In a welcome move, the Anglo-Australian mining giant, Rio Tinto, has responded to a recent report from the Southern Africa Resource Watch (SARW) entitled Coal versus Communities in Mozambique: Exposing poor practices by VALE and Rio Tinto, which highlighted a number of serious concerns about the resettlement programme and treatment of local communities by Rio Tinto and VALE in relation to their vast new coal mines in Tete province in central Mozambique.
The SARW report was particularly critical of the way that affected communities had been relocated to an area 40 kilometres away from the mines and far from the main road, how they had not been properly consulted and how they had not been provided with either the promised infrastructure or sufficient fertile farmland - leaving many of them worse off than before, despite all the mineral wealth being dug up from their former land.
Indeed, the communities publicly protested about their treatment in January just as the SARW report was being launched.
So it is heartening to hear that Rio Tinto has read the report and taken the observations seriously. And even more importantly, that Rio Tinto is keen to meet SARW and other relevant stakeholders to discuss how to deal with existing challenges and make the most of the opportunities provided by the massive coal fields in Tete.
Rio Tinto's response stresses how important good community relations are to the firm's success and states clearly that its "community work...occurs within our human rights framework, which reflects the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and entails a commitment to respect human rights consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Resettlement is no exception - all programs must be governed by The way we work, our global code of business conduct; our Communities Policy and Standard; our Resettlement guidance note; and the International Finance Corporation's land acquisition and resettlement guidelines appropriate to the jurisdictional context. Our Human Rights Policy also informs all resettlement programs."
However, there is sometimes a sizeable gap between the paper policies of mining companies and their actual practice. And Rio Tinto admitted that the observations made by SARW did reflect "at least to some degree the issues facing the resettlement program at the time of Rio Tinto's acquisition of the Riversdale license in July 2011."
But the company argued that some of SARW's points did not necessarily reflect the situation on the ground. For example, Rio Tinto claim that there was consultation with the communities and that "written and signed records (with minutes and agreements) were kept of all interactions involving Riversdale, the Government and the communities" - although this was clearly not the view of many of the community members that the SARW researchers spoke to.
In addition, Rio Tinto claimed that efforts "have been made to provide as much opportunity as possible for relocated families to continue farming activities with families resettled by Riversdale receiving a minimum of two hectares per family for farming, in addition to the land provided for habitation."
Moreover, the company said that it "would like to reassure communities and other stakeholders that it remains committed to stimulating productive economic projects and employment in resettled communities as well as ensuring acceptable social infrastructure is in place, and procurement of local goods and services is enabled."
The company did admit that the SARW report was correct because challenges do remain but replied that these were "being tackled using collaborative, long-term approaches....In particular, appreciating existing challenges relating to resettlement including livelihood restoration and economic development, a series of assessments, gap analyses and diagnostics have been undertaken to identify the areas requiring attention and improvement in the immediate, medium and long-term."
Rio Tinto is admanat that by working "alongside the Government of Mozambique, we hope to build capacity and establish positive precedents that will contribute to Mozambique's social and economic development across industries and over the years. Rio Tinto is aware that its work with communities and around broader human rights issues in Mozambique is a continuing process and necessitates ongoing consultation with all relevant stakeholders."
The aim of SARW's work is to ensure that the mineral wealth of Mozambique - and southern Africa as a whole - benefits all citizens, not just a few. SARW's reports aim to promote dialogue between communities, companies and governments so that mining becomes the driver of real socio-economic development for communities near the mines but also across the country.
For that reason, SARW welcomes Rio Tinto's response to the report - although it does not deal in detail with many of the observations - and is keen to begin a constructive dialogue that can address the remaining challenges and turn the Tete coal fields into an example of how to do business - as opposed to yet another example of how not to do it.