At Mining Indaba in Cape Town this week we heard countless references to mining-affected citizens of African countries. The word “communities” steadily fell from the mouths of mining executives and government officials. Most suggested that maximizing benefits and minimizing harms for community members was a sacrosanct priority.
But absent from almost all of the rooms where this word was repeatedly invoked were…members of mining-affected communities. The Indaba agenda did include one invitation-only engagement session, between the International Council on Mining and Metals and community representatives. And Indaba organizers graciously accommodated some international non-governmental organizations, including NRGI. But if communities’ perspectives are as crucial as executives and officials imply, then community members and activists must be present in a sustained way at Indaba and equivalent forums—and not just as featured guests. (NRGI president and CEO Suneeta Kaimal raised this issue last year in connection to the International Energy Agency's Critical Minerals Summit.)
My colleague Tengi George-Ikoli shared with me an African adage: “A man’s head should not be shaved in his absence.” Community voices are essential in spaces like Indaba to ensure that decisionmakers account for the social, economic and environmental impacts of mining and minimize them.
In that vein the deep-pocketed mining companies and rich-country governments that sponsor Mining Indaba could contribute to a pooled fund that grants admission and travel bursaries to community activists and reporters from Africa’s mineral-rich nations. One such journalist who was able to self-fund a trip to Cape Town this week told us that they were the only reporter from their country in attendance. “No media houses back home can pay for journalists to come here,” they said.
One place that was replete with community stakeholders was Alternative Mining Indaba, which has operated in distant parallel to the main Indaba for 15 years. (Many AMI attendees are funded by larger non-profits to undertake the trip.)
There, we heard searing accounts of the impacts on communities. A young woman from Zambia, speaking out against child labor in the industry, implored her listeners: “How can we children build a future for ourselves from inside of a mine?” She received enthusiastic applause—from people who on their own can do little to address her concerns. The power brokers were all at the main Indaba site six kilometers away.
While mining companies do invest in outreach to communities, and have provided valuable services in many instances, at the continent’s biggest mining confab those directly affected by extraction are scarce.
Community relations are just one facet of the work that remains for the influencers and decision-makers connected to the mining sector. State-state deals and the ways in which African countries might add value to raw commodities were also hot themes in Cape Town. (Though one industry lawyer said the quiet part out loud when he intoned from an Indaba stage that “governments really should have no role in mining.”) But until communities and civil society have a more fixed and prominent seat at the table, and agendas reflect the importance of their voices, progress on any of these challenges will be difficult.