BY: AIDAN MACNAB
Photo by Roger LeMoyne / Macleans
Canada is back, or so we’re told. After a decade-long dark age of Harper lunacy we have allegedly re-established ourselves as the global nice guys.
We love refugees. We’re sorry about our colonial destruction of our First Nations people. As for climate change, we’re serious, scientific and we see you!
But this renewed Canadian identity may only exist in our minds. To a Guatemalan indigenous person resisting the will of Canadian Mining companies, Canada does not and has never represented a saintly, human rights defender. We are rapists of the land, destroyers of communities and employers of thugs who intimidate, abuse and rob.
Latin America has become a boon for Canadian extraction corporations in the last 30 years. Economies have been liberalized, with taxes on foreign corporations lowered, land privatised, and environmental policies weakened or eliminated. Various trade agreements have created a legal framework guaranteeing “investor rights”, meaning profitability for foreign corporations often trumps the will of the local population.
Photo via Reuters
Ask a representative from Canada’s mining industry what their impact is on the region, and they will talk about developing local economies, job opportunities for the poor, and investment in local education and infrastructure. Communities where they operate are their “partners,” and their projects, not exploitation of the land, but springboards to prosperity.
They have swept in to squeeze profit out of these potent but impoverished nations. And Canada is unmatched when it comes to the mining of precious metals, with 75 per cent of the industry based out of the Great White North.
Though largely ignored in the mainstream press, mining is a dirty game—and not just the extraction process. Since mining projects are destructive to the environment and often uproot communities, which rely on the land for sustenance, the industry faces huge local opposition.
Opponents of mining have a tendency to end up shot, raped, tortured and murdered, allegedly by private security, hired by these Canadian companies.
One hotbed of anti-activist violence is the Escobal silver mine in Guatemala, the third largest silver mine in the world. It’s run by Tahoe Resources, based out of Vancouver.
According to the corporate responsibility policy on Tahoe’s website, they promise that their employees and contractors “adhere to both the spirit and the letter of the laws that govern us,” and are “committed to building and maintaining social licenses in the communities” in which they operate. They say they “diligently address the reasonable concerns” of their “stakeholders,” and have a “close cooperation with community leaders” (emphasis added).
In 2014, 16-year-old, Guatemalan anti-mining activist and leader of a local youth movement, Topacio Reynoso was shot dead. Her father Alex, also a community activist, was shot in the same incident but lived and has since survived another shooting in 2015.
In 2013, just before the Guatemalan government approved the Escobal mine, four leaders of the indigenous Xinca community, including Exaltacion Marcos Ucelo, were kidnapped. They were returning from a community referendum in which the vast majority rejected the licensing of the mine’s operation. Ucelo was later found dead with signs of torture.
Later that year, seven men were injured when police and mine security fired on locals protesting the Escobal mine. Alberto Rotondo, former security manager for Tahoe resources is facing trial in Guatemala for having ordered the attack.
Tahoe declined to be interviewed, but VP of investor relations Ira Gostin sent this email response to our inquiry.
“Not going to discuss these unfortunate Guatemala events that had absolutely nothing to do with mine operations. To say that the Escobal security team had anything to do with these deaths is unfounded and reckless.”
Grahame Russell, co-director with Rights Action—an environmental and human rights advocacy group based out of Toronto—says what happened to Topacio and Exaltacion is a common fate for opponents of mining in Latin America.
“When local people organize themselves and speak out about the harms and violations (of mining companies) they more often than not get attacked in one form or another,” Russell says.
Another outspoken local was Adolfo Ich Chaman, a member of the Q’eqchi Mayan community, who lived near Hudbay Mineral’s Fenix mining project in Guatemala.
In 2009, Chaman was hacked to death with machetes and shot in the head during a protest at a mining facility near his home.
His wife, Angela Choc, is suing Hudbay in Canada. Her suit alleges negligent management by HudBay for deploying heavily armed security personnel, knowing that Fenix security had a record of using violence in the past against mine opponents.
German Chub Choc is also suing Hudbay. He was shot and paralyzed in the same incident, allegedly by Mynor Padilla, the former head of security at Hudbay Mineral’s subsidiary Guatemalan Nickel Company. Rights Action is raising money for Choc’s medical and living expenses.
The Fenix mine occupies land, which the Q’eqchi were driven off of, during the country’s more than 30-year civil war. In 2006 and 2007, they attempted to reclaim it. In response, police, military and private security forcibly evicted them, setting fire to their farms and homes.
Eleven Mayan Q’eqchi women are suing Hudbay for an alleged gang rape by uniformed mine security during this expulsion.
This type of civil action is very rare and Canadian companies cannot be held criminally accountable, in Canada, for these alleged crimes because they are committed in foreign jurisdictions.
Russell says that Guatemala’s neighbour El Salvador, responding to educated and robust grassroots opposition, is “taking things in a positive direction” by standing up to Canadian mining companies. But they have found that violent security personnel are not the only weapon available to pressure communities standing in the way of business.
In 2004, Vancouver-based Pacific Rim (now Oceana Gold) acquired an exploratory permit, in the gold-rich Lempa River basin in El Salvador.
The effects of the cyanide ore processing used to mine gold.
Photo by Raul Burbano
Salvadorans, led by civil society groups and the Catholic Church, fought Pacific Rim to avoid the environmental effects of the cyanide ore processing they use to mine gold. Years of mining have already had disastrous consequences on fresh water in the country. The Salvadoran government recently found nine times the acceptable level of cyanide and a thousand times the acceptable level of iron in one river. The Lempa is the country’s largest and last uncontaminated river. Three million Salvadorans rely on it to drink, and for farming, fishing, and hydroelectric power.
Three million Salvadorans rely on the Lempa River to drink, and for farming, fishing, and hydroelectric power.
Photo by Roger LeMoyne / Macleans
Thanks in part to popular resistance the permits were revoked in 2006. In response, Pacific Rim, with the help of the World Bank, sued El Salvador, arguing their “investor rights” were violated. They are seeking over $300 million, equal to 5 per cent of the country’s GDP.
Investor versus State lawsuits are an increasingly common tactic used to subvert democratic will in resource-rich, poorer nations. According to Mining Watch Canada, there were only three such cases in 2000, compared to 169 in 2013 and 50 per cent were brought against Latin American governments.
Back in Canada, in response to the need for some sort of accountability in the extractive sector, a Corporate Social Responsibility counsellor was instituted in 2009. People or communities affected by mining operations can appeal to this counsellor to “reduce or resolve conflict,” with Canadian corporations, according to the Government of Canada’s website.
Photo by Allan Lissner
But participation in the process is completely voluntary for Canadian companies accused of violations.
John McKay, Liberal MP for Scarborough-Guildwood says that this corporate responsibility office is “completely ineffective” and was “mandated to be ineffective.”
In 2010, McKay proposed bill C 300 to ensure that Canadian mining, oil and gas companies receiving support from the government, were in line with sufficient human rights and environmental standards. The foreign affairs and trade ministers would receive complaints, investigate, and if the companies didn’t measure up, prevent the Canadian Pension Plan and Export Development Canada from investing in them. It did not pass.
During the bill’s debate in Parliament, Conservatives Lisa Rait and Peter Van Loan, former trade minister and house leader, strongly opposed the bill.
They voiced their concern that false claims against Canadian companies would damage their reputation abroad and render them uncompetitive in the global extractive industry. Canadians would lose jobs, they argued.
Van Loan said “good Canadian corporate citizens” would waste time defending themselves against “frivolous and vexatious claims.” Though, in the text of the bill those exact words, frivolous and vexatious, describe claims that are to be disregarded by the ministers on their discretion.
These conservative MPs live in an “ideological fantasyland, where business = good and people’s rights = bad,” says McKay. “It’s a stupid philosophy because good human rights is good business.”
He says many in the industry supported his measures because a more robust regulatory framework would make their projects less risky and capital for investment less expensive.
Neither Rait nor Van Loan responded for comment.
But had McKay’s bill passed, all it would have done was publicly embarrass companies alleged to have violated human rights or harmed the environment, and prevented them from receiving tax-payer-funded loans and investment. Despite the fact that these crimes are committed in aid of Canadian business operations, Canadians, separated from the violence by the local goons employed as security, cannot be prosecuted.
As for the future, McKay says that his caucus is filled with “serious environmentalists,” people with “serious human rights credentials,” and people “who have serious sympathies to aboriginal claims and not just limited to national aboriginal claims.”
He says he is hopeful there will be action on this issue in the future.