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Count the human cost of Australia's overseas mining interests

Fatima Measham |  06 March 2016

In 2012, a pregnant woman and two of her children were killed in their own home in Tampakan, South Cotabato province, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Tampakan is the site of a new mine with Australian interests. The woman was the wife of a B'laan tribal leader agitating against the mine.

Image of Lumad protestors courtesy Arkibong Bayan.On Mindanao, vast acreage with high mining potential also happens to be ancestral domain. Lumad, the umbrella term for around 15 ethno-linguistic groups on the island, have over recent years been harassed, displaced and killed by militias, some allegedly with the imprimatur of the Philippine army.

Much of the conflict has passed without notice in Australia, where mining companies are better known in terms of their contribution to revenue, lobbies against climate change policy and their apparent entanglement with elected officials. It makes political discourse lively, but also reflects the pervasive insularity of antipodean debate.

Canadians, by contrast, have long interrogated the implication of Canadian mining companies in human rights and environmental abuses overseas — in academic journals, the media, and parliament.

A well-documented pattern of conflict and despair occurs in parts of the developing world where foreign companies have created a mining boom. It is a phenomenon discernible to the extent that it is named: the resource curse, or the paradox of plenty.

In such disparate countries as Guatemala, Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone (and many others), the presence of foreign-listed mining companies has not translated to better socioeconomic outcomes for the communities in which they operate. The paradox here is that resource-rich regions somehow remain underdeveloped, relative to the countries that avidly consume what they produce.

Domestic corruption and environmental damage goes some way to explaining this injustice, but is only a fraction of the picture. The reality is that even before anything has been dug out, the mere prospect of mining operations destabilises the area.

On Mindanao, Lumad from Bukidnon, Davao del Norte and Surigao del Sur provinces have fled to capital cities by the hundreds, after their leaders were executed and villages militarised. Dulphing Ogan, secretary-general of a confederation of various Mindanao tribes, believes the common denominator is their opposition to mining activities.

Prominent academic and lawyer Tony La Viña agrees. In an uncharacteristically strident editorial, he rejects the narrative of counter-insurgency being peddled by the national government and military.

'The truth is that this is not even principally about the insurgency even if both sides are using the Lumad for propaganda,' he says. 'It's about control of natural resources and ancestral domain.

'I know that because when I was environmental undersecretary in the 1990s, I had to mediate many conflicts in the area and at the bottom of it, it was because military and paramilitary forces were used to expel the Lumad from their domains.'

It was over logging before; now it is mining.

The human costs of conflict derived from resource extraction should feature more prominently when we examine mining, especially where Australian companies are implicated. The chaos unleashed on the Lumad is but one part of the story.

In 2014, around 150 ASX-listed mining companies holding 1500 licenses were active in 33 countries in Africa. There have also been mining-related fatalities and abuses there, documented by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Sovereignty is often used as cover when foreign companies operate in countries with weak governments. Human rights abuses perpetrated by locals are after all the purview of government.

But when private, foreign interests are being protected by the state security apparatus and/or providing an agenda for opportunistic anti-government forces — at the expense of civilians — then ethical issues are raised.

Last year, for example, a Filipino conglomerate bought out one of the Australian companies in the Tampakan project to shield Australian shareholders from 'development risks' concerning the project. There is no such shield for the Lumad.

The principle of consent is also critical to such examination. If indigenous peoples, often the most impoverished in any country, resist the entrance of large-scale mining into their ancestral lands and yet are overpowered, then isn't that tantamount to rape?


Fatima Measham

Fatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister and blogs at This is Complicated.

Main image of Lumad protestors courtesy Arkibong Bayan.



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Submitted comments

Fatima , Any resources which can be exploited by big multinational companies always seem to be the catalyst for corruption . Wilmar International have been declared by international media as " The worst company in the world ",because of their environmental vandalism & human rights abuses . Comparatively wealthy western tourists felt inconvenienced by having their Bali holidays affected by the forest burning smoke haze in Indonesia ,while mothers in the area are having their babies die from respiratory disease . Then we must go back to point where traditional forest dwelling tribes people were removed from their lands ,at the point of a gun , suggested the guns of local police . This so the country could be burnt to allow planting of Palm oil trees to further enhance the mega wealth of Wilmar This company sourced control of a huge aggregation of sugarcane mills in N/Qld ,with encouragement from both State & Federal governments . They are now attempting to establish a monopoly of all the sugar marketing from these mills as well as their existing production monopoly .Thus denying local sugarcane growing farmers their economic interest in such sugar . Again they are being supported in their endeavours by both State & Federal govts . As yet they have not applied the guns to local farmers .

john kersh 04 March 2016

I had never heard of Wilmar, so I looked it up. It seems, from what Wikipedia says, that they are trying to be goodies now. How can we complain about overseas companies, though, when we let our own miners create havoc in other countries, like the Philippines and Brazil, as well as in our own country?

Gavan 07 March 2016

Former Philippines Congresswoman Liza Maza speaking about violence against women (ABC Breakfast, Radio National, 8 March), stated (my paraphrasing) 'In the Philippines there are a lot of laws...but implementation is another thing'. Her comment reminded me of an Indonesian friend when I told him how I admired the very thorough Indonesian legislation governing the environmental and social impact of foreign mining companies operating in Indonesia - "In Indonesia, there a lot of laws but no law." In both nations, economic poverty and low social standing effectively disenfranchise large sections of the population from the protection of law. In Australia, we have a different problem – attribution of higher value to mineral deposits and the mining industry than to prime agricultural land and farming families. And so, in accord with Australian law, coal mining and coal seam gas extraction are approved in the Galilee Basin of Queensland, the Hunter Valley of New South Wales, and the Surat Basin extending across the state border.

Ian Fraser 09 March 2016

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