Press Responses: October 12, 2006

Mining controversies fly under the radar

By Terry Glavin
Publish Date: 12-Oct-2006

Last month, in Ecuador's Imbabura province, "ecoterrorists" kidnapped seven technical staff associated with the Vancouver-based mining company Ascendant Copper. Two of the workers escaped almost immediately; three were released the following day, and the last two hostages were freed after a four-day standoff, but only after 60 police officers moved in. The result was the arrest and conviction of two radicals from an extremist organization operating in the mountains.

That's what Ascendant Copper says, anyway.

There is another version of what happened, and it comes from such sources as Ecuador's Ecumenical Human Rights Commission. In that version, there was no kidnapping. No one was convicted of anything. There was an incident near the village of Junin, but it was precipitated by company goons waging a campaign of intimidation against local stewards of a cloud forest ecological reserve. Several Imbabura municipalities and the local county government are trying to protect the forest from an open-pit copper mine that Ascendant wants to develop there.

At this remove, it's hard to say what really happened in Imbabura. The same kind of uncertainty surrounds the operations of another Vancouver-based mining company, Skye Resources Inc., in the countryside around El Estor, Guatemala.

The way Skye Resources describes its El Estor operations, you'd think the company was a model of corporate excellence and social responsibility. And it may well be.

After buying up a mothballed Guatemalan mineral-processing operation formerly run by the Canadian metals giant Inco, Skye Resources obtained mineral rights to about 300 square kilometres of land in El Estor two years ago. The company turned immediately to involving the local indigenous communities in planning a new mine. It built houses for teams of Cuban doctors, trained 200 midwives, invested in 3,000 malaria kits, opened a free school, provided the local Q'eqchi' Maya with free land, and now offers a range of social services that the local campesinos never had before.

But in the way Guatemalan trade unionists with the Central de Trabajadores del Campo tell the story, Skye unlawfully obtained rights to the lands of 19 Maya communities and immediately started exploiting deep divisions in the local population. In August, they say, after 1,000 local Maya people demonstrated against Skye Resources in El Estor, a Skye subsidiary covered the costs of a fleet of small airplanes and buses to bring another 1,000 demonstrators, from the nearby areas of Verapaz and Izabal, to a pro-mining demonstration in Guatemala City. And Skye has had to recruit workers from outside the El Estor area.

In a September 28 letter of complaint to Skye president and CEO Ian Austin alleging "discrepancies" between what Skye says and what it does in El Estor, Queen's University student Victoria Henderson says local children are expected to pay dearly to attend Skye's "free" Sequenel School, and the "free" land the company donated to the local Q'eqchi' Maya was already owned by them.

Increasingly, disturbing allegations are arising regarding the conduct of Canadian mining companies in the Congo, Romania, El Salvador, India, the Philippines, Peru, Mexico, and on and on. Sorting through all the claims and counterclaims shouldn't be left to voluntary or nongovernmental organizations. And the companies shouldn't be expected to regulate their own behaviour. But that's pretty well the way it works.

The House of Commons standing committee on foreign affairs and international trade says it shouldn't work that way. Last year the committee released a damning report, which attracted little attention, calling for a strict monitoring regime to ensure that Canada's mining firms working abroad comply with clear environmental and social-responsibility standards, as well as rules governing workers' rights and indigenous land rights.

All Ottawa decided to do was to proceed with a series of "roundtable" discussions with mining companies, aboriginal groups, unions, conservation organizations, and so on.

Jamie Kneen, outreach coordinator with the Ottawa-based public-interest group Mining Watch Canada, says strict rules are particularly necessary because Canada happens to be the home base of much of the world's mining money, our tax laws are especially mining-friendly, and we have a long and lousy tradition of poorly regulated penny-stock companies. Capital is increasingly mobile these days, going wherever the regulations are the most lax and wherever it's easiest to get what you want by just throwing money around.

But the problem isn't just overseas, Kneen points out. In recent years, across Canada, federal and provincial regulations governing mining have been torn up and inspections have been scaled back. Also, the big-city news media aren't especially interested in the Canadian hinterland anymore, so the problem isn't just in sorting out conflicting versions of events. It's about not paying attention at all.

For instance, Vancouver's Northgate Minerals Corporation is well on its way with a multimillion-dollar plan to turn pristine, fish-rich, six-kilometre-long Amazay Lake, north of Prince George, into a fetid tailings pond, filled with 740 million tonnes of acidic mine tailings. How many Vancouverites have even heard of the project?

It's not just a lake that would die. Water levels would rise by 90 metres, and an entire ecosystem-a lush, green valley with its caribou, grizzlies, deer, and groundhogs-would be gone.