14 December 2018

Professor Anthony Bebbington is an ARC Australian Laureate Fellow based at The University of Melbourne, whose research is unpacking the critical conflicts in the governance of resource extraction and especially the mining industry, with a particular focus on Latin America, Indonesia and Australia.

As the world’s economies are increasingly thirsty for mineral, oil, coal and gas reserves, the governmental decisions that allow their extraction often involve a tricky balance against the impact on indigenous and rural communities and the need to preserve the world’s remaining standing forests. One of the questions that Professor Bebbington is asking as part of his research is “Why is mining so often accompanied by serious social conflict?”.

“One argument, recently rehearsed to me by an international financial institution official, is that ‘conflict mercenaries’ rove the landscape trying to promote protest near mine sites,” says Professor Bebbington. “This claim is not uncommon, indeed it is used to justify the increasing and disturbing tendency to criminalize protesters and label them as ‘terrorists’”.

Professor Bebbington says that at the other extreme is the argument that conflict is widespread because mining companies have too little respect for human rights and community livelihoods, and do what is necessary to move their project forward—sometimes consciously sowing conflict among or within communities.

“Both arguments seem too simplistic and are damaging,” says Professor Bebbington, whose investigations trace a long list of factors that go towards explaining the often difficult relationships between mines and communities. These factors include the massive transformations of familiar, sometimes sacred landscapes that modern mining involves; a lack of consultation with communities; the unequal relationships of power between companies and communities; uncompensated environmental impacts, and the limited generation of employment and other benefits. The result is often a failure of mining to catalyse sustainable local development.

Professor Bebbington recently took part in a panel held in Peru, attended by the heads of Business and Mining organisations, that was organised by the national Human Rights Ombudsman’s office, that sought to draw out the relations among social conflict, development and mining. Other attendees included the former Prime Minister, Beatriz Merino, the President of the National Confederation of Private Business Institutions, Roque Benavides, and the Vice Minister of Mines, Miguel Inchaustegui.

“Like Australia, Peru is a global player in mining,” says Professor Bebbington. “In 2017, the country received 7 per cent of all global mining investment, and mining accounted for 9.9 per cent of national gross domestic product. But at the same time, of 214 currently on-going social conflicts in the country, fully 82 were related to mining and another 26 to oil, gas and energy”.

Professor Bebbington says that on the basis of his Laureate research, he predicts that such conflicts have the potential to become more serious in the future because of the implications of climate change for water availability and destructive weather events, and because automation in mining risks constraining even further the local and regional development benefits from mining.

“What we all clearly agreed on, however, is that mining will never automatically produce development, and that if this is the purpose of having mining in the first place, achieving sustainability with equity has to be fought for,” says Professor Bebbington. “It must be the top-line objective in any future planning of the sector.”

Professor Bebbington and a team of national and international researchers have also examined the increasingly complex relationship between infrastructure, resource extraction, forest loss and impacts on forest-based communities. Using geospatial and qualitative data on forest loss and regulation, a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences outlines how the future challenges for governments will be in striking the right balance between powerful and competing forces of industry, community and environment.

“What we are finding is an increasingly significant correlation between resource extraction, its associated infrastructure, and violations of human rights including the documented homicides of environmental activists. Regulations that protect these rights and conservation areas are also being rolled back.” 

On the positive side, Professor Bebbington says that there have been multiple research findings that point to the better quality of forests when they are managed and controlled by indigenous and traditional peoples, as in the case of Mexico and Central America. Increasingly, it is being recognised that putting human rights at the centre of resource extraction policy offers a pathway to sustainability, and is an essential part of addressing the imbalances of power among industry, communities and national governments.

“In addition to being an inherent good in itself, protection of human rights is a critical instrument for sustaining forests. This requires strengthening those government, civil society and legal bodies that protect rights, and supporting vigorous public debate about the importance of the work of such bodies,” says Professor Bebbington.

Image source: pxhere.