Students at Kings College London slam decision to award honorary degree to BHP Billiton’s CEO
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Students at Kings College London slam decision to award honorary degree to BHP Billiton’s CEO

Students from Kings College London (KCL) are calling for the university to retract an honorary PhD awarded to BHP Billiton’s CEO in light of the recent environmental disaster in Brazil.

The mining giant’s CEO Dr Andrew Mackenzie, who King’s College describes as having “risen to the highest levels of global leadership through an unusual combination of commercial acumen, principled leadership and a continued fascination with science”, received the award in October.


Less than two weeks later, Anglo-Australian mining company BHP Billiton became the centre of controversy when a dam used to operate a mine it co-owns with Brazilian company Vale collapsed, killing at least 11 people in the resource-rich state of Minas Gerais in Brazil. The catastrophe has also caused widespread environmental damage.

Research students at one of world’s leading institutes for Brazilian studies, the King’s Brazil Institute at Kings College London, have launched a petition. They are urging Principal Ed Burns to withdraw the honorary doctorate, and encourage the transnational corporation to make a public apology to the impacted communities and provide adequate compensation.

The petition, set up by Kim Beecheno, a PhD candidate at King’s Brazil Institute, states: “As a leading research university that claims to recognise its responsibility toward sustainability and environmental protection, King’s should be leading the way in showing respect to the global environment rather than awarding honorary titles to CEOs of companies that are deriving profits through irresponsible and harmful business practices.”

“The Brazilian community and sympathizers to the socio-environmental cause understand that the title of honorary doctorate awarded to the CEO of BHP Billiton, shows that King’s condones and connives with the harmful business practices of BHP, its disregard to the environment, and the devastating social impacts of its practices.”

The mining project is owned by BHP Billiton and Brazilian iron ore company Vale, managed by a co-owned subsidiary, Samarco Mineração SA.

Toxic sludge

On November 5, a toxic mudslide caused by the dam’s collapse destroyed the town of Bento Rodrigues while the contaminated sludge has polluted a 500 kilometre stretch of the Doce River, killing scores of fish and other aquatic life, and affecting the water supply of hundreds of thousands of residents.

Vale and BHP Billiton have pledged to pay $366 million in costs for the damage caused by the mudslide.  Deutsche Bank initially estimated it could cost more than $1.4 billion to clean-up the affected area, but the Brazilian government has since announced that it will be suing BHP Billiton and Vale for $5.2 billion.

Last month, the United Nation’s Office of High Commissioner stated that new evidence suggests that when dam’s wall collapsed, high levels of toxic heavy metals and other dangerous chemicals flowed in into the Doce River.  Two of the UN’s special rapporteurs John Knox and Baxkut Tuncak said in a statement that the Brazilian government, Vale and BHP Billiton had failed to take sufficient steps to prevent damage.

This, however, has been contested by Vale and BHP Billiton. The co-owners said in a statement that “the tailings that entered the Rio Doce were comprised of clay and silt material from the washing and processing of earth containing iron ore, which is naturally abundant in the region.”

Across Latin America

BHP Billiton has also come under fire over its controversial operations in countries across the world. According to a London Mining Network report, a representative from a community impacted by the company’s Cerrejón coal mine in Colombia’s La Guajira Department told BHP Billiton at the company’s 2015 Annual General Meeting (AGM) that “your operations generate displacement, they dispossess us of our territory, and they result in a loss of our culture and of our cultural identity. It generates internal community divisions such as is the case with the internal divisions caused to the organisations of my community of Tabaco.”

In October,   KCL’s university newspaper Roar News reported that members from Fossil Free KCL, a campaign group aimed at achieving fossil fuel divestment, also condemned the university’s decision to award the honorary doctorate, claiming that it “runs counter to work being done to review the university’s fossil fuel investments via the college’s first investment review committee.”

See also:

Brazil’s worst-ever mining disaster just keeps getting worse