Holes in the Ground
Towards a Fairer System of International Mining.
Canada,” says Ulises Garcìa, is seen in his native Peru “as a country that respects human rights and promotes democracy.” He laments, however, that “the average Canadian doesn’t know about the negative impacts its mining companies are causing... These companies are destroying the reputation of Canadians.”
Garcìa’s father was a leader of community opposition to a proposed Canadian gold and copper mine in Tambogrande, Peru. The Peruvian government had granted a permit to Vancouver-based Manhattan
Minerals and taken a 25 per cent interest in the venture. The mine would require relocating thousands of residents while threatening the area’s productive agricultural economy.
One month after a local protest against the project, the elder Garcìa was assassinated. In 2002, 95 per cent of voters in an internationally monitored local referendum rejected the mine, but the company simply ignored the result.
Now, as a result of ugly headlines from far away places like Tambogrande, the federal government and the Canadian mining industry appear eager to repair the damage. How serious they are about meaningful action remains a big question.
What is certain is that Canada is a global mining giant—more mining companies raise capital on our stock exchanges than anywhere else—and making our country’s 1,000 mining companies working abroad accountable for their conduct would make a positive difference in the lives of people in developing nations.
Risks that Canadian mines create in those nations are not just the result of corporate alliances with governments with weak commitments to human rights or democracy. Mines, especially open pit mines, even when operated under the watchful eye of a capable regulator, create significant risks to the environment and human health. Details that govern mining operations are therefore crucial.
Vulnerable populations live in those details. A poorly constructed tailings pond can break and poison a river that sustains local communities; massive water consumption can deprive farmers of water for crops and livestock; and the failure to prevent the release of heavy metals and acids from millions of tonnes of waste rock can contaminate ecosystems. These are only a few of the details that some Canadian mining companies have ignored.
Traditionally, the Canadian government has politely asked our mining companies to respect international human rights and environmental and social standards such as guidelines from the Organisation for
Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Proof that this approach hasn’t worked can be measured in poisoned water and the blood of mining opponents.
In 2005, Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee made recommendations about actions needed to address the problem. Instead of acting, the federal government set up public roundtables and asked an Advisory Group to make its own recommendations. This group, which was comprised of experts from industry, civil society, academia, and other areas, released its final report this past March.
Pierre Gratton was a member of the Advisory Group in his personal capacity while in his day job he is responsible for the Mining Association of Canada’s (MAC) recently developed Towards Sustainable Mining standards. He says MAC’s members prefer to operate in places “where the laws are clear and clearly understood and there are effective means of enforcing them.” Gratton rejects the suggestion that companies
go to countries where they can “get away with stuff” but acknowledges that even where mining laws exist, there is often a lack of capacity to enforce them.
“People are waking up,” says Peter Sinclair who directs the Corporate Social Responsibility program of Canada’s Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold producer. Sinclair says companies, governments, communities, and civil society “realize that mining projects can’t do things like they have gotten away with in the past.”