By Richard Solly, Co-ordinator, London Mining Network
Two of us from London Mining Network were at the sparsely-attended BHP Group plc ‘Scheme Meeting’ in London and the Extraordinary General Meeting which immediately followed it today.
The ‘Scheme Meeting’ was for shareholders to decide on the Board’s proposed ‘unification’ of the UK-registered company BHP Group plc and the Australian-registered BHP Group Limited. In practice, the two companies function as if they were one company, and they have the same Board and officers, but legally they exist as two entities with different tax and reporting obligations. Unifying them would make profit-making and corporate takeovers simpler and easier. The Extraordinary General Meeting was to make practical decisions about how to implement unification if the Scheme Meeting approved it.
There were three directors in the room with the handful of shareholders and staff. Company Chair Ken MacKenzie, Chief Executive Mike Henry and Company Secretary Stefanie Wilkinson joined from Australia on a large screen. They looked enormous but at least were not backlit and looming out of a spooky darkness as Ken MacKenzie did at last year’s company AGM.
The meeting began with a promotional video explaining how the company is saving the world by providing minerals for the low-carbon energy transition and electric vehicle production (while admitting that it is still mining metallurgical coal for smelting iron, and thus continuing to help generate huge carbon emissions). We understandably all had to wear face masks during the meeting, and I was worried for a moment about the effects of projectile vomiting inside a face covering, but luckily the video was mercifully short. It proudly showed us panoramic views of BHP operations and the revolting high-rise, car-choked megacities that the company’s products are helping to build, rather than the beautiful natural ecosystems which it is wrecking, or indeed the human-scale, old, low-rise historic cities which the current bloated rash of cancerous urbanisation is sweeping away with the help of London mining finance. Unfortunately, in case we had not got the picture at the beginning of the Scheme Meeting, it was played again at the beginning of the Extraordinary General Meeting; but I was inured to it by then.
As at the 2021 AGM, Ken MacKenzie began by paying tribute to the Aboriginal Peoples from whose land he was speaking. It is good to show respect, but given that from its inception BHP has taken advantage of Aboriginal land stolen under the outrageous legal fiction of Terra Nullius (Nobody’s Land) applied in Australia by that armed, racist kleptocracy known as the British Empire, it sounded a bit hollow. (Indeed, the armed racist kleptocracy based in London continues in altered form, as our 2021 report Martial Mining makes clear.)
LMN’s Paul Robson asked Mr MacKenzie to confirm that company unification would mean an end to London AGMs and what forms of shareholder engagement there might be in place of them.
Ken MacKenzie said that the company would remain committed to meeting shareholders in both the UK and Australia. When Board members and executives visit London, they meet with the UK’s association of small shareholders as well as with large institutional investors. Mr MacKenzie said there would indeed only be only one AGM each year, held in Australia, but that shareholders could participate online. The Board ‘engages’ with shareholders at least annually (I was unsure quite what he meant by this). And shareholders can always write to the company, and the company will respond, he said.
That last point was particularly galling given the absolute lack of response to multiple questions sent in writing to the company in advance of the 2021 AGM on behalf of communities affected by its operations, and the lack of response to the email campaign which we organised at that time. BHP clearly opted for blanket stonewalling rather than open and honest replies to legitimate questions.
Paul explained that London Mining Network believes it is appropriate for people who are affected by mining to attempt to discuss these issues at mining company AGMs (even if the responses received are unsatisfactory). Paul has worked particularly with those affected by the Samarco tailings dam disaster in 2015, which contaminated large sections of the Rio Doce. People in Latin America have told us that they would find it much more difficult to travel to an AGM in Australia than to London.
I then asked further about how the company would be accountable to communities affected by its operations once unification had taken place. It is not only a question of accountability to shareholders but accountability to those most directly affected by BHP. I pointed out that experience over the past two years had shown that online participation in an AGM is not the same as actually being there: it does not allow the same opportunity to ask follow up questions to challenge inadequate responses. I said that our colleagues at Arizona Mining Reform Coalition had asked me to ask the company what changes it would make, if its unification proposals were accepted, to allow people better access to the Board and senior staff so that they could meaningfully express their concerns about the failed Resolution Copper experiment.
Ken MacKenzie replied that the company would maintain its high standard of corporate governance, and ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) concerns would remain central. The company engages with communities on the ground and it is not because of UK AGMs or UK oversight that it does so – it does it because of its own commitment. Chief Executive Mike Henry spoke about Resolution Copper, saying that to date engagement on the ground had been undertaken by Rio Tinto as the majority partner, but that BHP may become more involved in the future.
I pointed out that our friends in communities affected by BHP have told us that they do not feel listened to by the company at local level, and community representatives whom we have brought to Britain for speaker tours have said that they value the opportunity to attend London AGMs because they can address the Board and shareholders directly.
Our friends at Arizona Mining Reform Coalition told us after the meeting that they had not heard anything about the BHP engagement Mike Henry talked about and that their experience to date had been that the Resolution Copper management engaged only with people in the local communities who agreed with them, not with those opposing the project.
There were other matters which I had been asked to raise and would like to have had the opportunity to mention. BHP is facing multiple legal challenges in Chile over its irreversible impacts on ecosystems and communities. It has sold its share of the Cerrejon Coal mine in Colombia (the sale completed earlier in January) without making clear provision for a mine closure plan that would benefit local people; it will now doubtless claim to be free of responsibility for the impacts of an operation from which it has profited handsomely for over twenty years. With the change in structure, its decision-making processes will be even more remote from the communities in the Western Hemisphere with whom we work. How can we trust that BHP will respond to the needs of these communities after unification?
Unsurprisingly, all the Board’s proposals at both meetings were passed by massive majorities.
For us at LMN, bringing community representatives to speak at BHP AGMs in London has been a major part of our annual activities since our foundation in 2007. It seems odd for that opportunity suddenly to be withdrawn. However, we shall find other ways to ensure community voices are clearly heard and to maintain pressure on the company with the help of allies in Australia and by spending more time talking to institutional investors in Britain.
But what the company has done does indeed represent a diminution in its accountability to the communities affected by its operations. It is another example of the behaviour described in our 2020 Cut and Run report. On multiple occasions, BHP’s operations have caused enormous ecological and social damage and the company has found some face-saving excuse to pull out, leaving others, at some stage in the future, to attempt to make good the damage. This is what it did at Ok Tedi, Indomet and Cerrejon. Now it has cut and run from London; and it did so so easily, so quietly, and with so little apparent thought for the impact on communities affected by its operations.
‘This is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but a whimper.’ (T S Eliot, The Hollow Men)