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‘They turned our mountains into cooking pots’

West Papua

Communities are bearing witness to damages inflicted by mining giants and targeting annual meetings in London, writes Hazel Healy.

Campaigners from across the world from Mongolia to Michigan will target major mining companies in London this week, to protest against displacement and damage to the environment.

Activists will blame mining giant Rio Tinto for threatening the livelihoods of nomadic pastoralists with the Oyu Tolori mine in Mongolia’s southern Gobi desert, at the company’s AGM on Thursday.

‘Herders have lost their summertime pastures and water resources,’ said Sukhgerel Dugersuren, Executive Director of Oyu Tolgoi Watch, speaking at an event organized by London Mining network.

The mega copper and gold mine Oyu Tolgoi (‘Turquoise Hill’ in Mongolian) is expected to account for over 30 per cent of GDP when it starts production later this year.

Local nomadic herders, who make up 40 per cent of Mongolia’s population, have seen their sole water source diverted and complain that pollutants are poisoning their livestock.

Rio Tinto has also come under fire for its interests in the controversial Grasberg mine. ‘They turned our mountains into cooking pots,’ said Benny Wenda, exiled leader of the independence movement of occupied West Papua, where the copper mine operates.

The Grasberg mine, which is operated by Freeport-McMoRan, is expected to dump 3.5 billion tonnes of waste, including toxic metals, directly into rivers over its lifespan.

US campaigners, keen to avoid similar environmental devastation in their home communities, will also speak up at Rio Tinto’s AGM on Thursday. Save the Wild U.P. is opposing the sulphide nickel and copper Eagle Mine, in an effort to ‘protect the clean waters and wild lands’ of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Roger Featherstone has travelled from Arizona, where a coalition of Native American tribes and conservationists have spent the last nine years opposing a copper mine on the Oak Flat watershed, home to bears, bobcats and mountain lions.

Cerrejon mineThe shareholders of another mining giant, Anglo American, will also be rubbing shoulders with activists at their annual meeting, on Friday. They will hear the grievances of Colombians from La Guajira, home to the vast open-cast coal mine Cerrejón (right), co-owned by BHP Billiton and Xstrata.

‘The mine has swallowed up scores of villages,’ said Julio Gomez from FECODEMIGUA, the Federation of Communities Displaced by Mining in La Guajira, speaking in London. ‘People are having problems with their eyes, their breathing.’

He says thousands of people – mostly indigenous Wayúu and afro-Colombian farmers – have been forced from their land, in some cases at the barrel of the gun and without compensation.

Cerrejón, one of the largest open-pit mines in the world, holds deposits of five billion tonnes. An important source of imports to Britain and the US, it has plans to divert arid La Guajira’s only river ‘La Rancheria’, as it expands.

‘The mine has made billions for these companies but brought us illness, poverty and destruction,’ concluded Gomez.

A similar complaint comes from South Africa, via Peter Bailey from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The NUM is seeking justice for sick and dying gold miners, who contracted the lung disease silicosis while working in apartheid-era shafts, then owned by Anglo-American.

In the face of abuses that cross-cut the world, Richard Solly from the London Mining Network is urging the new Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to exercise stricter oversight of companies.

‘The London Stock Exchange is littered with mining companies like Rio Tinto and Anglo American that are embroiled in numerous controversies around the world.

‘It’s scandalous that the scope of new FCA doesn’t extend to ensuring that such controversial companies comply with basic human rights and environmental standards,’ he said.

Rio Tinto AGM protest

Thursday 18 April – 10-11am
Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster, London SW1 (Directions).

Anglo-American AGM protest

Friday 19 April, 1-2pm
Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster, London SW1.

Further information

See War on Want’s short video-interviews with some of the campaigners listed above.

They go to Die: Documentary film that raises concerns of TB, HIV in South Africa’s mining industry linked to Dying for Gold campaign.

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