Eye on the Amazon

How Responsible is Business for Social Responsibility?

Destruction from the Belo Monte Dam

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Ask BSR to explain how they could invite Vale – the "worst corporation in the world" – to present at their conference via Twitter.

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We're all quite conscious of the fact that corporations in America grow more powerful each day. One merely has to look at the elections since the fateful Citizens United decision to see how lobbying power and wealth can crush popular movements such as GMO labeling in California and Washington. These two charts show the extent to which corporate power is concentrated and which industries already wield powerful influence in specific states and should serve as a wake up call to anyone not already seriously concerned.

In the face of growing corporate power, engaging with corporations to create a climate of social responsibility has never been more critical. Networks such as Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) can play an important role in how civil society relates to and educates corporations to agree on norms and practices that could actually help create a more sustainable future. But when the exchange is used to help corporations merely polish their image without truly participating in good faith, it can do more harm than good. Groups like BSR should be especially careful about associating and promoting certain corporate actors. Indeed, this could undermine their entire mission.

This week in San Francisco, BSR severely tarnished its image in such a manner. On Thursday the Brazilian mining company Vale was invited to present its perspective on a panel entitled, "Voices of Rights Holders in the Extractives Industry." This is like inviting the CIA to a panel on the rights of victims of torture. Last year Vale won dubious distinction as the 2012 Public Eye Award Winner – a prize given annually to the worst corporation in the world. Vale is the second largest iron-ore mining company on the planet and the largest private shareholder in the consortium that is building the disastrous Belo Monte dam in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon.

The notorious Belo Monte dam, now under construction, did not satisfy Brazil's own environmental standards, yet has been strong armed thru with support from Brazilian President Rousseff. The project will displace over 40,000 people, flood 668 km2, and dry out 100 kilometers of the "Big Bend" of the Xingu River, profoundly impacting two indigenous tribes who live there. In other words, the very "Rights Holders" that were presumably discussed on the BSR panel.

Vale owns part of the Belo Monte dam so it can purchase electricity to power the expansion of its iron mining and smelting activities at the Carajás Mines, the world's largest iron mines. The company has a long record of labor rights violations and human rights abuses at Carajás, and has amassed a history of human rights violations in 38 countries around the world, including Mozambique, Canada, Angola, Australia, and Colombia.

BSR does not exist to force Vale to respect human rights and the environment, that's the job of organizations like Amazon Watch, the government and other bodies. But why should Vale get a free pass? And worst of all, why place them in a position as a leader in one of the very areas where they've be singled out as not only a bad actor – but one of the worst (a two minute Google search is all it would have taken to uncover that).

Another disturbing fact is that this wasn't the first time that BSR has made such an offensive gaff. Back in 2011, BSR invited corporate criminal extraordinaire Chevron to speak on a panel about "community engagement." Of course, due to their extreme tactics of persecuting anyone critical of their actions in Ecuador and now attacking the victims of their own toxic pollution as criminals, Chevron should be barred from even participating in networks such as BSR indefinitely.

Why does this keep happening and how can we help prevent it from happening again? Did BSR13 keynote speaker Mary Robinson know Vale and Chevron were in the room when she said that climate justice means accountability for harms done but also steps to prevent future harms? Vale and Chevron are at the top of the list for both lack of accountability and with plans to refine tar sands oil in Richmond and building proceeding on Belo Monte, both are charging straight into a future of more climate chaos. I'd like to think her statement was meant for them to hear.

Let's make sure BSR hears our statement. I'd like an explanation from someone at BSR as to why they made the choices of featuring Chevron and Vale. Are they concerned that some of their members have major unresolved human rights and environmental issues? Are they encouraging those companies to demonstrate the values they espouse at BSR and respond in a way that values the communities affected by their work? Most importantly, will they establish a standard for future conferences that precludes corporations found liable for massive environmental and human rights crimes (who have not accepted responsibility and taken corrective action) from speaking? Or will they keep corporations from presenting as leaders on issues for which they have been publicly condemned?

I invite you to ask these questions of the BSR staff via Twitter. I have asked them, but am still awaiting a reply. Aron Cramer, President and CEO is @aroncramer, and Faris Natour, Human Rights Director is @FarisNatour. Please use #BSR13 and mention @amazonwatch in your tweets. Thanks!

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