Dirty Money: The true cost of Australia’s mineral boom

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A valuable book that exposes the brutal devastation caused by mining companies and identifies the tycoons who benefit, the monsters in our midst.

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Dirty Money: The True Cost of Australia’s Mineral Boom
by Matthew Benns. Random House, 2011

reviewed by Ben Courtice
Blind Carbon Copy, March 31, 2012

In late 2011, I sat down with a Filipino environmentalist who wanted to tell me a story that sounded all too familiar.

Rodne Galicha is from the southern island of Mindanao. He is part of a group called Alyansa Tigil Mina (“stop mining alliance”), and particularly wanted to talk to me about the Tampakan copper mine proposed by Saggittarius Mines Inc. (SMI).

Indigenous people will lose farms and villages to the giant mine. Local indigenous communities have found themselves torn apart by conflict over the project. Ominously, six opponents of the mine have been assassinated by unknown persons – including Catholic priest Father Pops Tenorio, Galicho told me.

The mine plans include a proposal to stack the expected 2.7 billion tons of wastes on the mountain above the mine site. In an area near an active volcano, subject to earthquakes, and which saw devastating floods just last year, this crazy scheme saw it labeled “one of the most dangerous mining projects in the world” by one expert.

In January 2012, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources refused SMI an Environmental Clearance Certificate, so there is a chance that this dangerous project may have been halted (SMI is appealing the decision).

Yet that is just one mine.

You can read of dozens more historic and unfolding mining disasters like that threatened at Tampakan, in Matthew Benns’ new book Dirty Money: the true cost of Australia’s mineral boom. Disasters for land, health, indigenous culture. Assassinations of mine opponents, legal and illegal political corruption, and more

The one thing all his stories have in common, whether they take place in Africa, PNG, Romania, the Philippines – or in Australia – is that they are projects of Australian companies causing ecological and social disaster. SMI is the Philippine-based subsidiary of Brisbane-based Xstrata Copper, a division of the Swiss multinational mining giant Xstrata.

Benns’ book opens with the gut-wrenching tale of how the Canadian/Australian company Anvil Mining aided soldiers as they massacred at least 100 local villagers near their Kilwa mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2004.

He moves on to look at many more sad stories. Widespread PCB carcinogen contamination in the mines aroung Lithgow, NSW, that some fear is going to contaminate local drinking water. Canadian-based Barrick Gold’s Lake Cowal mine is opposed by the local Wiradjuri people, who see the lake as their spiritual and cultural heritage – but Barrick Gold are only interested in their bottom line.

Australia’s former colony, Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a perennial victim of Australian based mining ventures. BHP Billiton presided over one of the greatest environmental disasters in history at the Ok Tedi mine in PNG.

Even now, more disasters are on their way in PNG. The Ramu Nickel Project – in which Australian company Highland Pacific has a stake – plans to pump 5 million tonnes of mine waste slurry 150 metres underwater in Basamuk Bay each year for the next 20 years. Benns outlines a mess of threats, buy-offs, violence and disappearances as locals have attempted to resist the proposal.

These horror stories are mostly quite recent. Ramu Nickel is not yet operational: the story is still unfolding as you read this. And companies who are up to their necks worldwide in intimidation, corruption and environmental devastation are happily ensconced in our downtown business districts here in Australia.

The book easily slips from discussing the victims to unmasking the greedy individuals behind the mining giants: Gina Rinehart, Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, Clive Palmer, and Nathan Tinkler being some only the more memorable in Australia. They do not come through the acount looking particularly pretty or noble.

The enormous wealth generated by Australia’s mining boom is flowing into many areas. A measly $22 million was all it took big miners like BHP to run the advertising campaign that saw Labor ditch Kevin Rudd as PM. Now we see Gina Rinehart moving into media to get her point across more forcefully.

Shale and Coal-Seam Gas is an almost entirely new industry that has sprung up, with exploration (if not production) in all states now – despite huge and largely unquantified damage to underground water and farmland. As the money generated by mining increases, so does the industry’s capacity for new ventures.

Benns’ book is valuable for its brutal recounting of the devastation being caused by mining companies and his steadfast exposure of the tycoons who benefit. He points to a couple of elements of a solution to the problem.

One is to set up an effective sovereign wealth fund based on taxes on mining companies, an ongoing asset for Australian governments, that can last when the minerals are all gone.

His recommendations on this are brief, but basically consistent with the suggestions made by Paul Cleary in his book “Too Much Luck – the mining boom and Australia’s Future” which was also published just last year (a thought-provoking read itself, if somewhat less sensational).

The other potential solution Benns briefly mentions is enforcing strict transparency in international operations of mining companies (especially their financial transactions), citing the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

Whether these proposals go far enough is something we should question, but the main service the book provides is to sound the alarm on the monsters in our midst. The story told to me by Rodne Galicho sounded all too familiar to an environmental campaigner like me, but it’s a blind spot for Australia’s media and the general public. For that alone, Benns’ book deserves to be read widely.