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Richard Boele: Keeping your enemies closer

Richard Boele has been described as a ratbag anti-mining campaigner. Working for a Hague-based human rights organization in 1995 he wrote the report that brought Shell’s handling of the Nigerian Ogoni people to the world’s attention.

So why are some of the world’s largest mining companies now paying him consultancy fees?

“It’s simple,” according Newmont spokesperson Mike Duggan. “We need good, honest fearless auditing in order to get our social licence to operate. It’s about securing the tacit approval of the landowners and other stakeholders in our projects and people like Richard help us to get that.”

Now living in NSW, Boele and his business partners Dr Deanna Kemp and Katharine Walters operate as Banarra Ltd, offering sustainability assurance and advice.

His bread and butter for much of the last decade has been social auditing for companies such as Newmont. He’s worked on the company’s five star accreditation system and done 39 assessments on 20 mine sites in locations as far flung as Uzbekistan and Peru.

Boele is moving on though, he’s trained up five social auditors to keep Newmont’s social performance evaluation going and he’s now working on new projects, primarily focused on developing other reliable ways of measuring corporate social performance.

He pauses to stress that his speciality is about social auditing not environmental issues.

While the social auditors he’s trained are now operating in competition with his own firm, Boele shrugs off the corporate risk to his own patch as an amusing irony, not too dangerous in the face of the upsurge of interest companies are now showing in social accountability.

This year he’s been working alongside Professor David Brereton from the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining, based at the University of Queensland, on another project for Newmont researching the future of voluntary initiatives for managing and accounting for social performance.

This project is similar in some respects to work he did in 2004 with a WWF-Australia and Placer Dome partnership project developing measurable and auditable on-ground performance standards for mine sites that aim to be acceptable to all of the project participants and stakeholders. Boele was involved in developing and trialing the proposed certification programme.

Placer Dome, majority owned by Barrick Gold Corporation since January 2006, is one of a growing number of mining companies publicly proud of its concern about the social impact of mining.

John Shipp, President of Barrick’s Australia/Africa operations said he stood by the statement on Placer Dome’s website summing up the new concern about social licence to operate, with the words: “Poor environmental performance and consequent social impacts by some companies have affected the reputation of the whole industry.

“The mining industry has responded to public concerns by introducing a range of voluntary initiatives to better manage environmental and social issues arising from their operations and to communicate these to the public.

“These include developing industry codes of conduct, implementing environmental management systems, setting performance targets and producing environmental reports.”

The company adds though, that while individual companies and mine sites have made significant advances in environmental and social performance, these advances have largely gone unrecognised and unrewarded by the market and the public because of the absence of a credible mechanism that can differentiate companies on the basis of their environmental and social performance.

Hence their interest in working with groups like WWF-Australia and consultants such as Boele in order to gain recognition for the work being done on these fronts.

In 2004 Placer Dome was part of the Mining and Minerals Working Group of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), along with Anglo American, BHP Billiton, Codelco, Newmont, Noranda, Phelps Dodge, Rio Tinto and WMC Ltd.

These nine companies were also part of a larger group of thirty companies involved in the Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development project, an independent global analysis executed by the International Institute for Environmental Development.

According to Boele, this kind of engagement in social awareness is “enlightened self interest” on the part of the companies involved.

He says that with an estimated 70 per cent of the world’s unidentified mineral resources thought to be under indigenous-owned, land mining companies are faced with a complex set of variables to negotiate.

While the first bottom line is still clearly financial, Boele says companies now realise that having a good reputation for social sustainability can make the legal processes associated with gaining access to mineral rich land a lot easier and less costly.

He says that while initial assessments by companies tend to talk about what hasn’t worked in the past, these reports are about framing the companies as learning organizations with a commitment to performing better in the future and they’re also showing that the companies are becoming involved in the dialogue about corporate responsibility.

He adds that the development of methods of measuring social performance is important because it represents the accounting side of accountability, that in time will become more important than blanket statements about values.

Boele is bullish about the future of social sustainability assurance and accounting, he says that while there is currently still only a small proportion of the business world as a whole thinking along these lines interest is growing steadily and has been since the late 1980s.

Did the Shell/Nigeria debacle play a part in that?

From where he stands, it seems so. He says: “They were hit on the environmental side by protests over the dumping off the Brent Spar oil platform into the North Sea and on the social side by accusations of complicity to the execution of Ogoni leader and environmental campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa. So it was really a rough time and a trigger for many companies to consider their own environmental AND social risks.

“Since then”, he says, “the industry has become a lot more sophisticated.

“It’s still only the really global companies that have really taken on the new approach but with other kind of companies (such as Westpac) now starting to do social audits of all of the companies in their supply chains, this kind of awareness is trickling down.”

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