Time for the mining industry to clean up its act
Science Matters by David Suzuki
Science Matters is published weekly in newspapers across Canada.
From metals to minerals, we all need natural resources brought up from the earth through mining. But mining can have a huge environmental impact, and some companies are giving the industry a bad name around the world - with Canadian firms being some of the biggest offenders.
Our federal government offers a variety of incentives, tax breaks and other types of assistance to Canadian mining companies working in other countries. These mining companies are often assumed to be abiding by international human rights and environmental standards that have been adopted by Canada.
But the reality is something quite different. Since the federal government has no mechanism to monitor or enforce these standards, they're usually left up to the host country to enforce. However, most of these host countries are developing nations, which often lack the resources or the political desire to enforce standards against large corporations that provide their governments with much-needed revenue.
Last fall, the federal Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade presented a report based on a number of hearings into the conduct of some Canadian mining companies overseas. It found that indeed, "mining activities in some developing countries have had adverse effects on local communities, especially where regulations governing the mining sector and its impact on the economic and social well-being of employees and local residents, as well as on the environment, are weak or non-existent, or where they are not enforced."
The Committee made a series of recommendations to strengthen Canada's commitment to environmental and human rights standards, including: ensuring that project financing and other services offered by the Canadian government abroad are contingent on companies meeting "clearly defined corporate social responsibility and human rights standards," developing mechanisms for monitoring and investigating the actions of Canadian companies overseas, and ensuring clear legal accountability for their operations.
The Committee also singled out the Canadian mining company TVI Pacific Inc. in the Philippines as an example and noted that the Committee was "deeply concerned" about the possible impact the company was having on human rights in the local area. It recommended that the federal government conduct an investigation into the impact of the mining operation.
But no investigation was ever done. In fact, the federal government has effectively ignored all the Standing Committee's recommendations and instead continues to promote a voluntary standards approach. Such voluntary initiatives are problematic because, in order to get consensus from all participants, they usually reflect the lowest common denominator. They also lack monitoring and enforcement measures. They have no teeth, so why would companies pay attention to them at the risk of reducing profits?
Although the federal government has not followed up on the Committee's recommendations, it has agreed to hold a series of multi-stakeholder roundtables about Canadian mining operations overseas. Open dialogue is always a good thing, but these sorts of roundtables quickly become meaningless public relations exercises unless they are given clear direction that the status quo is not acceptable. And it isn't. We all need the goods mining provides, but it shouldn't be at the expense of basic human rights or the environment local people depend on for their health and well being.
This may seem very rational, fair and Canadian - but Canada has not exactly been living up to its reputation lately. Our environmental performance within our own country has been weak - recently ranked a dismal 28th out of 30 industrialized countries. Internationally, we've thumbed our nose at the Kyoto Protocol - which is now international law and most industrialized nations are working to meet. And we've ignored a government-appointed committee's recommendations to improve corporate responsibility.
Once considered an international environmental and human rights leader, Canada now has some catching up to do. And we can start by ensuring that Canadian companies operating overseas are held accountable for their actions.