Press Responses: December 7, 2007

CANADA: Gov't Urged to Rein in Mining Sector

by Am Johal, IPS News
December 7th, 2007

Canadian mining companies continue to come under scrutiny from civil society organisations for international human rights violations and environmental damage that critics say the Canadian government has done little to check.

Canada is a leader in the global mining industry, with almost 60 percent of the world's listed exploration and mining companies. The government supports some foreign mining activity through Export Development Canada, a federal agency.

"The situation is pretty grim," Joan Kuyek of Mining Watch Canada told IPS. "The mining companies are engaging in predatory activities. The laws and regulations don't stop violations of human rights or protect the environment. There needs to be immediate regulation of mining companies."

According to the Halifax Initiative, a coalition of labour and civil society organisations pushing for policy reform, Canadian mining companies have "been implicated in well-documented cases of human rights violations and environmental abuses ranging from the destruction of protected areas, to death threats and assassinations."

In 2005, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade for Canada recommended the creation of "a process involving relevant industry associations, non-governmental organisations and experts, which will lead to the strengthening of existing programmes and policies in this area, and, where necessary, to the establishment of new ones."

Another report written last spring, entitled "National Roundtable on Corporate Social Responsibility and the Canadian Extractive Industry in Developing Countries", also recommended a corporate social responsibility framework.

But even as Prime Minister Stephen Harper has refocused the nation's foreign policy agenda toward Latin America, a major source of Canadian mining investments, there has been little movement to implement these recommendations.

If implemented, the CSR framework would establish standards and reporting obligations for Canadian companies. It would also create an ombudsman office to investigate and assess complaints, and to evaluate compliance with the standards. The report lays out procedures for withholding government services to companies in cases of serious non-compliance.

In a press release issued at the time, Tony Andrews, executive director of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, said, "Canadian mining companies listed on Canadian stock exchanges are the largest outward investors, with interests in more than 8,000 properties in over 100 countries around the world."

"Their activities can help to create new economic opportunities in the developing world. However, it is equally important that they continually improve their performance in line with corporate social responsibility expectations," Andrews stated. "The Advisory Group's
report will contribute to the development of necessary guidance and tools."

Companies benefit from the Canadian government's political assistance through embassies and trade commissioners and financially through Export Development, Canada's project support and political risk assurance. But at the same time, civil society organisations argue that due diligence is not done by the Canadian government to ensure that international human rights and environmental standards are adequately met.

The Canadian government has traditionally relied on voluntary compliance. There is still no commitment to establish legal norms in Canada to hold Canadian-based mining companies to account for violations overseas or to ensure that reporting is made available to markets and shareholders.

In a paper written last year for the Halifax Initiative, a coalition of development, environment, faith, rights and labour groups, researchers Ozgur Can and Sara Seck argued that, "...officially supported ECAs (Export Credit Agencies) are organs or agents of the home state under the international law of state responsibility. Assuming that the extraterritoriality of human rights obligations is accepted, home states are then under an obligation to regulate ECAs to ensure that the activities they support, including those conducted by private actors, are conducted in a manner that complies with the home state's obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill as provided by international human rights law."

"These obligations require home states to both make the provision of ECA support conditional upon compliance with international human rights norms and to ensure access to a legal remedy is available in home state courts for the victims of human rights abuses arising from ECA activities," they wrote.

In July, during a trip to Latin America, Harper met with officials from the company Barrick Gold, whose operations in Tanzania and Chile have come under fire for alleged labour and environmental violations.

Lucio Cuenca, of the Latin American Observatory on Environmental Conflicts, said at the time, "It is inappropriate that the prime minister meet with and give his support to the company at a time when the Chilean Congress is considering whether to investigate suspected irregularities in the Pascua Lama Project, the State Defence Council of Chile is contemplating suing Barrick for the destruction of glaciers, and a complaint regarding the project that was submitted before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is pending."

The Pascua Lama gold deposit being pursued by Barrick Gold is located in the Andes in an area rich with glaciers. Glacial run-off irrigates the productive Huasco valley, an agricultural center just south of the Atacama desert. The indigenous Diaguita community of Huasio-Altino claims that the concession includes part of its ancestral territory and is suing to recover the lands.

Meanwhile, Canadian investments and trading relationships with Burma continue to put money in the hands of the ruling junta. The largest foreign investor -- providing the regime's most important source of revenue -- is Ivanhoe Mines, which has a large copper mine at Monywa.  Ivanhoe, owned by mining promoter Robert Freidland, is incorporated in the Yukon.

Since 1996, Canada-based Ivanhoe Mines has invested over 90 million dollars in a 50-50 joint venture with the ruling military junta in Burma to develop their Monywa mine. The company has reported that it consulted with the Canadian government before initiating business with the military regime.

In the late 1990s, Conquistador Mines led an effort to purchase a Colombian mine in Simiti, a small northern town. Local paramilitaries interested in foreign capital investment were involved in 19 killings, including beheading one miner and killing the vice president of the local miners' association.

Mining industry official argue that these are just a few examples of issues associated with global mining and that the vast majority of projects are economically and socially viable in various regions of the world.