June 2005: Where the Maple Leaf Wins No Respect

Canadian mining operations tarnish our image in developing nations
June 1, 2005

As I prepare for a trip to Europe, I am relieved to know that Canada’s image there is one I can be proud of.

After all, not that long ago most Europeans were celebrating the Chrétien government’s decision not to join George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and, more recently, Paul Martin’s decision not to participate in his highly questionable Ballistic Missile Defence scheme.

As a Canadian, therefore, I can hold my head high on the other side of the Atlantic.  I might even wear a maple leaf pin on my lapel.

But is this the case in all parts of the world?  Unfortunately not.

According to Carlos Amador of Honduras, a recent Spanish-speaking visitor to Canada, people in his country have always had the idea that Canada protected its own natural resources—and now they are asking why we are exploiting his poor country and its resources.

Who is Amador?  

He is with the Siria Valley Regional Environmental Committee and is now travelling across Canada with Sandra Cuffe of the human rights organization, RightsAction. Together, they are trying to inform Canadians about the activities of Canadian mining companies in Honduras, Guatemala, and many other “developing” nations.

Indeed, right now, in the Siria Valley, known for its agriculture, a subsidiary of Canadian Glamis Gold Ltd. is engaged in a vicious confrontation with local citizens over its open pit mine there. Residents have complained about cyanide contamination of their water, the deforestation of their highlands, the disruption of their lives and livelihoods by blasting—even though supporters claim mining is a “sustainable” activity.

However, the Siria Valley isn’t Glamis Gold’s only trouble spot. The company is also engaged in the same kind of showdown in San Marcos, Guatemala, where its Marlin project has earned the wrath of indigenous communities nearby. Not surprisingly, this division was exacerbated in January when Guatemalan army and police were sent to the region to guard a convoy of mining equipment—and a local protestor was shot and killed. In March, a young indigenous activist was murdered in the street returning from church.

Sadly, according to Cuffe, Glamis Gold is not an exception. There are many other Canadian mining companies laying claim to land in Latin America and around the world: INCO, Skye Resources, Radius Gold, Breakwater Resources.     

In fact, over one-third of Honduras has been claimed by mining concessions and licenses for gold, 80% of which is made into jewellery and other metals—after little or no consultation with the people whose lives will be affected.

Small wonder this is seen by many as “the new invasion.”

Worse still, as Cuffe has written in a recent study, the Canadian government, through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), and the Export Development Corporation (EDC), is giving its full support to these questionable operations.

In Colombia, for example, Cuffe quotes a new book on the subject which claims that:  “In the mining municipalities, on average, between 1995 and 2002, there have been 828 homicides, 142 forced disappearances … “ as well as injuries, torture, death threats, and arbitrary detentions.

At the same time, our own CIDA, claims Cuffe, “was actively involved in the process to change mining legislation to benefit foreign mining investment…“

But Canada isn’t acting alone. It is in lockstep with international organizations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which are ultimately responsible for this recent burst of mining activity globally.   

Through their lobbying and financial pressure tactics over the past decade, the World Bank and the IMF have managed to convince the governments of more than 70 countries to “modernize” their mining laws—privatizing operations, opening the sector up to foreign companies, and cutting royalties to as little as 1%.   

It is not surprising that Chile, under the murderous dictator Augustus Pinochet, was one of the first to make such changes, which leave nations and communities so very vulnerable.

As well, the benign-sounding “free” trade agreements often provide the legal framework for the “invasion.” For example, Glamis Gold is currently using the infamous Article 11 of NAFTA—which allows corporations to sue governments whose actions or policies result in a loss of profits, real or potential—to sue the state of California because it adopted regulations to protect a First Nations’ sacred site.

Needless to say, there’s not much a poor community in a “developing” country can do in the face of a team of NAFTA-armed corporate lawyers.

Finally, are the anti-mining protestors “anti-development,” as the mining corporations and their powerful allies claim? I don’t think so.  

Cuffe points out that they are simply “… struggling to defend their lands, territory, water, resources, food sovereignty, environment, health and needs from the invasion of destructive mining activities …”

Who can blame them? In fact, as a Canadian taxpayer whose money is going to support the plunder and destruction of Latin American and other lands and homes, I humbly apologize for my country’s brutal profit-driven neocolonialism.

I know now that there are many parts of the world where I can’t take pride in being a Canadian.

(Kathleen O’Hara is a free-lance journalist who writes for the Issues Network.)