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Digging up the Dirt on Canadian Mining in Latin America PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sandra Cuffe   
Thursday, 29 May 2014 14:59

Rodolfo Arteaga sifts through his records of clinic visits, tests, and studies. Like many Siria Valley residents, he suffers from ongoing health problems. Production at Goldcorp’s San Martin gold mine ended in 2008, but its legacy lives on in surrounding communities, 60 miles north of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras.

Palo Ralo, Arteaga’s home community, was relocated to make way for the open pit mine. Up the hill on a nearby road, Arteaga points to a mountain range in the distance. “We couldn’t see that far from here before,” he said. A forested hilltop blocked the view until it was logged, blasted and doused with cyanide. Down below, now covered with top soil and grasses, heap leach pad facilities and backfilled tailing ponds have become permanent parts of the landscape.

The San Martin gold mine in Honduras is one of five emblematic cases in the spotlight at the Permanent People’s Tribunal, celebrating its 40th session in Montreal from May 29 to June 1. Supported by more than 40 organizations from throughout Quebec and Canada, the event includes hearings on the role and responsibility Canada’s mining industry and government in the violation of human and environmental rights in Latin America.

Goldcorp’s San Martin mine is also one of the case studies examined in a new report on Canadian mining in Latin America. Produced by a working group of Latin American organizations, the report draws on 22 case studies spanning nine Latin American countries to document a litany of harms, ranging from environmental and health impacts to forced displacement and criminalization.

The working group analyzed the conditions in Canada and host countries that give rise to conflicts and human rights violations, and presented a series of recommendations for host countries, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), and Canada. The report was submitted to the IACHR in April 2014 following the presentation of documented findings to the commission in a November 2013 hearing.

Canada dominates the global mining industry. Seventy-five percent of all mining companies worldwide are headquartered in the country. Some 70 percent of all mining company shares are traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange, which lists corporations involved in more than 1,500 mining projects in Latin America.

“The increase in Canadian mining operations in the region is framed by the foreign policy of the current Canadian government toward developing countries,” note the report authors. “As government spokespersons have stated on several occasions, the mining sector plays a fundamental role in the Canadian government’s efforts to secure a new policy of cooperation with foreign states.”

Free trade agreement negotiations, embassy activities, Export Development Canada financing, the creation of the Canadian International Institute for Extractive Industries and Development, and the use of development aid for legal framework revisions all play a part, according to Dora Lucy Arias of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyer’s Collective in Colombia, one of the organizations that produced the report. “In many cases, these activities involve wrongful interference by the Canadian state and its companies in the internal legislative processes of the countries in which they operate,” Arias told the IACHR at the November 1, 2013 hearing.

Concerns about the involvement of Canada in the development of mining laws and policies in Colombia, Honduras, and other countries are shared by University of Ottawa political science professor Stephen Brown.

“What has happened is that often these new mining codes or regulations reduce the amount of royalties that are paid to the government, and are very favourable to mining companies and Canadian mining companies in particular, since Canadian mining companies dominate the market,” Brown told Upside Down World.

The Latin American report authors decry the use of international cooperation mechanisms to promote Canadian mining companies. They point to the 2013 merger of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) – together forming the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) – as a reflection of a new direction in Canadian foreign aid policy. “In this policy, the government becomes a strategic ally of the private sector, represented by Canadian mining companies,” they note.

DFATD maintains poverty reduction is still its priority, as is required by the Official Development Assistance [ODA] Accountability Act. “As part of Canada's poverty reduction efforts, and in response to a growing recognition of the importance of the private sector (including the extractive sector) in international development, Canada has been increasing its efforts to work with the private sector to help improve the lives of people living in poverty,” DFATD spokesperson Nicolas Doire wrote in an email. “Ending extreme poverty and promoting global prosperity are two sides of the same coin,” wrote Doire.

For Brown and others looking at the issue from a development perspective, the merger erodes the autonomy and focus of development aid and leaves it more vulnerable to be hijacked for commercial interests.

“What I think this new strategy underlines, and what so many people were worried about, is that it subordinates development to trade, and to a certain extent, diplomacy as well. So it’s telling all the development people and the diplomats that your job is to go out there and to get contracts for Canadian companies. That’s a fundamental distortion of what foreign aid should be for, and to the extent that they actually do that, it’s illegal under the terms of the ODA Accountability Act, because that is not the fundamental goal of foreign aid,” said Brown.

The Latin American report calls on Canada to “refrain from providing any government support, whether through development programs, trade and/or association agreements, public financing or technical or political assistance, for the purpose of influencing the enactment of lax regulatory frameworks for mining investments.”

The report also addresses rampant impunity. Local residents suffering the impacts of serious environmental damage and subject to grave human rights violations face non-existent or inefficient judicial remedies in host states. The Canadian State, write the authors, “has been called upon nationally and internationally on numerous occasions to adopt effective mechanisms to address human rights violations abroad by Canadian companies.” Despite ongoing efforts to push for such mechanisms, there has been little progress.

“The only things that Canada has offered to victims of the extractive industry in other countries to date are weak and inefficient norms that convert into voluntary mechanisms what are obligations according to international human rights law,” Arias told the IACHR. The report authors urge Canada to “guarantee effective access to justice before the Canadian courts, so that victims of human rights violations by Canadian companies abroad can obtain truth, justice, and comprehensive reparations.”

Both Canada and host states are urged to include international human rights standards in the legal framework regulating natural resource extraction policies, including free, prior, and informed consultations with and consent from potentially affected Indigenous peoples. And among the recommendations for the IACHR is the inclusion of “the extraterritorial responsibilities of states regarding the extractive activities of their companies abroad in its analysis of human rights violations.”

The working group on mining and human rights in Latin America that authored the report is comprised of the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (Chile), Red Muqui (Peru), the Marianist Association of Social Action (Peru), the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyer’s Collective (Colombia), the Honduran Center for the Promotion of Community Development (Honduras), the National Assembly of Environmental Victims (Mexico), and the regional Due Process of Law Foundation, based in Washington, DC.

The full report is available online in Spanish, and an executive summary was published in both Spanish and English.

Information about the Permanent People’s Tribunal session on the Canadian mining industry is also available online. Following deliberations, the jury will deliver its verdict on June 1.

Sandra Cuffe is a freelance journalist with a penchant for coffee and geckos. Find her on twitter: @Sandra_Cuffe

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