Jan 31, 2011

The not-so-curious case of Reko Diq

As ever, the question of who decides is more important than anything else. And as usual, those who really matter are being left out in the cold
By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

It is amazing that what is being passed as ‘debate’ on the proposed Reko Diq mineral explorations includes almost no mention of the fact that an insurgency rages in the province which is home to the billions of dollars of gold and copper deposits that everyone and sundry is fantasising about. It would not be remiss to recall that only a few years ago Gwadar port was being touted as the next Dubai, but a combination of political strife and edgy foreign investors has put paid to that particular capitalist fantasy.

The Canadian-Chilean consortium that was given the rights by the government of Pakistan to do a feasibility study has of course verified that there are huge mineral deposits waiting to be extracted. This consortium is now in advanced negotiations to initiate the exploration process, with an expected return of over US$3 billion in the first phase. Needless to say, this would only be the tip of the money-making iceberg.

Predictably a large number of observers -- both home and abroad -- are peddling the need for Pakistan to employ the most modern technologies to harness its vast natural resource base. Inspired by the classic modernisation school of thought, this lobby argues that the net gains accruing to Pakistan are unambiguous and, therefore, the exploration license should be awarded to the foreign companies in question without delay.

On the other side of the spectrum are those -- both of leftist and rightist persuasion -- that claim that Canadian-Chilean entrepreneurs are the primary beneficiaries of the proposed project and that, in the long-term, Pakistan’s economy will become even more dependent on whimsical foreign capitalists than it already is. I submit that while there is merit in the latter position -- it might broadly be called an anti-imperialist one -- it does not quite get to the heart of the matter. For the record, the modernisationists are even less able to recognise the various and complex issues on the table.

First, at stake here are not Pakistan’s interests, as much as Balochistan’s. The standard refrain of the establishment intellectual -- and the millions of young people who have been bred on this narrative -- will be to decry this from the standpoint that ‘we are all Pakistanis’. This is true, in a manner of speaking. But it is amazing that so many otherwise intelligent people in this country still refuse to accept that to invoke the proverbial slogan ‘we are all Pakistanis’ is to deny that the Baloch -- and for that matter other oppressed nations within Pakistan -- have been subject to systematic discrimination and repression since the inception of the state.

How is it possible to plan for the mining of gold and copper in Reko Diq when much more fundamental questions about sharing power and Baloch/Pakistani identity remain unanswered? Surely, it must be recognised that in an environment where trust is non-existent, advertising the extraction of billions of dollars of mineral deposits will simply confirm to Baloch militants -- and a wide cross-section of society alongside -- that the Pakistani government is out to pillage Baloch resources.

The establishment line that resources within the boundaries of the Pakistani state cannot be considered ‘Baloch’, ‘Sindhi’, ‘Pakhtun’, Punjabi’, etc. is both legally and politically untenable. Even within the confines of the unitary state model that Pakistan inherited from the British, provinces retain control over resources such as land and minerals. Even more important is the fact that as early as 1940, separate ethnic-national groups were promised autonomy in a prospective new state. This has never happened, but is precisely what needs to happen. Harping on about resources within Balochistan being fair game to all Pakistanis reflects how little our intelligentsia appreciates the political sensitivities that must be heeded if an integrated Pakistan is to be constructed in years to come.

The second important issue that both sides have failed to acknowledge is something that I have repeatedly highlighted in recent months, namely that ‘development’ as it has come to be understood is completely incognizant of the ecological crisis that confronts humankind. Indeed, if we continue to pay only lip service to the ecological imperative, the entire edifice of human existence on the planet will come under threat. If on the one hand the Reko Diq case symbolises the contradiction between the Baloch people and the unitary state, then on the other hand it is yet another indicator that uninhibited capital accumulation is irreconcilable with sustainable use of natural resources. It should be taken for granted that, their undertaking of the formality of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) notwithstanding, the Canadian-Chilean mining companies seeking to realize the Reko Diq fortune are not particularly concerned about the long-term environmental impacts of their exploration exercise.

This brings me back to the question of neo-imperialism. The modernisationists have been making hay of the fact that the terms of the proposed exploration license guarantee the federal and provincial governments approximately half of all revenues accruing from Reko Diq between them. We are supposed to be thrilled about this, because, after all, the Canadians and Chileans have invested greatly in the project and deserve their fair share of the spoils. It is perhaps not surprising that such viewpoints become common sense in an age when debate about what constitutes progress is so constricted. In actual fact, the agreements that third-world governments such as ours sign with foreign investors these days make a mockery of the notion of sovereignty. Capital is given complete freedom to enter and exit the country at will, labour laws (to the extent that they exist) are held in abeyance, and incentives of all kinds are on offer to ensure that ‘foreign direct investment’ increases in accordance with the wishes of multilateral donor agencies. Yes, there is no local expertise available, but have we concluded that we will never have it? If that is indeed the case, surely we can drive a harder bargain with the ever-so-gracious foreign investors.

In the final analysis, the important concerns highlighted above will likely be ignored by the relevant parties. One wonders how the protagonists will deal with the very real security problems that will, in all likelihood, plague the project. Either way, if and when the mining gets underway, noone should expect smooth going. We all want development, but we want the right kind, undertaken in the right way. As ever, the question of who decides is more important than anything else. And as usual, those who really matter are being left out in the cold.

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