Sami friends in their struggle to control what happens on their land – and they’ve made it pretty clear they don’t want Beowulf’s Kallak project.
You can read more articles about Beowulf Mining and the Sami here.
By Richard Solly, Co-ordinator, London Mining Network