Tuesday May 10th at the UN Commission on Sustainable Development Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC


The discussion on mining continued on Tuesday May 10th 2011, under the leadership of Yvette Banzon Abalos.  She challenged the various delegates to be more focused on the Chair’s text, rather than introducing their own new amendments. There was a long discussion on what is called small scale or artisanal mining (ASM). An agreement was reached that this should “be in accordance with national legislation,” and “subject to national priorities.”  As someone who has had first hand experience of so-called small scale mining in both the Philippines and Peru, I know that in some places it involves one or two small tunnels, where as in Huepethue in the Amazonian region of Peru I saw  huge trucks and earth movers involved in gold mining during my visit in 2009.

Naturally, this led to a prolonged discussion on the use of mercury in the mining operation.  No agreement was reached on the text. The G77/China objected to singling out mercury pollution in mining for gold when other, equally toxic chemical were not named. The EU, US Australia and the Russian Federation insisted that the reference to mercury be retained. During my time in Mindanao, I spent many hours trying to convince small scale miners about toxic nature of mercury and its various compounds.  A high dose of mercury can be fatal. Even relatively small doses can affect the nervous system.  Mercury poisoning is also linked to cardiovascular problems and disease of the immune and endocrine systems. Mercury accumulates in the body, as we learned in the Minamat disaster in Japan in the 1960s.

A lot of discussion took place around the working conditions  for miners.  Some negotiators wanted language in the text calling for improved living and working conditions. There was also condemnation of the fact that children often work in mines. Negotiators agreed that steps must be taken to ban all forms of forced and exploitative labour, especially child labour. Reference was made to the International Labour Organisation’s Convention (ILO) 176, but many groups from the civil society sector are concerned that some of the negotiators, especially those from the G-77/China, are attempting to delete all reference to particular ILO Conventions which protect workers’ rights on a number of different fronts.

Later on in the morning, paragraphs calling for the provision of education, training health services and social protection in mining communities, especially for women and children were discussed. However, the phrases, Free, Prior and Informed Consent for indigenous people was deleted from the text. The text that was accepted called on everyone to respect the land rights of local and indigenous communities in accordance with national laws and procedures at all levels on government.  The phrase that this will “include (the drawing up of) a comprehensive land use plan.”  It was also agreed that, in granting a licence to mine, indigenous people be given full and effective participation (in the decision) in accordance with nation lands and procedures (G 77). New Zealand went on to add the rider that there should be “an enforcement of environmental regulations and environmental safeguards.” The G-77/China indicated that they would have to discuss this with different member countries of their delegation before agreeing to it.

The above gives some feel for the dynamics of the debate on this crucial issue. I have already written how non-government organisations and indigenous groups see this as rowing back on previous international commitments, including the recently signed Convention on Biodiversity in Nagoya in October 2010. At a lunch-time meeting with the EU negotiators, Geoff Nettelton of Indigenous Peoples Links, challenged the EU to reintroduce this phrase into the final text. He pointed out that it was an integral part of how the EU itself views indigenous people and relates to them in its own documents. We were assured that the EU would continue to lobby for the inclusion of this phrase and that it would appear prominently in the text the EU representative would present at the High Level meeting on Wednesday.  Unfortunately, It did not appear in the Statement on behalf of the European Union and its Member States which was delivered by Sandor Fazekas, Minister of Rural Development of the Republic of Hungry on May 11, 2011.

Any discussion of mining at a global level always brings up the question of redress and compensation for those communities which have suffered from mining activities.  This is considered to be a thorny issue for both the US and the G-77/China and South Africa, because it opens up possibilities for people to sue mining companies for negligence. The US requested that the words “where appropriate” be included, where as China, which has a questionable safety record in relation to coal mining, wanted the paragraph scrapped. Likewise, the G-77/China was opposed to adding the paragraph focused on strengthening, legal, regulatory and institutional frameworks in relation to all mining. The EU and Canada called for separate paragraphs devoted to the environmental, social and economic impact of mining.  The G-77/China was opposed to expanding comments on the environmental, social and economic impact of mining beyond a single paragraph.

At the mid-day meeting with the EU negotiators, representatives from the seven Major Groups shared some of their concerns with the negotiators.  One recurring theme was the complaint that the space which is available to non-government groups in the aftermath of the Rio Conference have been whittled away. Some recalled the importance which Agenda 21 gave to groups from civil society.  A number of people, with expertise in particular areas, pointed out that some claims in the Chairman’s text and some of the additions which the negotiators were suggesting were factually incorrect. Yet, there was no space for representatives from the Major Groups or other organisations from civil society, to intervene and clarify things. This is a major waste of what should be very valuable resource.

Another organisational matter was also discussed. If, for example a secretariat is set up to manage some of the concrete programme and initiatives which might emerge from the 19th Session  of the Commission for Sustainability, what role will civil society play? How would the Major Groups be involved in implementing programmes, or would it all be left to UN organisation such as United Nation Environment Programme (UNE9)? Any talk of a new agency or secretariat brings up the hoary old chestnut of governance. On the one side there is the complaint that UN text, singles out the record of multinational corporations when it speaks of social and environmental responsibility. On the other hand, ‘developing’ countries feel that when ‘developed’ countries, especially the US, bring up governance issues it is normally perceived as a critical comment, unless, of course, the country involved is seen to have  strategic importance for the US. Many people would recall the US’s minimal criticism of the 30 years reign of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and, in the past, US support for the corrupt Marcos regime in the Philippines.

Other issues to surface at the meeting include:

  1. The right to know issues around the labelling of food and medicine.
  2.   Policies on bio-fuel and food security.
  3. When discussing technology, it is important to move beyond talking about transferring technology and to include also programmes which will foster technological innovations.

Working Group 2 resumed its discussion of Waste Management.  The negotiators discussed proposals from the EU to reduce the movement of hazardous waste across country boundaries. This text called for specific managing strategies for e-waste, industrial waste and radioactive wastes. It also recognised how mismanaging waste is related to poverty and other social issues. Since my own focus has been on the mining negotiations, I am dependent on NGO member who are tracking other negotiations to get a sense of what is happening.  I have had access to the changes texts but the changes are coming so quickly that one is loath to quote a text because it might be changed by the time you  read this report.  With the arrival of government ministers the pace of negotiations will increase. It will need to if a deal is to be sealed by Friday May 13th 2011.


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