By Michael Bueckert, from Peace Projections May 2011.
It is a fact that mining projects are contentious, both at home and overseas. Resource extraction naturally requires disruption—of local economies, of the environment—and the effects on communities can be extreme. Canada is a leader in mining, providing a home to the headquarters of 75% of the world’s mining companies. So perhaps it is not surprising that Canadian mining companies also take the lead in contributing to conflicts over resource extraction worldwide.
According to a 2009 report—commissioned (and then suppressed) by the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC)—Canadian companies were involved in 34% of the high-profile violations in the mining sector over the previous 10 years, four-times more frequently than the next country on the list.
Many of our partner organizations in the ecumenical community have been compelled to speak on this issue in recent years, as they continue to hear from their Southern partners about the abuses of Canadian mining companies in their communities. Recognizing the need for greater corporate responsibility in the mining sector, organizations like Kairos, Mennonite Central Committee Canada, the United Church, and Development and Peace (Catholic) have joined the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA), which also includes unions and many NGOs.
So if we know that mining is an industry with great potential for causing social conflict and environmental damage overseas, and if most mining companies are based in Canada, then what should be the response of the Canadian Government (and its institutions)? If Canada was truly the peacemaking, global leader that many think it is, how would it address the conflicts created by the Canadian-dominated mining industry?
A Peacemaking Role?
We can imagine what it would look like for Canada to take a peacemaking role in these mining-related conflicts. A few points seem obvious:
What is Canada actually doing?
Far from taking an independent, mediating role, Canada’s actions support the interests of the mining industry, by providing it with significant material and diplomatic support.
Through its institutions, including Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and Export Development Canada (EDC), Canada works to provide significant material support to Canada’s mining companies operating overseas.
EDC is a crown corporation that supports Canadian exports and provides government-backed loans to companies for projects overseas. The mining sector receives $20 billion annually in subsidies and political-risk insurance through the EDC, paid for by taxpayers. There are few conditions in place to ensure that EDC-supported projects do not have negative environmental or social effects.
Canada also provides material support to the mining industry through its development assistance agency, CIDA. One way CIDA does this is by subsidizing the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities of mining companies (like building schools, or improving consultation in order to reduce hostility of a community towards a company). What this means is that the world’s richest mining corporations do not have to take responsibility for good relations with communities, but can depend on Canada to foot the bill.
Should Canadian embassies be unconditionally supportive of Canadian mining companies, disregarding local popular opinion and interests? Our diplomacy is often at the service of our mining industry, and ambassadors have on occasion publicly supported mining projects that were overwhelmingly opposed by the local communities.
In Latin America, church-based agency Kairos has received criticism from Canadian diplomats because of its work on resource extraction. The policy of Kairos is to fund partners who are “working to empower poor and marginalized populations in resource-rich countries to participate in decision-making that affects their lives.” Unfortunately for mining proponents, sometimes these partners argue for stronger regulatory mechanisms, and other times they reject extraction altogether in favour of other activities.
This approach has drawn the ire of Canadian diplomats in Mexico and Guatemala (countries where Canadian mining investment is considerable), who characterized Kairos and its partners of being “anti-mining.” The concern of these diplomats—that Kairos was interfering with the interests of mining corporations—may be a factor in what led Minister Bev Oda to deny Kairos’ funding in 2009, despite its otherwise glowing review from CIDA.
Diplomatic support for mining takes other forms as well. Canada has a number of mechanisms that can be used to actually change the mining laws of other countries to make them more “mining-friendly.”
One of the ways that Canada works to change the mining laws of other countries is through Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). Through negotiations, Canada offers greater access to its markets in exchange for other countries relaxing their requirements for Canadian companies, including mining companies. This restricts the ability of countries to then increase environmental regulations or royalties, for example. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Canadian mining companies have the right to sue the governments of Mexico or the United States if they implement regulations that reduce the company’s expected profits; this threat of legal action puts a “chill” on the democratic efforts to make mining laws more environmentally or socially sustainable.
Canada has also had a more direct role in changing mining laws in other countries. For example, CIDA participated in a major project to reform Colombia’s mining code in 2001-2. The project “streamlined” Colombia’s regulations to make it easier for mining companies to operate. According to a local mining-policy researcher (who has survived several assassination attempts directed at him because of his work), the new mining code resulted in reduced environmental regulations, diminished labour guarantees, made indigenous land available for appropriation, and drastically reduced royalty rates.
To date, Canada has shown little interest in holding mining companies accountable for their actions, with the Government continuing to defeat legislation that would introduce a level of accountability.
One such piece of legislation, Bill C-300, was widely supported by organizations like Kairos, MCC, and the CNCA. It would have made taxpayer support for mining companies conditional on the company complying with mandatory—rather than voluntary—CSR guidelines, and enforce that allegations about corporate violations be investigated. It was narrowly defeated on October 27, 2010, on the basis that it would tarnish the image of the industry and make Canadian companies less competitive.
Rather than acting as an independent arbiter of justice, seeking to defuse conflicts, Canada appears to act in the interests of mining companies every step of the way. Thus, perhaps we can accuse Canada not of inaction, but of complicity in conflicts that happen all over world, often affecting the most marginalized and disempowered populations.
For many people in the Global South, speaking out against the abuses of mining operations is literally a death sentence. Labour leaders, community organizers, activists, policy researchers, and religious leaders who voice opposition are often threatened with their lives, and many are killed or “disappeared.”
From our privilege in the Global North, we have an opportunity—even a responsibility—to ensure that their voices are heard, and to work for policy changes that move Canada from a simple support for Canadian mining companies to a greater support for justice.
1. “Suppressed Report Confirms International Violations by Canadian Mining Companies,” MiningWatch Canada, October 18, 2010 (www.miningwatch.ca)
2. Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA), Dirty Business, Dirty Practices: How the Federal Government Supports Canadian Mining, Oil and Gas Companies Abroad (http://cnca-rcrce.ca/dirty-businesses-dirty-practices), 1.1; Justin Ling, “Canada Gets Cuddly With Mining Companies,” The Dominion, February 7, 2011 (www.dominionpaper.ca).
3. “CIDA Subsidizes Mining’s Social Responsibility Projects,” MiningWatch Canada, February 22, 2011 (www.miningwatch.ca/).
4. CNCA, 3.1.
5. “Resource Extraction,” Kairos (www.kairoscanada.org/en/sustainability/resource-extraction/)
6. Lee Berhiaume, “Did KAIROS defunding come down to mining interests and one hand-written note?” Embassy, October 27, 2010.
7. CNCA, 7.1.
8. CNCA , 6.1; Chris Arsenault, “Digging Up Canadian Dirt in Colombia,” Colombia Journal, November 6, 2006 (www.colombiajournal.org/digging-up-canadian-dirt-in-colombia.htm).
9. Patricia Adams, “He who pays the piper calls the mining tune,” Financial Post, October 25, 2010.