Zug, 02.05.2012

Peaceful demonstrators accuse Xstrata of polluting the environment

Some 30 masked activists gathered outside the Theater-Casino in the city between 10 am and 11 am on Tuesday where the Xstrata mining company was holding its AGM. The demonstrators were protesting about the company's alleged infringement of human rights and pollution to the environment in Peru and Columbia as a result of its activities there.
 
The peaceful demonstrators, some of whom had flown in specially from South America, belonged to the German-based Society for Threatened Peoples (GfbV), the MultiWatch organisation and the Swiss-Columbia working group, both of which are based in Bern.
 
According to its website, the GfbV is an independent human rights organisation, which, "does not turn a blind eye" to issues it feels need highlighting to the public at large. The MultiWatch group is made up of various non-governmental organisations, trade unions, political parties and other organisations all critical of globalisation. It specialises, it seems, in looking out for infringements against human rights by Swiss multi-national companies and has previously focussed on "shortcomings of the Nestlé company in Columbia". The Swiss-Columbia working group has been operational since 1987 and is aiming "for political and non-violent structural changes in Switzerland and Columbia, not least in fair trade".
 
This is not the first time that the Xstrata company has been the focus of demonstrations with a group protesting only last October against the conditions which prevail in Peru, where copper and gold is mined. Indeed last November, Oscar Mollohuanca, the 50-year-old governor of the Espinar province in the Andes, brought charges against the company because of alleged pollution to the environment and endangering the health of local people.
 
On Tuesday he joined the demonstrators "to tell the shareholders about the deplorable situation in his home country". According to the activists, independent enquiries have revealed that the levels of heavy metals in drinking water are much higher than what it is regarded as acceptable. Furthermore, higher-than-normal levels of miscarriages and deformities in animals have been recorded in the area. Indeed one protester held a placard which asked, "What about the llamas born without heads in our area?"
 
The activists also referred to the Cerrejon mine in Columbia, in which Xstrata has a 33% stake, where local people have been lured into giving up traditional hunting, fishing and agriculture to work in the mines, and where pollution is also an issue. It seems the locals have not been kept informed about enforced re-settlement caused by the company's expansion plans.
 
Shortly before 11 am, members of the Xstrata board began to arrive with chairman Sir John Bond, (on the left in the photograph) and CEO Michael Davis (on the right). They walked by the demonstrators but acknowledged them with a polite "Thank you" in English as they accepted their leaflets.
 
However, José Marun, general manager of Xstrata's South American division, took time to talk with the demonstrators in Spanish and explained to them that the company adhered to all the local regulations at its mines.
 
At the meeting, Mollohuanca and the three representatives of the non-governmental organisations were invited by the company to sit on the front row.
 
As to the AGM itself, this went swimmingly under the leadership of Sir John Bond with various members of the board re-elected. Afterwards Mollohuanca took the opportunity to make his point directly to the board. "We are no longer prepared to accept your company in our province if you continue to pollute the environment and show no respect for the rights of the local inhabitants," he said.
 
In his reply, Michael Davis said emphatically, "We do indeed adhere to all regulations in the area. Furthermore, our investment there makes a considerable contribution to the development of the region and to the prosperity of the people who live there," adding that since 2003 Xstrata had invested some USD 70 million in the Espinar area. As to the protection of the environment, the company had set itself higher standards than the local regulations called for.
 
The meeting finished shortly before 12 noon with drinks for the shareholders while Mollohuanca and the other activists headed for the Café Plaza on Bahnhofstrasse. "We are sticking to our guns," said the governor defiantly. "We cannot ignore the deleterious effects on the local people and the environment despite the economic development."  
 
The Swiss-British Xstrata company is currently in negotiation with the Baar-based Glencore company with regard to a possible merger. If successful, the Glencore-Xstrata International company would then be among the biggest mining and commodity-trading companies in the world.