Canada’s bishops are joining in the call for an end to unethical mining practices in Latin America. CNS photo

Digging for the truth

  • September 3, 2017

Earlier this year protesters in a small Guatemala village blockaded a giant silver mine operated by a Canadian company and for a month stood their ground despite being regularly tear-gassed by paramilitary police.

Their action culminated July 5 in a Guatemalan Supreme Court of Justice decision that suspended two mining licenses held by Tahoe Resources Inc. of Vancouver until complaints by the Xinka Indigenous people who live near the mine can be heard.

The Xinka, who say the mine was opened on their land before they were properly consulted, allege the ground is now shifting in the nearby town of Casillas, damaging homes because of heavy equipment and explosions at the mine, and they complain water has become scarce since the mine opened. They have the support of their archbishop, a local bishop, the Loretto Sisters and many clergy.

It is stories like the Xinka’s struggle that have prompted Canada’s bishops to join the fight, in solidarity with Latin American bishops, to end what they call “unethical, unjust and irresponsible” practices by some Canadian mining companies operating in Latin America.

In an Aug. 9 letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Bishop Douglas Crosby, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged the government to honour a 2015 campaign promise to hire an ombudsperson to field international complaints about Canadian mining. The letter talked about “threats, violence, extortion and even murder” in the mining industry and said the bishops “cannot accept the unethical way Canadian mining companies have been operating in Latin America.”

But Crosby’s claims are refuted by Pierre Gratton, president and chief executive officer of the Mining Association of Canada.

“I don’t accept the argument that Canadians are as bad as he says they are,” he told The Catholic Register. “In fact, what the evidence is now showing is that we’re better than our competition. And that actually what’s good for Latin America is probably more Canadian mining, not less.”

The one point on which the two sides do agree is that it’s time for an ombudsperson, although stark differences remain about how that person should operate. NGOs and church groups want an ombudsperson with power to investigate and sanction companies implicated in overseas human rights violations and environmental disasters. The mining industry wants the ombud limited to mediation, conciliation and joint fact finding, and wants penalties for bad behaviour left to the courts, preferably courts where the mine is located, not in Canada where the company’s stocks are listed and its executives make the deals.

Meanwhile, casualties are still adding up.

Twenty-two year-old Jeremy Abraham Barrios Lima was assistant to the director of the Guatemalan Centre for Legal, Environmental and Social Action, which is acting on behalf of the Xinka people. He took two bullets to the head in Guatemala City last November. Ten months on, no one has been charged with the crime in a country in which political murders are common and mines are centre stage in politics.

What’s truly remarkable about the Guatemalan saga is that it’s not remarkable at all. It ticks off every box of a typical overseas mining brouhaha.

Indigenous? Check.

Water rights and environmental damage? Check.

Corrupt and incompetent local government? Check.

Deeply divided society? Check.

Extreme policing? Check.

Death? Check.

The pattern is repeated all over Latin America, Africa, the Philippines — wherever mining engineers find valuable ore.

MiningWatch Canada, a nonprofit that monitors how mining impacts communities and the environment, believes Canadian overseas mining operations should be better regulated.

“We have an obligation. These are our companies,” said Mining- Watch Canada research co-ordinator Catherine Coumans. “We’re supporting these companies financially and politically. Where is our responsibility?”

But how bad is it? A yet-to-be published study by University of Ottawa international development and global studies professor Paul Haslam looked at 634 mining properties in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Peru. He grouped them into three categories of ownership: local, Canadian companies and the rest of the world. The largest single category is locally owned, at 39.1 per cent, followed by Canadian-owned mines (36.3 per cent) and rest of the world mines (24.6 per cent).

The vast majority of mines in Haslam’s database — 506 of the 634 mines — report no conflicts, leaving just 128 where there’s trouble, 42 of them Canadianowned. The mines most likely to be in conflict with local populations are those owned by the rest of the world. Despite controlling just 24.6 per cent of all mines, non- Canadian foreigners accounted for 40.6 per cent of those in conflict (52 mines). Canadians control 92 more mines (36.3 per cent of the total) but have 10 fewer troubled operations. Locally owned mines (39.1 per cent of all mines) account for the other 34 conflicts.

Gratton is using this data as new ammunition in his fight for Canadian mining, refuting the Crosby letter.

“This constant pointing fingers at Canadian miners when we’re actually in many ways leading the global industry in terms of best practices is — you know, it’s got to change,” he said.

Haslam himself would prefer his research not become a weapon in the war over regulating Canadian mining abroad.

“I wouldn’t interpret the results as a justification for not doing any of the things that are suggested in (Crosby’s) letter,” he said. “I do not believe that my research is a justification for complacency. It is intended to give context. It is intended to examine a particular question — a very narrow question.”

Haslam’s study indicates two kinds of conflict that come up over and over — conflicts over the environment and fights over who benefits from the mine.

In fact, it’s hard to distinguish these two issues. How the money is distributed — whether it’s invested locally or siphoned off to some distant capital city — is doubly important to poor farmers and herders if they are losing their land and water to industrial pollution.

The Mining Association of Canada estimates between 60 and 80 per cent of all money spent in building and operating a mine remains in the host country through wages and local procurement. But the money can stay in the country without ever making it to the local municipality, much less local Indigenous farmers.

“The immediate issue at hand is responsible mining,” said Elana Wright, advocacy and research officer for the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.

“We would like to see the Canadian government play a stronger role in regulating companies, because we as Canadians benefit directly from Canadian mining operations overseas.”

In 2013 Development and Peace persuaded more than 80,000 Canadians to sign postcards asking then Prime Minister Stephen Harper for an independent mining ombudsperson. The Catholic agency has kept asking ever since.

“The nature of the business is that the mines are where you find them,” said Gratton. “You can end up in places where communities don’t have much experience with mining and, yes, it can lead to conflict. But again, I go back to professor Haslam’s study. Most of the time there isn’t conflict.”

Development and Peace is on the side of the villagers, helping the farmers’ unions, women’s collectives and Indigenous fight for their rights.

“They have a right to not want an industrial mine that uses toxic chemicals on their land,” said Wright.

Getting an ombud office with teeth isn’t about creating a perfect world. It’s about getting people reasonable and timely redress when they suffer because of a mine they never wanted, said Coumans of Mining Watch Canada.

Canada, along with just about every other nation, signed the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011. The Mining Association of Canada agrees with those principles.

The UN principles say people who have been harmed by a business must have access to a remedy and that rich countries where the corporations are headquartered must be involved. The Mining Association of Canada wants that remedy to be through a non-adversarial process of conciliation and mediation that begins with joint fact finding.

Coumans utterly rejects the notion. One or both parties could drag the process out for years. Women who have been raped by mine security guards, mothers who have lost their sons and husbands, villagers made sick by tainted water don’t want to sit down with the company and discuss who they’re going to hire to investigate and what will be included in the investigation, she said.

It’s cheaper, faster and less likely to end in endless recrimination to simply mount an independent investigation, according to Coumans.

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.