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How to engage with Chinese companies that seem to be mostly interested in commercial outcomes while sidestepping the issues around environmental and community security? There is no simple answer, and there are not many positive stories to tell. But there is a very small community in a faraway part of the DRC, who decided to take action. The case has been anonymized for the purpose of this blog, yet it is a tale worth telling.
Most mining companies in Katanga region, the copper and cobalt belt of the Democratic Republic of Congo, are of Chinese origin. Since their arrival in the early 2000s, they have been criticized by civil society for not adhering to environmental and social standards. According to Congolese workers in the mining sector, working conditions in Chinese companies are considerably worse than in European and US mining companies in the DRC. This does not mean that other companies are acting responsibly, but in comparison, the reputation of European and US mining companies is slightly better. Some of the main human rights violations that Chinese companies are involved in include dangerous working conditions due to a lack of safety provisions, the use of child labour, forced evictions of local communities and a lack of adequate legal safeguards for them. Also, artisanal miners have been removed from mining sites, sometimes violently.
It is one of the most burning questions for peacebuilding and development organizations working on business in fragile and violence ridden contexts: how to engage with Chinese companies that seem to be mostly interested in commercial outcomes while sidestepping the issues around environmental and community security? There is no simple answer, and there are not many positive stories to tell. But just like in the famous Asterix comic books, there is a very small community in a faraway part of the DRC, who decided to take action. The case has been anonymized for the purpose of this blog, yet it is a tale worth telling.
Since 2014, when the Chinese company began mining copper and cobalt in the area, the local communities have suffered loss of land due to deforestation, lack of compensation for the loss of land, water pollution, and restriction on the freedom of circulation. No consultation with the communities took place. With the help of a local NGO, several unsuccessful efforts were made to raise these issues with the company’s management in DRC. In the same year, an important development took place in the Chinese mining sector: the China Chamber of Commerce of Metals, Minerals and Chemicals (CCCMC) announced a set of guidelines for responsible mining by Chinese companies. The new guidelines were welcomed by NGOs as a possible breakthrough for communities. It seemed like the dragon finally awakened.
At first, the company did not embrace the guidelines, despite being a member of the CCCMC. They refused to respond to the communities’ complaints and consistently ignored any efforts to start a dialogue. Then, in March 2018, a high-level delegation of CCCMC visited Katanga region and met with companies, government officials and civil society leaders to discuss the challenges in implementing the guidelines. In November 2018, with the support of an international NGO, the local NGO published a new report on the company’s human rights impacts, and the community leaders of our little village sent a complaint to the CCCMC The expectations were not very high, because of the lack of a functional grievance mechanism at the level of the CCCMC, but the community went ahead anyway, because “nothing ventured, nothing gained”.
A breakthrough occurred in June 2020 when the company finally admitted improvements were needed. For the first time, the local NGO was invited for a formal dialogue process. Since then, there have been several tangible improvements, including the installation of water boreholes as well as decantation basins for the disposal of chemical waste, previously dumped in nature. The company has also built a new road to give the community freedom of movement. Although other issues have not been resolved yet, the prospects look good. An agreement is being developed with the village chief in which the company commits itself to improvements to the benefit of the community, in line with responsible business conduct standards. Although it remains to be seen whether the company will keep to its promises, at least the situation has changed from a non-responsive, uninterested attitude to a more open and positive attitude of partnership and dialogue.
An important lesson from this case is that mining companies can move beyond sole compliance with human rights due diligence requirements to embrace the human security perspective by searching for mutual ground for collaboration and problem solving. In our view, the case shows that it is possible to influence Chinese companies’ behaviour by a combination of continued pressure and the use of international complaint mechanisms. The fact that the case was put in the spotlight of the Chinese authorities is thought to have helped the company to take a more collaborative approach. It is an illustration that it is sometimes necessary to take a strong stance against multinational companies, in order to enter a multiactor collaboration in a good negotiation position.
This case also shows that there is potential to work on resolving business-community conflicts in the very challenging and fragile context of the DRC. The weak governance by local authorities, the quasi-absence of the rule of law, a lack of national grievance mechanisms and a very weak judicial system places serious constraints on the ability to hold companies to account and protect the rights of local communities. This means that communities are basically “on their own” and will need all the support they can get from the international community to hold companies to account, and to support them to resolve these conflicts.
So, what can NGOs do to improve human security and resolve these types of conflicts? They could advocate with CCCMC to set up a National Contact Point in DRC, accessible to all stakeholders, following the model of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. Also, they could create a platform or working group of CSO representatives to share their experiences with the CCCMC grievance mechanism. International NGOs are crucial in raising attention and pressure the companies into action and supporting the communities that are impacted by their actions. In the end, all of this will help taming the dragon one step at a time.