Who’s backing Glencore’s toxic mining? (You, perhaps?)

What do you do if you have a powerful neighbour who is contaminating the water you drink, the air you breathe, the land you till, making you and your children and animals ill, and ignoring your pleas to change its ways?

What if that entity is supported by some of the richest financial institutions in the world, headquartered thousands of miles away from you?

Answer: Join forces, go international, and take your issues to the financial heart of the problem, the centre of the international mining industry, in London and decision-makers in eight European countries.

That is the latest strategy adopted by Indigenous defenders and activists from Colombia and Peru, as well as their allies in Europe. Who knows, it might just work.

Elsa Merma Ccahua,and Leobaldo Sierra stand next to each other in front of an 'Unmasking Glencore' poster. Elsa has her fist slightly raised
Elsa Merma Ccahua, K'ana indigenous leader from Peru (left) with Leobaldo Sierra (right), Wayuu leader from Colombia. VANESSA BAIRD

Looking for justice

Five South American representatives and campaigners were in London last week, home of one of the world’s biggest metals markets, to shine a light on the activities of the UK-registered Swiss metals giant Glencore and to call for an end to irresponsible mining and its financing.

As part of a tour organized by ABColombia, the Peru Support Group, the London Mining Network, War on Want and Oxfam-Novib, Indigenous leaders and NGO experts from Peru’s CooperAcción and Colombia’s CINEP and CENSAT met with UK parliamentarians, bankers and pension fund managers, and spoke at public events.

‘I’m looking for justice, not just for my community but for my country, for my continent,’ said Elsa Merma Ccahua, a K’ana Indigenous leader from Espinar, Cuzco, in Peru’s southern highlands.

Around 56,000 mainly Indigenous people and their animals are exposed to contamination by toxic heavy metals around Glencore’s copper mine in Espinar. ‘We suffer illnesses that are unknown and so untreatable,’ she said at a public event held at University College London on Monday 27 November. ‘We don’t want to slowly die.’
 
Leobaldo Sierra, a Wayúu leader from the La Guajira region of northern Colombia, was representing Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities affected by Cerrejón, the biggest open-pit coal mine in Latin America. After four decades of breathing poisonous dust from the mine, nearly 340,000 people in the La Guajira region suffer from respiratory problems, according to joint research by La Guajira and Antioquia universities.

‘We have had this big neighbour that has brought devastation and death,’ Sierra said. ‘They have killed our water, they have killed 17 streams, 65 wells, they have killed our land and our food production, displaced 25 communities. Five thousand of our children have died from thirst and malnutrition.

‘I say to the international community, to the foreign companies, look at what you are doing when you buy coal from this mine. You’re not just buying coal, you’re buying lives.’

Jenny Ortiz (CINEP), Leobaldo Sierra (Wayuu leader), translator, Paula Portela, (CENSAT) sit at a table.
From Left, Jenny Ortiz (CINEP), Leobaldo Sierra (Wayuu leader), translator, Paula Portela, (CENSAT). VANESSA BAIRD

Biggest and worst

Headquartered in Switzerland and registered in London, Glencore generated the highest revenue of any mining company in the world in 2022.

In the same year, it had to set aside $1.5 billion for fines to courts in the UK, Brazil and the US after admitting bribery and market manipulation – not much of a dent in its $255.98 billion revenue for that year.

‘For the second year running, Glencore had the highest number of recorded allegations of human rights abuses’

And, for the second year running, Glencore had the highest number of recorded allegations of human rights abuses of all companies tracked by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre’s 2022 Transition Minerals Tracker.

That does not seem to have deterred many of its British and European financial backers. From 2016-23 almost half of the $91.04 billion in loans and investments for Glencore came from European banks. The Swiss UBS, French BNP Paribas and Societe General, the Dutch ING group and the British HSBC are the top five. Other major lenders to Glencore include Barclays, NatWest and Santander.

Of the pension funds, the biggest European investors in Glencore are Group BPCE and the UK-based Abrdn and Royal London Group. Other major investors include Legal and General and Aviva.

‘Behind every destructive project, there is a trail of complicit financiers,’ according to Bram Joanknecht, Fair Finance International and Oxfam’s expert in financial systems. ‘Those writing the cheques for projects like Glencore’s in Peru and Colombia must be held responsible.’

‘Above human rights’

In Colombia, the complaints against Glencore’s activities at Cerrejón are legion. But, locals who speak out say they are routinely harassed and have even received death threats. It is not always clear where these are coming from. Paramilitaries are active in the area.

‘The abuses against us are complex,’ said Leobaldo Sierra. ‘When you say anything against the company you get threats. People fear for their personal safety and that of their families. There is fragmentation. Those who work for the mine are in favour of it. But we are against it.

‘For the company, the land is just for extraction, for damaging, for money. For us, it’s territory, it nourishes us, it’s our mother. We must take care of it.’

Governments tend not to intervene against international miners; they are more concerned with the inward investment mining brings. But when Glencore diverted the Bruno stream for its own purposes in 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court defended citizens’ rights to water and ordered the company to restore the waterway to its original course.

Glencore responded by starting proceedings against the Colombian government in an Investor-State-Dispute-Settlement (ISDS) case, pressuring the state to pay Glencore millions of dollars.

Glencore currently has five such claims against the Colombian state, according to Jenny Ortiz, a human rights and extractives expert with CINEP.

These kinds of strongarm tactics are available to wealthy corporations within free trade treaties and can be used against governments which legislate in a way that might limit the company’s business activities or future profits.

ISDS tribunals are held behind closed doors, embroil governments in eye-watering legal costs and create an atmosphere of ‘regulatory chill’, warning governments off trying to protect their citizens or the environment by defying corporate interests.

In the case of the Cerrejón mine, this is especially poignant given the government’s duty not only to its citizens but also to meet COP climate commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ‘phase down’ coal. Glencore, meanwhile, is upping its investment in coal mining around the world.

New evidence of a causal link

In Peru, it’s been known for at least a decade that toxic heavy metals have contaminated the water, air and land around Glencore’s Antapaccay copper mine at Espinar, as well as the bodies of local people. Numerous studies of blood and urine samples have proved the case.

Since mining arrived in the region 40 years ago there have been higher rates of cancer, kidney and blood disorders and learning difficulties in children born in the area. Animals have also become sick.

Graphic notes from the London event
Graphic note taking of Unmasking Glencore public event by Javie Huxley for Migrants in Culture. VANESSA BAIRD

But Glencore, which has owned the mine since 2013, has always maintained that the presence of heavy metals in the local environment is a natural phenomenon, due to the geological characteristics of the area.

‘Glencore has washed its hands and denied responsibility,’ said Paul Maquet of CooperAcción, a Lima-based human-rights NGO working on extractives issues.

The causal link between the practices of the mine and the contamination was hard for communities to prove and the state was not helping them. Until this year, when CooperAcción, through a freedom on information request, came upon new evidence from the government Agency for Environmental Assessment and Enforcement (OEFA).

‘The series of six environmental studies carried out by the OEFA in 2022 and 2023, directly linked the mining operations at Antapaccay with air land and water pollution affecting humans, fauna and livestock,’ said Maquet.

‘I believe that with this new evidence, the communities have the instruments needed to take legal action against the company in Peru.’   

Asked in September 2023 to comment on these latest findings, Glencore said that Antapaccay’s ‘review of the OEFA causality studies’ was ‘ongoing’.

New Internationalist has contacted Glencore but there is no update on this.

Meanwhile, the company is planning to expand its Antapaccay mine further into a new zone of Coroccohuayco, making for a complex of 200 square kilometres.

‘Behind every destructive project, there is a trail of complicit financiers. Those writing the cheques for projects like Glencore’s in Peru and Colombia must be held responsible’

Normally there should be consultation (in accordance with the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, known as ILO 169) to ensure that any sale or relocation of land is done with the free, prior and informed consent of local communities.

But, according to Maquet, the company’s expansion plans lack transparency; they do not contain enough information to enable local people to decide whether or not they should sell their land. Moreover, communities have had ‘no substantive input in the expansion negotiations. It seems like a tick-box exercise,’ he said.

On paper, Glencore looks good. It has signed up to an impressive raft of international commitments and initiatives concerning respect for human rights, due diligence, and the right to free, prior and informed consent. It has committed to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and supports 10 principles of the UN Global Compact and the Sustainable Development Goals.

But the reality on the ground is different. ‘Despite its promises, Glencore is not meeting international environmental, social and Indigenous rights standards. On the contrary, it does the minimum required by national legislation, which in Peru is weak and has large gaps in these areas,’ says a report from CooperAcción and Oxfam.  

Opposites in transition

The two massive Glencore mining operations, Cerrejón in Colombia and Espinar in Peru, may be similar in many respects but they are opposites when it comes to the issue of energy transition.

Coal has to be phased out for Colombia to meet its COP greenhouse gas reduction targets. Glencore’s licence to mine coal at Cerrejón expires in 2034 – although UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment David R Boyd is of the view that it should be closed now.

The upcoming January-February edition of New Internationalist will focus on green capitalism, including mining for minerals needed in a transition towards green technology like large-scale renewable energy projects and electric vehicles. Subscribe to get a copy to your door.

Cerrejón has a mine closure plan, but it has not shown it to the community. Locals are worried that if and when Glencore closes the mine, they will leave behind a ruined, impoverished habitat and not pay for the damage done.

Paula Portela of the Colombian organization CENSAT said: ‘We need to leave fossil fuels in the ground – especially coal. But the transition needs to be done with responsibility and with reparation for land and community. There must be proper closure of the mine. The water, health and working economy of the area has changed. The company must fund reparation for all these damages.’

Peru’s Espinar mine is extracting copper, which unlike coal is a key energy transition mineral for powering the post-carbon economy. Demand is set to soar. Local communities face the prospect of rapid expansion of already toxic practices by a company with a lamentable record on listening to their concerns or respecting their human and environmental rights.

Energy transition must be just and can’t simply be focused on the ever-increasing extraction of minerals. ‘It must take account of community needs,’ commented Maquet. ‘Yes, we can have a transition, but we also have to use less, reduce our consumption, look after our common home.’

What to do?

Put simply, Glencore needs to clean up its act, on many fronts, and those who finance it need to exert pressure to make it do so or withdraw their backing and divest their funds.

In the case Espinar, Maquet says the company must: ‘Stop contaminating. Invest in what it needs to stop the causes of contamination. The people affected by company activities need medical attention. This should be paid for by the company, not the Peruvian state.’

Money recovered by the state from Glencore in fines and compensation for damage done needs to be directed to the communities affected, he added.

‘They say mining brings development,’ commented Elsa Merma Ccahua, ‘but we haven’t seen any of that. All we have seen is impoverishment, our animals and our production has been lost. We demand that the company takes responsibility, that it listens to us. That it does not profit from our loss, from the destruction of our environment. Why doesn’t Glencore have a conscience?’

Institutions, politicians, organizations and individuals in the UK and Europe, too, have an important role to play. We can press for stronger legislation to restrict unethical activities by companies, wherever in the world they operate.

In the UK, this includes calling on legislators to adopt a new Business, Human Rights and Environment Act that would protect communities harmed by mining links to UK companies or financial organizations.

The EU is at the final stage of negotiations on new rules to hold businesses accountable for their damage to people and the planet, the Corporate Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD). But as it stands, the proposal needs to be strengthened considerably. Currently, 99 per cent of companies would be ‘let off the hook’, according to Oxfam.

Existing international treaties are too weak to hold companies like Glencore and its financial backers to account. Governments should support the call for a UN binding treaty on business and human rights that makes companies legally accountable for human rights violations along their value chain.

The UK could do as Brazil, Australia and New Zealand have done and leave ISDS mechanisms out of trade agreements altogether. Such clauses can also be neutralized by mutual agreement. For example, Colombia and the UK could agree to take the grossly unfair and climate-unfriendly mechanism out of their bilateral investment treaty. ABColombia is campaigning on this.

All our struggle

External pressure from investors and banks may be the key to changing Glencore’s behaviour. As individuals, we too may be able to put pressure on our banks and pension funds to do so.  

If Glencore does not take the necessary steps to implement the recommendations being made and improve its due diligence standards, investors can exert positive power and divest from them. Two of the world’s biggest pension funds, the Dutch ABP and the Norwegian Government Pension Fund have already done so. A further 32 institutions have blacklisted Glencore, including Swedbank, Danske Bank and Norwegian DNB.

The pressure is mounting. A growing number of civil society and solidarity organizations are engaged at an international level in defending the human, environmental and health rights of those most immediately harmed by Glencore and other extractive companies.
 
As John Crabtree, from the Peru Support Group, said as he concluded the event in London: ‘This is all our struggle, not just that of the people of Colombia and Peru. These companies are extremely powerful, not just at a national level but internationally. They tend to have governments, the justice system and the press where they want them.

‘This is a struggle of unequals, with small communities in Peru and Colombia taking on giants. But there is huge hope here, and in the solidarity that is required of us.’