The reality of international and Australian mining corporations in Africa can be grim for local civilians. My latest Guardian investigation examines these issues. I interview a journalist from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Will Fitzgibbon, about his organisation’s recent work on the subject and the following is the full interview extracted in the Guardian:
What’s been the overall response to your recent report?
There has been a very positive response to the ICIJ project Fatal Extraction. Australian politicians, civil society and lawyers involved in business and human rights and concerned by the social and environmental impacts of mining see this as what it is – the most detailed investigation into Australia’s corporate mining footprint in Africa.
There are some very engaged actors in this sector, including Oxfam and the Human Rights Law Centre. But there is also a sense that Australia’s debate on corporate impacts and alleged violations overseas is much more limited than elsewhere. In Canada, for example, there have been lengthy parliamentary debates and deep media analyses of comparable allegations in a way that is yet to happen in Australia.
Should companies have to abide by strict regulatory laws?
The jury is still out on whether new laws are the most pressing response to this problem. Many argue that there’s a lot that can also be done in terms of company reporting to investors and of promoting voluntary and transparent application of international principles of business and human rights.
How should the Australian government tackle the problem?
What struck me most was successive governments’ incuriousness about the impacts that mining companies could be having overseas. The first step is awareness, which can then feed in to decisions relating to aid funding of mining-related projects, investment decisions by government bodies and diplomatic support. I hope that ICIJ’s work is a a contribution to that raising of awareness.
Given the size of Australia’s overseas resource presence, there would seem to be a case for more Australian leadership on implementing and championing global business and human rights principles. Time and time again, experts inside and outside Australia told me they wish there was more interest from within Australia.
One constant refrain I heard from victims, lawyers and even politicians from Senegal to South Africa was that they wanted their grievances to be heard in Australia. Even for well-resourced civil society organizations, it is difficult to find avenues of redress or complaint within Australia. Legal barriers are high and costly while non-judicial systems supposed to assist those impacted by Australian multinationals, such as the OECD National Contact Point based inside the Treasury, are underfunded and almost forgotten by Australia’s decision-makers. Advocates in Africa also complain about how difficult it is to grab the attention of Australian investors and shareholders in companies accused of wrongdoing or implicated in scandal.
Other countries, such as Canada and France, have experimented with monetary fines for companies found guilty of gross human rights abuses or revoking potential government export support. Canada even introduced an ombudsman with a specific mandate to receive and investigate allegations of corporate abuses by Canadian extractive industry companies operating overseas.
Why are the problems so ignored?
Part of it is ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ There is a huge imbalance between Australia’s diplomatic and business interests in Africa. We still have one of the lowest numbers of embassies and high commissions in Africa among our peers yet we have mining companies, sometimes literally flying the Australian flag, in places like Burkina Faso, Niger, Madagascar and Zambia.
Mining operations often happen in remote corners of countries that few Australians know of.
What’s more, language barriers, especially in Francophone Africa, limit the spread of news back home that relates to Australian companies.
Reporting in Africa requires a lot of costly footwork. It is hard to get information without spending days searching through filing cabinets in regional bureaucratic offices. Interviews with those who have suffered can take months to organize. Lots of media don’t have the capacity to invest in these kinds of stories. That’s part of what ICIJ does – the leg work and data analysis that traditional, for profit media cannot often do.
What’s been the response in Africa?
This project by ICIJ is perhaps the largest ever Africa-based collaboration of journalists. With ICIJ working together with journalists on the ground, we were able to help produce some great examples of investigations that countries with more difficult media environments, like Mali, have rarely seen.
Bringing together the behaviour of Australian companies as a corporate entity across an entire region rather than just one-off stories has helped draw attention to the issue for decision-makers in Africa. Ultimately, these are the men and women who sign off on deals with companies and make the choice between firms from Australia, Canada, China, Brazil or elsewhere.