Press Responses: September 19, 2007

Mining Abroad 'Morally Wrong': MPs

■ Alexa McDonough and British MP Steve Pound try to resurrect the call for Canada to enact social responsibility requirements.

By Chris Gillcash

NDP MP Alexa McDonough is calling on Canada to enact standards of corporate social responsibility in overseas mining operations following a trip to Honduras last week to investigate concerns that some Canadian companies working in Honduras are taking advantage of weak regulations and endangering local residents through environmental contamination.

“There are horrors being visited upon residents of countries such as Honduras through the actions of some corporations,” she said. “Why should Canadian mining companies be allowed to poison the environment and people just because there’s an incapacity of foreign countries to enforce regulations and corporate responsibility?”

Last week, the Halifax MP went on a fact-finding mission with two British parliamentarians to investigate gold mining operations in the Central American country, including those from Canada.

The issue of corporate responsibility was thrust into the spotlight there recently when Vancouver-based Goldcorp was fined by the Honduran government for the actions of one of its subsidiary companies, Entre Mares. The company has been accused of arsenic and cyanide pollution in the area around its San Martin open pit mine. Attempts to reach a Goldcorp official for comment were unsuccessful this week.

Ms. McDonough said she has committed to a course of action to put pressure on the Canadian government to enact recommendations developed in the aftermath of last year’s National Roundtables of Corporate Social Responsibility.

She said she wants to ensure companies such as Goldcorp follow the same corporate principles as they would on home soil. But, she argued, the federal government has so far ignored the report and been inactive on the file for more than five months, even though consensus has been reached between mining organizations, watchdog groups and advocacy interests.

“Canada plays a prominent role in mining and it’s absolutely heartbreaking to see Canadian companies flaunting the law abroad,” she stated. “And there’s been no response from our government.

“We’re at a critical juncture but the government has been dragging their heels,” she said.

The roundtable recommendations were developed through a series of meetings with various stakeholders, including the Mining Association of Canada, Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada and the Canadian Labour Congress.

The roundtable has recommended that the government of Canada formally participate in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The EITI is a British program started in 2002 to provide guidance for countries implementing improved governance and corporate responsibility for industries such as mining.

As well, the roundtable is pushing for Canada to support UN initiatives to include human rights within corporate policy and to work with foreign countries to promote social and economic development.

It is expected that the Honduran government will table its own mining reforms in its Congress before the end of the year. The Canadian/British trip was, in part, a way to promote the reforms to the Honduran Congress.

But for Ms. McDonough, those reforms are only the first step. Additional resources must be allocated to allow officials to enforce any new regulations, she said.

Part of the solution, she said, is strengthening the technical and operational capacity of state institutions. She wants to see increased human, technical and financial resources “to monitor and regulate transnational mining corporations that already have vastly superior resources at their disposal.”

‘CSR Shouldn’t be Voluntary’
Stephen Pound, British Labour MP for Ealing North, called Goldcorp’s mining practices in Honduras “morally wrong” and he wants to see an end to open-cast mining in the country.

“If a country’s current laws and monitoring mechanisms are inadequate to properly regulate mining activities, what does this say about a company that chooses to locate itself in such an environment?” he said.

The trip to Honduras was sponsored by the advocacy organization Development and Peace, which is a member of Caritas Internationalis, a confederation of 162 Catholic relief, development and social service organizations.

Mary Durran, the Development and Peace advocacy officer, called the trip positive and one that allowed the group to talk with community leaders, local officials and mining executives. She believes there was consensus on the need for reforms to existing laws in Honduras, and is optimistic the discussions could lead to the
adoption of the mining reform bill in Congress.

“The situation in Honduras is a picture of why Canada should regulate companies operating in foreign countries,” she explained.

Pierre Gratton, the vice-president of sustainable development and public affairs for the Mining Association of Canada, believes Canadian mining corporations have a good reputation in the rest of the world and that issues such as the one in Honduras are isolated (Goldcorp is not a member of the Mining Association).

“Canada is a good mining partner,” he explained.

The association was part of the advisory committee that developed the roundtable recommendations. Mr. Gratton said the issue of abiding by foreign law was one that has been debated exhaustively and he’s not convinced
further Canadian government regulation would significantly affect the current climate.

“It’s not an easy issue and it may be hypocritical to suggest Canadian law would even apply in other countries,” he stated.

Mr. Gratton also questions how mining reforms would be policed in third world countries where the resources may not be in place.