Mining in Latin America

Metal mining corporations like Barrick Gold, Hudbay Minerals and Goldcorp, hold a lot of sway in Canada. They contribute billions of dollars to Canada’s GDP each year and dominate the mining industry globally. For the last three decades, the Canadian government has recognized the importance of mining companies by providing support to mining corporations through negotiating free trade areas and providing consular support.

In spite of the economic benefits that mining brings Canada, mining corporations present a challenging question for Canadians who value human rights, the rights of others, and the integrity of their government. Mining is a dangerous industry that has catalyzed dozens of violent conflicts in recent decades centering on issues like land claims, environmental concerns, and violence against individuals in mining communities.

In October, Osgoode Law published a report outlining no less than 1,199 incidents of conflict between Canadian mining corporations and local populations. This report included 400 injuries to local populations in conflict with mining personnel, indicating ongoing violence between mining corporations and dissatisfied communities. In response to conflicts, the mining industry has attempted to both mitigate conflict and impose self-regulating industry standards to avoid human rights abuses and improve mining’s reputation internationally. These standards primarily consist of corporate social responsibility (CSR) standards through which companies attempt to contribute to development in the communities where they work through building schools and providing other social programs. Most mining corporations in the world are a part of industry organisations that require the adoption of certain CSR standards and best practices to prevent abuse. However, these self-regulating standards do not require accountability for dispute resolution or abuses that do occur.

In Canada, there is a growing awareness of these ongoing conflicts across Latin America that involve Canadian mining. Protests and draft bills by organisations like MiningWatch Canada against groups like Barrick Gold have gained recognition as pressing issues in Canadian politics. However, the Canadian government’s response to these allegations has been negligible. In 2007, the Harper government opened the mining and corporate social responsibility counsellor’s office to help corporations mediate conflicts with claimants from mining sites. This office was more a nominal step towards conciliation between communities and corporations than a real mark of progress. Since then, the office has dealt with few claims and mainly worked on mediation on the side of the mining corporations. The office does not implement new legislation, and its key role is also to advise companies on best practices for resolving conflicts.

“Canadian mining destroys the social fabric”

Beyond simply ignoring its mining problems, Canada actively supports hostile regimes that are supportive of its mining interests. In 2006, Honduras underwent a coup that overthrew democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya and established military rule. Most of the international community formally condemned this coup, including large swaths of the UN and the Organization of American States (OAS). The only two governments in the Western Hemisphere that supported the Honduran Coup Government were Canada and the United States, who both established new free trade agreements with the new Honduran regime only a few months later.

Photo: Torban B/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

The government has claimed that establishing more rigorous standards for mining corporations would pose an impossible challenge logistically. This is true to a certain extent – most mining corporations do not directly own the mines and instead operate through subsidiaries. For example, the Marlin Mine in Guatemala is owned by Montana mining, a Guatemalan company. However, Montana is owned by Hudbay minerals and is the site of some of the worst atrocities in the Canadian courts. Because of the complex network of ownership and subsidiaries, it is difficult for claimants to bring their complaints to Canada through courts or the CSR Counsellor. This poses challenges for people seeking to reform the mining industry – if the corporations that commit human rights abuses are not directly owned by Canadian nationals, then claimants seeking damages from mining corporations must challenge the existing interpretation of laws that give responsibility to the foreign subsidiaries of these corporations.

There are two main ways that communities negatively affected by mining can seek remediation. First, they can attempt to take their cases to court in order to receive damages and potentially create a new legal precedent that will hold corporations and their subsidiaries accountable. Second, activists are working to create a new office for a corporate accountability ombudsperson that would have investigative powers over mining corporations and would make recommendations to parties in order to resolve disputes.  These avenues for activism are the first steps towards a genuine resolution of mining conflict around the world.

By Rachel Ball-Jones 

Rachel is a fourth-year student in Peace Conflict and Justice and Political Science at the University of Toronto. She is currently writing an honors thesis on corporate accountability in mining in Peru.

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.