Tag Archives: value

Levinson on primitive economies of information

Ndap y Ke Rossel

Rossel Island shell currency.

An excerpt from Stephen C. Levinson, “Interrogative Intimations: On A Possible Social Economics of Interrogatives” in Questions. Formal, Functional and Interactional Perspectives. ed. Jan P. de Ruiter. Cambridge: 2012.

Levinson sketches a model of conversation in which interlocutors measure both the semantic and the social value of information. In this scheme, the semantic measure would be apportioned in units called Carnaps (after philosopher Rudolf Carnap), the social in Goffman units (after sociologist Erving Goffman). The Goffman measure involves ongoing estimations of position relative to others, social costs (which might explain the reluctance, say, to ask a question), authority, expertise, and so on. It underwrites a “micropolitics” of conversation.

Levinson offers an analogy with the shell money system of Rossel Island, in Papua, New Guinea.

An economic model of social information transfer is not going to look like a modern market economy. It might perhaps have some passing resemblance to the “primitive” economics of pre-industrial societies, with multiple measures for specific goods (bushels and grosses, cords and cubits), and multiple barter and exchange systems. Take the so-called shell money system of Rossel Island…, which consists of twenty-odd denominations of shells, with no exact equivalences of value and a delimited arena in which they can be used — it offers only the faintest semblance of a market economy (the shells are usable, e.g., for bride price, the purchase of pigs, houses and canoes, but not for food or manual labour). Shells are stores not only of economic but of social value, and top shells have names, like the Koh-i-noor diamond. Gaining possession of an individually named shell is like being temporary owner of a Picasso: it is an individual, not a mass of multiple undifferentiated tokens, and it reflects glory on its owner. Large injustices and delicts can be atoned for by the assuaging properties of such shells, even if only on loan for a fortnight. Shells go in one direction in exchange for goods, services and immaterial benefits (like forgiveness) in the other; but because there is constant flow in both directions, and shells are borrowed from all and sundry with intended eventual repayment, the market is about as murky as subprime derivatives. Such a system, with a multitude of special factors, frictions and exuberant irrationalities, offers us a better picture of the economics of everyday social life than textbook market economics.

It also moves us well beyond the transactional “ask-bid” model of conversation I described, and found wanting, in an earlier post.

Sustainable Development, Derailed

train-derailment-sept-ilesOn Thursday of last week, an avalanche derailed a Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway freight train owned by Iron Ore of Canada as it made its way north along the banks of the Moisie River.

Divers recovered the body of Enrick Gagnon, the train’s engineer,  just this morning. The train’s lead locomotive is still completely submerged in the Moisie and another is partly submerged. Each locomotive holds about 17,000 litres of diesel fuel, and a 20 kilometer slick — “a silvery layer” — has spread over surface of the Moisie. The train was not hauling ore; its freight compartments were empty for its northbound run.

The Moisie and its watershed are part of a designated aquatic reserve, so the river is technically protected from mining activity; but so far as I can tell, the 16 mile stretch that the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway line runs along the Moisie was built in 1954, when mining first began in the region, and more than fifty years before the Quebec government published its conservation plan.

One stated aim of that plan is to protect native species, including and perhaps especially the Atlantic salmon running in the Moisie. As nearly every report on the Moisie catastrophe notes, the pristine waters of the remote northern river are internationally renowned for salmon fishing.

For the Innu of Uashat mak Mani-utenam, whose traditional territory the Moisie crosses, the river is much more: it is, in the words of one newswire report, a thing of “inestimable cultural value.”  So development in Innu territory continues to risk the inestimable for the merely estimable: in this case iron ore, jobs, growth. The Innu, who call themselves “the true owners of the land,” say they never consented to the tradeoff, and that the mining operation in their territory violates “international law, particularly the principle of ‘free, prior and informed consent.’”

Now, with this trainwreck, the Innu have an environmental crisis on their hands; but over the past couple of decades, the Innu say, they have also witnessed a gradual and “cumulative” effect on the environment and their community due to “the intensification of industrial activities” in the Sept-Îles region.

Iron Ore of Canada has a lock on the region’s economy, and development opportunities in the Labrador Trough are, in the words of IOC’s CEO Zoe Yujnovich, “potentially unconstrained.” Rio Tinto, which owns the majority stake in IOC, recently increased annual production capacity for the region from 18 to 23 million tons of ore concentrate, and plans to open a new mine called Wabush 3 to help meet that goal.

A 2013 publication touting Rio Tinto’s “Sustainable Development” plan for the region notes that the additional revenue generated by IOC’s “wholly owned rail company” will keep pace with growth: “use of the railway is set to increase significantly in the next few years as a result of our own expansion projects and junior mining startups in the area.” In other words, more trains than ever will be traveling along the Moisie, from Labrador to Sept-Îles Junction.

Newmont, Nonsense and Good Faith

I’m concerned that my earlier post about John Ruggie’s Just Business may have given the misleading impression that Newmont Mining’s troubles in Cajamarca had been resolved, or that the company’s publication of a study called Listening to the City of Cajamarca had softened local opposition to Newmont and its Minas Conga project — a $5 billion project to build one of Peru’s largest gold mines. Events of this past week were a reminder just how far apart the company and the campesinos remain, and just how much work it will take to bridge the distance between them.

Water remains the central issue in Cajamarca. Protests this week focused on the mining company’s so-called Water First plan. Water First involves draining Lake Perol, one of several alpine lakes in the region around Cajamarca, to build four reservoirs. Newmont and the Peruvian government promote Water First as a socially responsible effort to increase water capacity year round throughout the region, where water supply is now subject to seasonal variation. But Wilfredo Saavedra, President of the Environmental Defense Front of Cajamarca or Frente De Defensa Ambiental de Cajamarca, says Water First puts the needs of the mining company above the rights of local communities: “The mine needs water for its project and it’s going to give us polluted water,” he told Reuters. “We want them to leave us alone with our lakes, which are enough for us.”

By Tuesday, protesters were throwing stones at police and police responded by firing rubber bullets — or, if you follow the police account, one rubber bullet. Local groups plan to occupy Lake Perol starting June 17th. It seems things in Cajamarca are about to escalate again.

A popular assembly at Lake Perol in November, 2011. Photo credit: EFE/Paolo Aguilar

A popular assembly at Lake Perol in November, 2011. Photo credit: EFE/Paolo Aguilar

In the midst of these fresh troubles, and partly due to them, Zacks, an investment research firm, issued a note downgrading Newmont to the status of underperformer. “Newmont may continue to face headwinds due to increasing mining and non-mining costs. Moreover, its production may be affected further due to geopolitical risks.” The company’s troubles in Peru and elsewhere are starting to chip away at market reputation and shareholder value.

Newmont has tried to smooth things over. In response to the violence in Cajamarca, the company issued a statement calling for the protesters “to embrace good-faith dialogue”. That is not likely to happen anytime soon. Yesterday, Marco Arana Zegarra (who has come to know the mining company over the years) said Newmont was just “playing the victim.” Overcoming skepticism and establishing good-faith dialogue in Cajamarca is going to require much more than a short exercise in public relations.

For starters, Newmont will need to repair the damage done by Roque Benavides, CEO of Buenaventura, Newmont’s partner in the Minas Conga project. On Thursday, Benavides dismissed objections to the Water First plan, pointing out that the company has not yet begun draining Lake Perol and saying the current protests make “no sense.” This is worse than insulting: it’s saying that the protests are devoid of meaning, that they are nonsense. People’s concerns and worries, their anger and their fears, the lives and the established ways of life they are trying to protect, the myths, memories and meanings they associate with Lake Perol — all of that is meaningless and without value. Now there is gold to mine.

If “Water First” puts an Orwellian twist on the mining company’s plan to appropriate the water resources of the Cajamarca region, Benavides’ statement takes us to the other side of the looking glass, where it makes more “sense” to drain a mountain lake in order to mine gold than to live, as people have lived for centuries, around the lake, making use of its waters according to the seasons.

Benavides has been a bit of a loose cannon. He infamously said that he “hates” the idea of business having to gain social license and that “he does not understand” what social license means. The remark was widely criticized, not just because it seemed callous, but also because it is tantamount to saying that in Cajamarca, Newmont, Buenaventura and their cronies in government can do as they please. Where is the good faith in that?

It’s surprising, then, that in the current situation no one at Newmont has advised Benavides — or implored him — to remove himself from the conversation and refrain from making public remarks about the situation in Cajamarca. Good-faith dialogue is only possible if both parties have an equal chance to discover and create new, shared meaning, together. There can be no dialogue, and no good faith, if one party claims all rights to do as it wishes simply because it is mighty, and rejects the position of the other as pure nonsense, simply because it is meek.