By John Ellis
Multinational companies are viewed with suspicion. This is especially true of mining companies, with a reputation for imposing themselves on defenceless communities in poor countries, ripping out their mineral wealth and leaving a trail of destruction. Add the poor safety record of some mines and the occasional catastrophe and they have an image problem.
One of the largest mining companies, Anglo American, has more employees around the world than the URC has members. Its CEO, Australian Mark Cutifani, has decided they need to reassess how they do business and explore what operating ethics are appropriate in the 21st century. Although not a Christian himself, he felt there was nobody better than the Churches to help his company undertake such a review.
So I found myself with an ecumenical group from several countries at the top of a mountain range in the Andes looking done into a vast hole in the ground where a mountain had once been. This Los Bronces copper mine is the fourth largest in the world and the flagship of the Anglo American operation in Chile. The huge trucks that bring out the copper-rich rock look like ants at the base of the open cast operation. They climb up the zig zag track cut into the side of the mine to dump their loads in a crusher and start the long process of converting an ore containing 0.8% copper to copper products of 99.9% purity.
Nobody lives at the high altitude of the mine but its pipelines and related processes directly affect areas where over a quarter of a million people live. If environmental controls failed a far large number could suffer. As well as hearing from the mining company executives, we had meetings with a variety of community groups and some of their priests. We visited schools, a cultural centre, a vocational high school and numerous other facilities paid for by Anglo American rather than the government.
Mining in Chile has been a main engine of remarkable economic growth in Chile over the past generation: copper mining alone generates 60% of the country’s exports. Anglo American generated net revenue of £7bn in Chile last year and paid around a fifth of that in taxes. Every group we met said they definitely wanted Anglo American to continue to operate there and generate jobs and wealth.
But there were plenty of questions too. Is Chile now too dependent on copper mining? There was plenty of anecdotal evidence that even where Anglo American has good and responsible policies there are other mining companies operating in the country with distinctly less impressive records. How are the less reputable to be brought up to the standards of the best?
Later stages of this international process will include a summit meeting at Lambeth Palace chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury and attended by the leaders of a number of the world’s main mining companies. The URC will remain a prominent contributor.