By Michael Chaitow, Senior Campaigns Officer, ShareAction
Attending my first Annual General Meeting (AGM), I was a little bit nervous, a little bit curious and more than a touch excited. I’d read about what the mining company Vedanta had done to villages in Zambia and India, I’d learned about the ongoing court cases seeking compensation for these damages, and I was hoping that I could help turn some attention towards these ongoing battles.
The AGM took place, as so many do, in a fancy hotel room with a well catered reception. The presentations were smoothly prepared, and the annual results to the liking of many. Yet as I received a handout from the London Mining Network, and saw a number of activists registering in advance to ask questions of the board, I realised that I was not alone in attending for more than just profit and loss statements.
— Michael Chaitow (@mchaitow) August 14, 2017
In fact, as the second question was asked after the board’s speeches, the issue of indigenous land rights was raised. From then onwards, questions turned to matters of compensation for accidents onsite, company adherence to UN human rights guidelines and the Modern Slavery Act. It was clear that Vedanta had a history, and from the way that the board was responding, so did some of the activists. Referencing AGMs as far back as a 2010, the questioners showed that they had been putting pressure on the company for the better part of a decade. And while Vedanta listed its various efforts at community engagement and compensation for previous damages, it seemed pretty clear that the effects of its reckless exploration had been felt by communities across the world, and little that the business had done to date had made up for this.
Just before the time came to ask my question, the room erupted into fierce debate. Some shareholders were angry that activists had “hijacked” the meeting, while others felt that the board had done nothing but evade or provide stock answers that meant little in terms of concrete steps forward. I rose to address the issue of compensation, asking about an ongoing court case here in London for a subsidiary of Vedanta, KCM in Zambia.
I asked what steps Vedanta had taken to fund the cleanup of this devastation, and how it intended to report on this to shareholders, noting that I saw constant references to sustainability and human rights in their annual and sustainability reports
In the early 2000s, KCM had caused a spill that polluted the drinking water of thousands of Zambians, leading to serious illness and crop and wildlife degradation. While the High Court and Supreme Court of Zambia had both found KCM guilty of “gross recklessness as to whether human beings died or not”, no compensation was issued because the majority of the victims were too poor to travel to hospitals to receive treatment to substantiate their claims. For those that had been lucky enough to see doctors, evidence was hard to come by, with doctors employed by the state being fearful to criticise the highly powerful mining industry.
Despite one judge going as far as to say, “here is a multinational enterprise which has no regard for human life for the sake of profit”, it had fallen to lawyers in London to sue the parent company Vedanta to achieve compensation for the victims of KCM. I asked what steps Vedanta had taken to fund the cleanup of this devastation, and how it intended to report on this to shareholders, noting that I saw constant references to sustainability and human rights in their annual and sustainability reports, but there was scant mention of ongoing legal dispute or violations of these rights.
— Michael Chaitow (@mchaitow) August 14, 2017
The response from the board was underwhelming. Vedanta argued that they already disclosed more than they needed to, and that they worked closely with the Zambian Environmental Management Agency to address issues of pollution and degradation. Yet such information somehow managed to remain difficult to find. I followed up with the CEO of KCM afterwards, looking to find concrete sources I could turn to; something to point shareholders towards. Yet the same answers were provided again, a behaviour in which I could see the company was well versed. It became clear to me why the campaigners returned every year, asking questions to the board. Yet it was also clear why they felt so frustrated. Despite the significance of their questions, the answers they received seemed to offer few resolutions to such major problems.
Leaving the AGM I recalled the answer to one question by a campaigner, where the outgoing CEO committed to meet with the questioner to progress his complaint further. I wondered what would come of this, and whether the meeting would actually occur. Either way, I’m glad that there’s people like him, coming year after year to take up the fight. Whether or not the board makes good on its promises, without the persistence of people like him, who knows what would get done?
Thanks Michael! Find out more about AGM activism here.