Sunday, July 13, 2008

Priorities & the impact of mining

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There is no question that we need minerals for sustaining human lives and development, but when you consider the prices paid for those minerals, its worth pondering whether its worth the price. Great importance is placed by government upon economic growth because that is what sustains job creation, which gives people a sense of value. But it becomes apparent that sometimes countries engage in relationships with others for entirely different reasons than economic interest - reasons such as defence. Australia has long wanted to align itself with the USA and Britain for defence reasons. The government seems to have had considerable insecurity on this point.

When we look at the world, people seem seem to be engaged in a pursuit of financial assets and even physical assets, and in the process they have lost perspective as to what else is important. I know the Filipinos (for all their faults) have not lost perspective on this issue because they are constantly fighting for something more than these values that foreign governments would impose upon them.

I suspect the people of Bougainville are not to different in this respect. Back in the 1980s natives on the island fought against the PNG government for their right to self-determination, and they won it. They won it because they were culturally distinct from PNG, and historically separate from the Solomon Islands. The rebel leaders argued that the Bougainville copper mine operated by CRA (now Rio Tinto) was producing vast amounts of revenue for PNG, but little of the money was being spent in PNG. Well the mine has long since been mothballed, its plant destroyed. But it had a very good case to argue. How fortunate they are. But one must be mindful, are they sacrificing one type of tyranny for another? Recently the President of the country died. He was a respected man. It will be interesting to see how future leaders fare. That was the economic fight. The other aspect of the fight was the environmental disaster. Leaders of poor countries all too often are impressed by the revenue earning capacity of these mines. One need only look at Google satellite images to see the damage done to the property of local communities. Mostly we are talking about contaminated water supplies and fish, which could mean high heavy metal concentrations in food supplies as well. But then you look at the considerably greater damage performed by nature in terms of volcanic eruptions on Bougainville and you wonder if humans are not too bad. :)

The experience goes to show how unfair governments can be with respect to the interests of particular people in society. Being a Western colony, I am quiet sure the PNG constitution would have been framed by the colonists, so we can reflect on democracy as the cause of this problem. Why should we be surprised that the majority would take advantage of minorities, no matter how unintentional those consequences might be. I have read that Australia has one of the unfairest and most complicated tax systems in the world. Reading the Bougainville Constitution, I an wondering if this small country will be any better off.
Andrew Sheldon
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