Melissa Sanderson, Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold director for international affairs, is on the Arizona-Mexico Commission board of directors and chairs the commission’s mining committee. She told Chamber Business News that the relationship between Arizona and Mexico provides a variety of benefits, especially for the mining industry.
Question: What is your title?
Answer: Director for International Affairs at Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold.
Q: What is your professional background?
A: I was actually in the foreign service for 21 years in a variety of capacities and in a variety of different countries. Then while I was serving in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it was at the time Phelps Dodge was trying to open a mine in that country and I was instrumental in helping them get that approved. Which is very nice for me because I actually wanted to stay in the Congo and my foreign service was coming to an end. So, when they offered me a job I accepted on the condition that I could stay in the Congo. And, they were thrilled because they were looking for someone insane enough to want to do that. So, I wound up living in Congo for eight years and then I was called back here to work on the broader issues that the company has in its other countries.
Q: What is your current involvement with the Arizona-Mexico Commission?
A: Actually, I have two distinct roles. I am on the board of directors but I also chair the mining committee as the private sector chair for the U.S. side.
Q: Why do you think the work the AMC does is so important for AZ?
A: All of my life I’ve been in the relationship-building business because that’s what diplomats do. And, around the world in all sorts of countries I’ve seen the power of those relationships because time and again they’ve brought U.S. interest through when there’s been a massive opposition to our interests. So, what the Arizona-Mexico Commission does is exactly that. It’s 60 years of relationships. It’s 60 years of working together, including through some politically difficult times. And, those kind of friendships- that is irreplaceable. That’s what makes Arizona a partner of choice versus- oh for instance- Texas.
Q: What kind of impact does the AMC have on the mining industry?
A: Well, as you know, Arizona is one of the leading mining states in America. And, on the Mexican side so too is Sonora. And, we actually share a geological foundation because in both cases we have copper, silver. And, in Mexico and Sonora they also have some of the rare materials like lithium, which we didn’t actually receive by God’s grace. So, it’s actually a very important partnership for us because it’s increasingly difficult for mining companies to operate outside of America. The world is changing, there’s been a rise in nationalism, there’s been changes in regulations. And, it’s nice to feel that we can operate in a place where we feel at home.
Q: Why is it important for Arizona to focus on maintaining and continuously building a relationship with Mexico- and specifically Sonora?
A: Well, we already have seen the benefits of having Mexico as our largest, by far, trade partner. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the previous NAFTA and hopefully for the future USMCA. But, it also does stem seriously from the 60-year work of the AMC. And the truth is, each state along the border competes against every other state. And, each state has its individual benefits and drawbacks. And, the AMC, I believe, has been one of Arizona’s strongest cards to play in being able to attract investment from Mexico and keep the doors and borders open so that our companies are able to export to Mexico and from Mexico to the rest of the world.
Q: What is your top priority for the rest of the year concerning the Arizona-Mexico relationship?
A: One of my particular passions is around preparing our workforce of the future for the mining industry. Because just as every state competes against other states, the United States competes against the world and our company competes against every other company. So, it’s going to be critical to have a workforce that is able to cope with the changes that are coming as a result of artificial intelligence and the internet of things. We have fantastic universities here, and they turn out incredibly talented people. But number one, a lot of those people aren’t interested in the mining industry. We have some work to do reputationally. Number two, they’re not necessarily at the moment teaching the skills that we’re going to need. So, one of the priorities for my committee is working together with the education committee of the AMC to help develop a curriculum that will better prepare workers both in Mexico and in Arizona to be those workers of the future to make our industries competitive and our companies strong.
Q: What has been your favorite memory with the AMC?
A: Oh, wow. That’s a tough one. You know, I think- and it was both a sad moment, but it was also a good moment. I think my favorite memory was when Margie Emmerman was leaving as our president because I saw the outpouring of absolute love and admiration and respect for everything that she had done in very difficult times for the organization. And, seeing particularly a woman receive that acknowledgement from very powerful people like Glenn Hamer and Glenn Williamson and many, many others was absolutely thrilling. So, I think I’d have to say maybe it was that moment.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
A: I would just like to say that, you know, the AMC also in addition to everything I’ve already said represents the capacity of foresight that this state has consistently demonstrated. Whether it’s around water issues with the Central Arizona Project and our overlapping water agreements or whether it’s understanding that our relationship with Mexico goes beyond- as was said at our recent summit- goes beyond the fact that we are geographical neighbors. It goes to the fact that we have cultural similarities that run deep and have run for long. So, to me, the most important thing is to maintain that foresight and that dedication. And, to keep the AMC going not just for another 60 years, but forever.