The following transcript is of a telephone call between an anonymous caller and a very senior director of the London-based PR company Biss Lancaster Euro RSCG (now known as Euro RSCG London).
The discussion that takes place revolves around the potential relocation of one or more uncontacted tribes in the Bolivian Amazon in order to develop an open cast lithium mine. It is not known whether the call is genuine, but the Biss Lancaster (Euro RSCG) representative shows no sign that the call is anything but. According to Survival International, uncontacted tribes are “the most vulnerable peoples on earth”. Moving them almost certainly spells an end to the tribe; the damage caused by an open-cast lithium mine would be an environmental and human catastrophe in itself.
Note two key phrases towards the end of the transcript: “I would never really be able to tell you much of what we do” and “No one ever needs to know.”
Euro RSCG London lists among its clients Asda-WalMart, BAE Systems, Debenhams and Reckitt Benckiser.
(Have introduced project – lithium mining in Bolivia, which will impact tribal rainforest areas – he says he is the right person to speak to)
Extract 1: 2’43” > 5’05”
Caller: The only thing is that what we are looking at is impinging on the rainforest, and...
BissLancaster: ...how badly?
BissLancaster: How much of an impingement?
Caller: Well [swallows]...erm...it is, I mean it is open cast, erm...[BissLancaster: Mmm] it...
BissLancaster: ...how large is the cast?
Caller: Well, the geo...the geophysical surveys haven’t come back yet, we haven’t got all the details, but the main issue is...erm...there’s potentially an uncontacted tribe...erm...where we’re looking at. [BissLancaster: Ah]erm, and we have been advised we’re going to have to need some representation...
BissLancaster: ...you’re gonna need a lot of representation.
Caller: Yeah, er, I mean do you know about uncontacted tribes, have you done any work in this area?
BissLancaster: It’s quite a rare one to come...to stumble across [Caller: Mmm] like, obviously the whole...political situation...er...and the whole, the world, the world is not going to like it; effectively.
Caller: No, I can understand...
BissLancaster: ...it’s one of those things that [Caller: Yes, yes] it’s just, off the top of my head, one of those single, unifying issues that appeals to literally every single human being on the planet. They all go, uniformly, “No way!”
Caller: Mmm! I mean, I know that there are companies who have [BissLancaster: Done it in the past] successfully done this...[BissLancaster: Yeah but how] successfully relocated...
BissLancaster: ...yeah, but relocated a pre...uncontacted tribe.
Caller: Well, I mean.
BissLancaster: I say, relocated a tribe or a village [Caller: Yeah] is easy-peasy [Caller: Mm-huh] cos you give the money and a school and healthcare.
Caller: Is that something that you...you’ve got involved in at all?
Caller: I really, because we’re ten...because we’re short [BissLancaster: Yeah] we’re looking for companies, we need experience.
BissLancaster: Yeah, I think so, I mean that’s the thing, I mean...I...I primarily work with governments and [Caller: Right] people like BAE Systems, that I work for [indistinct] difficult situations [Caller: Hmm] I would...pff...probably say, this wouldn’t be something that I would take on.
BissLancaster: Purely because I actually think...you’re not gonna get the result you need. I think that it’s not gonna be easy at all. [Caller: Hmm] It’s not even a public relations issue to be honest; it’s a issue...at that level with what you’re talking about here, cause the uncontacted tribe is just held in such reverence, in the world now [Caller: Uh-huh] that you’re on an absolute hiding to nowhere.
(Caller explains the potential business potential. “BissLancaster” shows considerable expertise in describing the potential risks and the need for a Operations Plan, working with NGOs and government. He reiterates that uncontacted tribe is the worst scenario. Caller explains that two of the tribes have already been impinged upon.)
Extract 2: 8’37” > 16’05”
BissLancaster: Can I...can I ask you one thing?
BissLancaster: Er, lithium mining is obviously a hot subject at the moment...worked with Anglo [American Mining] in the past. In terms of the world lithium market and spots, the lithium mining...
BissLancaster: What, why would you...why is it now, why in this place?
Caller: Why in this particular place?
Caller: It’s simply what we [swallows] there’s been geological that have been carried out and this is seen as a potential area, erm...
BissLancaster: ...it’s potential? [Caller: Yes] Obviously if you [indistinct] have.
BissLancaster: Obviously you wouldn’t know until you’re in there and...
Caller: Well, exactly, erm...and that’s...these are first steps for us.
BissLancaster: Would you be doing a, I mean the thing is...are there...I mean what’s the world lithium market like at the moment?
Caller: Well it’s potentially huge.
BissLancaster: Yeah, I mean that’s the thing, cause the batteries contain lithium [Caller: Yeah] and they want a lap top and they want a mobile phone and they’re gonna need lithium [Caller: Yes] So...
Caller: And Bolivia has potentially the largest supply in the world.
BissLancaster: [perking up] Yeah, and that’s the thing, I mean that’s another angle that we’d...we’d probably look at for you; it’s basically saying, “Look, there is a demand for lithium, and lithium’s only found in X, Y and Z place...”
(Note that “BissLancaster”’s interest changed at the mention of a huge market. He uses the phrase “We’d probably look at for you” as though we are a potential client again.)
BissLancaster: [talking more quickly] I mean is Bolivia, are there...er...suggestions that you might er [indistinct, talking to self]...yeah...and where, where abouts in Bolivia is it, do you know?
Caller: [inhales] Er, that’s not...that’s the information I haven’t got at the moment [BissLancaster: Yeah] unfortunately
(“BissLancaster” asks business questions)
BissLancaster: I mean, look, the thing is, I don’t think there’s gonna be many firms that are absolutely spot on with this.
BissLancaster: Because it’s just such a tricky one [Caller: Mmm] but, erm, I that that [stutters] your key problem will be the international media. [Caller: Mmm-huh]But that will only, only, only kick off if local media kick off [Caller: Right] So what I would say to you initially is I’m happy...I’d be happy to talk you about this [Caller: Uh-huh] there’s no doubt, but I think that this...the whole ducks in a row, in terms of...erm...you got the government relations, local relations etc. And everything like that is well managed then the...you can prevent media from really picking up on the story and if you can operationally now really just tell them [?] that the impact on these people as a tribe is absolutely minimal [Caller: Mmm] You know, cause, wow! That’s gonna cause issue...that will be the one that blows everything up.
Caller: Yeah. So the, would you have the stomach for something like this?
BissLancaster: Well, I mean, the thing is we work with arms dealers and governments, we’re very geopolitically aware that people need stuff [Caller: Yeah] so, we’re ok with...pretty...we basically work with everyone [Caller: Yeah] we’re a good PR firm. And there’s an argument to be had...you know...we’re like a good law firm, we appreciate that there’s a different side to every story [Caller: Uh-huh] Erm, I mean, part of my responsibility in doing that is give you the best advise possible...
BissLancaster: And my advice is always, “Be operationally sound” [Caller: Mmm-huh] and from being operationally sound you are often...you have much better cleaner, clearer...approach to the media and they won’t able to hurt you so bad.
Caller: What about unavoidable consequences, such as...upstream pollution or something like that?
BissLancaster: Well those are just...well that’s a problem all over South America [Caller: Mmm] that’s a problem in Africa. I mean that...I mean your...your basically...your operations have to be sustainable [Caller: Mmm] I mean the thing is, it’s gonna cost you more, these days, to do the thing you’re gonna do than it did ten years ago.
BissLancaster: I mean, there’s no doubt about it, there has to be controls, what, you know...international best practice and...I think because that’s gonna be even more so now that there’s these...develop...these issues around what you’re doing. The, the spotlight on this would be immense.
BissLancaster: I mean you would imagine a...you could imagine a thousand or so articles popping up...pumping up on this globally.
Caller: Right, just because of [BissLancaster: Just because of, right] where it is, and what it’s [BissLancaster: Yeah] imposing
BissLancaster: I’m not being scaremongering...
Caller: No, no, no, no it’s good for you to be...it’s good that you’re open about this.
BissLancaster: Yeah, I mean, the thing is, that this is a tough one is...is...you know, I’ve had tough ones before [Caller: Mmm] such as building homes on ammunition dumps [Caller: Yeah] stuff like that, but...this one’s...this one’s tricky, because, purely because it’s got many levels. A: Mining to begin with, B: lithium, C: downstream, D: the...the uncontacted tribe.
BissLancaster: If it was any old tribe it’d be no problem [quietly] whatsoever.
Caller: So you could, when you say “any old tribe” I mean, is that...?
BissLancaster: Well, if it was a...if it was a contacted tribe [Caller: Right] in a settlement, it would be, Westernised, well actually not even Westernised, you could...send some money, relocate ‘em, make sure they had everything they needed [Caller: Uh-huh] and that’s the problem here, there is the finesse you need to work out [Caller: Right] to ensure that they...are, they’re intact, I’m afraid. I mean, to touch them in any way [Caller: Yeah] would be...would be a public relations disaster. Operationally, you know, it’s great for you to be able to move them and stuff...
Caller: Well, yeah, exactly...
BissLancaster: Yeah, but unfortunately, you know I...just how the brillian...Brazilians protect their uncontacted tribes, I mean just...they won’t even let people fly over the bloody thing.
Caller: Yeah, I’m aware of that, I mean I know that...what’s [mumbles] is it...begins with “F”, I think there’s a...
BissLancaster: Yeah, I know what you mean.
Caller: Yeah, I know they protect a large area [BissLancaster: Yeah] um...[swallows]
BissLancaster: But listen, you know, I [details of position] here, [Caller: Um] you know, we work, as I said, we work, this stuff...I...I would never really be able to tell you much of what we do...[inhales]...um, but...look we have experience enough to deal with this. But I would suggest that, ob...any good firm like, like mine would have you first operationally figure out Plan A and Plan B.
Caller: I mean, assuming that operationally...assuming we’ve got some, we’ve got a plan, erm...I suppose this is...I mean inevitably the less impact we have, the easier it is to deal with, the easier it is...I mean, we’re not. Is there so...is it possible to, to do this in the, to do this...discreetly?
BissLancaster: What, of the...remove the tribe?
Caller: Well, I mean, if it doesn't involve moving...
BissLancaster: [interjects] Yes
Caller: ...but potentially having some kind of erm...
BissLancaster: No one ever needs to know.
BissLancaster: I mean you don't have to send out a press release about bloody anything. You don't have to talk to journalists about anything. The problem is...
Caller: [interjects, laughs] Well, we're not...we weren't really planning to...
BissLancaster: No, no, but you know what I mean the thing is, even if one phones you, you don't have to talk to them, then they phone the government and if you've got the government lined up...erm...when I say lined up I don't mean bribed, necessarily, I just mean...messaged...the...you know you're, you're working very closely to ensure the integrity of the tribe etc. [Caller: Yeah] We can, ma...we can manage that, I mean that’s never gonna be a problem. So...
Caller: Oh, right...
BissLancaster: So that all stems from operations.
BissLancaster: All it takes is one inquisitive Bolivian, left-wing journalist to say...hear about it and it'll go straight onto AP, Reuters, Dow Jones everything.
(“BissLancaster” then described the basic process of managing the PR, with the “tribe” issue at the top. Explains that not impacting them is best of all: “Then you’re laughing.” Then talks about building up reactive statements if it looks like there will be damage to the tribe. Suggests a project to potentially build up a protected zone around the tribe; “offsetting” the damage.)
Extract 3: 18’27”> 19’06”
BissLancaster: I mean, I can’t tell you more than that, just, you’d need basically some advice from an anthropologist.
Caller: I mean, you sound extremely informed on this and...that’s, that’s comforting.
BissLancaster: But, I think, I think I would definitely seek a decent anthropologist [Caller: Right]...mmm...and when I say “Decent anthropologist” I mean one that...that’s not gonna go blurting.
Caller: Right, yes, yes, I understand...
BissLancaster: [interjects] So one that’s already been in the engagement of a mining company before.
BissLancaster: And then you work with the anthropologist to try and figure out what the dynamics are.
Caller: Ok, how would I...how would I go about finding someone like that?
BissLancaster: I could probably get you an anthropologist...[Caller: Right, ok]...I just speak to the guys at Anglo.
(Caller then wrapped up the phone call with a promise to call back later.)