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Book Review: Marina Welker, Enacting the Corporation: An American Mining Firm in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia

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In Enacting the Corporation, the anthropologist Marina Welker seeks to humanize corporate behavior by examining how the Denver-based mining conglomerate Newmont attempts to enact the principles of Corporate Social Responsibility in its dealings at a mine site on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. Welker argues that rather than seeing corporations as monoliths concerned only about profit, it is far more useful to examine how different actors seek to “enact” the corporation to meet their own interests, whether as employees, activists, executives at the company’s Denver headquarters, consultants, etc. In doing so, Welker “humanizes” the corporation through understanding as a collective subject that remains unstable because of so many actors affecting it.

The Corporate Social Responsibility movement came out of the late twentieth century, urging corporations to take a more complex view of their relationship with the communities where they worked. Especially important in poor communities within the U.S. and overseas, it asked companies to think of social investment in communities as good for the bottom line because it would assuage dissent and provide good relationships with workers and community leaders. For Newmont in Indonesia, this means portraying the company as Islam-friendly, even if the minority Christian workers there are uncomfortable with it, a lot of charity work that some see as taking away from the prime mission of mining, and running educational programs for nearby farmers, among other activities.

Not surprisingly, corporate executives have widely disparate views on the CSR movement. They express a great deal of frustration because the locals don’t think like the capitalists they want to deal with; in fact, making capitalists is part of the mission. Some see it as a good economic move for the company, others wish they didn’t have to deal with people at all. The CSR workers themselves often see themselves as isolated within the larger company, the “hippies” getting in the way of getting out the color. Battles rage within the company between different models and methods of development, and Welker does an excellent job of delineating the complexities and struggles in implementing CSR.

In Indonesia, the response to the mine is even more complex. While Welker discusses local elites organizing violent opposition to Indonesian critics of Newmont, the people of Sumbawa also demand a lot from the company. People demand roads and bridges and donations. People resist development because they want their farms or jobs for themselves and their family members. The programs don’t always go as expected. Farmer training programs weaning locals off Green Revolution techniques make little difference to people who mostly want more pesticides, and cultural differences make the trainings themselves frustrating to pretty much everyone. Indonesians have different ways of judging the role of the mine. Welker emphasizes an Indonesian term that translates as “social jealousy” which is a sort of relationship-based way of judging your own place in the world that demands relative parity in economic advancement. The issue is important enough to convince Newmont to build a bunch of houses for people with no connection to the mine in order to smooth things over.

Where Newmont faces a lot of criticism is from environmentalists, both inside and outside Indonesia. The Newmont repsonse is pure contempt for green critics. They are seen as outright enemies, accused of lying and deceit for their claims. Managers attack NGOs and individual activists. Welker accesses documents showing how Newmont attacks NGOs, providing a useful window into corporate anti-environmentalist strategy. They provide anti-activist material to village elites, fomenting a response to defend their employer and their jobs that led to violence against a group of activist women.

Welker received significant corporate access to write this book, much more than one would expect from a modern corporation that has been so controversial over the years. It’s slightly unclear to me why a corporation would allow this level of access (maybe it was part of the larger CSR strategy) and while I’m sure Welker was not limited in what she could say, she certainly doesn’t portray Newmont as particularly objectionable. So on one hand, Welker has provided a nuanced understanding of the reality of corporate relationships with communities and the internal struggles over how to do this. On the other hand, Newmont is a tremendously awful corporation, and while Welker doesn’t deny this fact, she certainly doesn’t emphasize it either. Newmont has had to pay millions for cyanide dumping in Ghana, engaged in terrible mining practices in Peru, and was heavily invested in mines during the apartheid regime in South Africa. She mentions its frequent pollution at the mine site and all the toxic waste it is dumping in the ocean, but that plays a surprisingly small part in her story.

Plus, while Welker might not want to see corporations as profit-maximizing monoliths, they are profit-maximizing monoliths. All these CSR programs, charity, and corporate welfare exist for one reason–to create an atmosphere for Newmont to profit. There’s no social agenda here except to smooth over problems with relatively small expenditures in order to get the ore. That doesn’t mean her insights aren’t valuable–profit-maximizing monoliths can in fact be made up of a variety of different actors, but they all feed into the requirement of a corporation, which is to maximize profit. That there are employees within the company who have a social commitment or that the company invests a pittance into local investment does not mitigate the fact of why Newmont exists and why it is in Indonesia. It is there to maximize profit, pure and simple, even if the details can get a bit messy.

My greatest frustration with Enacting the Corporation however is not the somewhat squishy view of the morality of Newmont, but rather with the field of cultural anthropology. I recognize that this is a somewhat unfair critique since books should be evaluated on their own terms and I certainly would never begrudge a graduate student or assistant professor for adhering to the conventions of their field, but I definitely feel that the conventions of anthropology get in the way of telling powerful stories to a much wider audience. Rigor and good writing are not mutually exclusive. Welker pours on the theoretical constructs and literature discussions, and not only in the introduction. I’ve long felt that anthropologists would be better off thinking of themselves more like journalists—a bit like historians do—and focus on telling a story that would engage a broader public. There’s a lot of great and insightful material here for the general reader interested in these issues, but that narrative is so often interrupted by a discussion of this or that theory, that the general reader is going to give up on this pretty quickly. And that’s too bad because it’s a pretty useful book.

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