Student Witness project

Our Student Witness project invites students to move beyond the classroom and witness communities resisting extractivism. To coincide with our community visits, we work with groups of KS4, Sixth Form or University students. We first hold a workshop exploring the issues mining-affected communities are working on and the environmental impact of extractivism. Students then attend a demonstration with us and visiting community representatives. After this, we hold a follow up workshop to help students craft articles, short films or other responses.

First year

During our phoneCycle workshop collaboration with the Columbans in Spring 2018, we developed an idea for students to move outside the classroom and witness community resistance to mining companies.

Our pilot project with the Columbans involved a Catholic school in Lancaster for a small number of students to witness mining giant BHP’s annual shareholder meeting on 17 October.

Seven sixth form students participated in an introduction workshop in Lancaster exploring the issues around mining, focusing on the countries where community representatives were travelling from to attend the AGM: Chile, USA, Colombia, and Brazil. They also thought about the differences between campaigning and protesting.

The next week, four students and their teacher travelled to London to witness a demonstration outside the AGM, attend a photography exhibition and part of a public meeting with the community representatives in the evening. The students had the opportunity to meet many actors involved in the demonstration: the overseas visitors, workers and volunteers from LMN, War on Want and Coal Action Network, as well as people from creative arts group Three Penny Festival.

There was a follow-up workshop a fortnight later in Lancaster where students learnt about different ways to respond to issues of social and environmental justice. Different responses included: faith/prayer, media and communications, fundraising and donating, political lobbying and policy, protest and direct action, and lifestyle changes.  The students discussed how the trip was for them and how it had been from the visitors’ perspectives. They also analysed media coverage of the event.

The four then brainstormed what action they would like to take in response, including a week’s worth of assemblies they were planning to do to other students. They also decided to write an article for Catholic news websites and the local newspaper.

Three Penny Festival actors giving out free water to wary shareholders outside BHP's AGM
Three Penny Festival actors giving out free water to wary shareholders outside BHP’s AGM

The students gave feedback on the trip and how they would like to respond:

“I now have an awareness of how issues affect people and if I see these things happening on TV in the future, it will mean more to me”.

“I liked talking to people, hearing different perspectives on different matters”.

“I want to do a sponsored 24 trampoline jump to raise money and because people have to work in the mines for 24 hours at a time”.

“We should do a dramatic piece, maybe involving the GCSE drama class”.

Second year

In the second year of LMN’s BHP Student Witness project, we conducted two workshops at Kingston University with first year students around the annual shareholders’ meeting of mining giant BHP, in October.

The first was an introduction to the issues – what is BHP, who are the human rights defenders travelling from Latin America to address the BHP executives, what are the mines that the defenders are resisting, and what of the wider issues, of neo-colonialism, globalisation, capitalism, development, human rights, agency, ecology, and the climate crisis.

A week later students came to Westminster in central London to observe the Unmasking BHP demonstration LMN co-organised with other groups. They interviewed some of the people participating before and afterwards and listened to the defenders talk about why they were in London.

We returned for a follow-up workshop asking the students their impressions of the demonstration, and talked about what happened inside the AGM and the disrepencies between what the company said and what the human rights defenders had experienced on the ground. Their lecturer asked the students to create a short piece reflecting their experiences – such as an article, short film, art work or speech. Olivia Firth gives her thought-provoking reflection below.

Demonstrators at the 2019 BHP AGM
Photo: Olivia Firth

Globalise struggle, globalise hope – how we can change the world’s understanding of mining

by Olivia Firth, Kingston University student and participant of LMN’s 2019 BHP witness project

Development – a word that means something different to us all. For the majority, it holds connotations of hope, change and evolution, yet for those involved within this protest it means destruction and exploitation. It was pointed out to me that many of the people here had been protesting for over 30-40 years. Ultimately this raises the question – ‘why are we still risking people’s lives, homes and history, all in the name of making some money?’

The protest attended on 17th October 2019 was specifically against BHP, this mining giant operates in 13 countries and owns the biggest copper mines in Chile. It is also a joint owner of Cerrejon opencast coal mine in Colombia and of Samarco mine in Brazil.

The company is causing mass destruction and turning a blind eye to the repercussions of their actions, despite their previous catchphrase being “resourcing the future”. The British government have pledged to stop burning coal in power stations by 2025 – an action that seems like a huge step forward. However, when looking at the finer details, it is clear that this is only a surface solution due to the fact that it will not be an illegal action. So, how can we give this issue legal legitimacy?

Daniel, a researcher who works with London Mining Network and other groups says that “ecocide and genocide are two sides of the same coin”. Interestingly, despite having a detrimental impact upon the very world that we live in, ecocide is often denied legitimacy by world leaders. Often, people condemn genocide, stating that it can never be allowed to happen again, so why are we sitting back and watching organisations like BHP systematically kill the earth?

As stated by a protester at the demonstration outside the company’s annual general meeting – “The earth is not dying, she is being killed and those who are killing her have names and addresses”. This ultimately raises the question of ‘How can we hold these organisations accountable for their actions?’

With that in mind, we need to look to the work of Polly Higgins, a visionary lawyer who worked to get ecocide considered a crime under the International Criminal Court. In a legal proposal put forward to the UN, Polly Higgins defined Ecocide as a crime when we cause “extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes” that diminishes the “peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory.” Slowly but surely, this issue is become more widespread in its understanding and it is the work of London Mining Network and organisations alike that are bringing this issue to the forefront of our minds.

For me, as a 19-year-old with my whole life ahead of me, a worrying factor of these demonstrations was that ultimately, they raised more questions than they did answers. For example, some of the questions raised were; what are the preferred alternatives to mining, how can we make ecocide a crime and, why is open cast mining preferred to deep mining even though they both have damaging impacts?

Ultimately, we were told that these questions are all very complex and to a certain extent unanswerable, especially since the big corporations are doing nothing to combat these issues. In a Ted Talk, Polly Higgins asked the question – “What if the Earth had rights?” because after all “we as humans have rights”. I believe that once everyone starts applying this logic and understanding to their everyday lives, these questions will soon become answers.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about BHP and corporations alike, is that they own a lot but understand very little about the repercussions of their actions and the public concerns surrounding these issues. For example, Lydia from the London Mining Network spoke to us about the ludicrous claims made inside the annual general meeting. The CEO of BHP, Andrew MacKenzie, stated that there was a need for “15-20 times more copper mines” to try and combat the issue of climate change. It is not rocket science to understand that mining and the issues with climate change go hand in hand, and that the anger and upset of those whose lives are being destroyed at the hands of BHP is understandable.

Despite this, there was one thing within these demonstrations that stood out to me most – BHP and other corporations may own these people’s lives for now, however, they do not own their spirit or drive to reach a free future.

Throughout the demonstrations and the work of London Mining Network, there is one clear sentiment. As stated by Alvaro Ipuana – “It is not the big organisations that own our land, we do”. These people are fighting for their lives, homes and history – it is time that the big corporations look down upon the mess they have made and the blood upon their hands.

Flyer from 2019