Change hasn't happened quickly enough in the global mining sector, despite prodding from advocacy groups concerned about environmental sustainability and human rights abuses. But when a mining company responds to pressure and makes changes for the better, that should be acknowledged, not dismissed as an empty public relations gesture.
Recent criticism by Mining Watch of Barrick Gold's initiative to assist the women who were raped by local employees of its mine in Papua New Guinea is short-sighted. It has accused the company of "rushing" the women through the claims process, and of forcing them to sign away their legal rights.
That is stretching the truth. In fact, Barrick, the world's largest gold-mining company, has done its best to clean up the mess at the Porgera gold mine. Since 2011, it has spent 18 months consulting with human-rights advocates and developed an opt-in program of remediation for the victims, offering them counselling, access to micro-credit and medical care. The program is administered by an independent team, including the former chief magistrate of Papua New Guinea.
The women are free to pursue action against any individuals involved but once they settle the grievance procedure with the company, they cannot make further legal claims against it. This seems fair.
There is no denying that the Toronto-based corporation should have acted before the allegations of gang rapes became public in a 2011 Human Rights Watch report. That is regrettable. However, Barrick has since responded "with vigour," to use the words of Human Rights Watch. It launched a major internal investigation, facilitated a criminal investigation by the local police and dismissed the employees who were charged.
Sexual violence against women remains a serious problem in Papua New Guinea, due in part to the country's patriarchal culture. In the Porgera district, many women have experienced trauma and violence. This deeply rooted problem will not be resolved overnight.
Mining Watch, a non-profit advocacy group, is right to continue to monitor this issue in Papua New Guinea and in other countries where governance is weak and corruption a problem. But it should also be prepared to acknowledge change, and to chart the continuing evolution of the mining sector.