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LATIN AMERICA: Canada Moves to Oversee Mining Firms

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Mar 5 2010 (IPS) - Amidst allegations that Canadian mining companies operating in Latin America have been complicit in the murders and harassment of activists, several positive developments in Canada are seen as a source of hope that firms may begin to be held accountable on human rights and environmental questions.

The Canadian parliament is currently considering Bill C-300, “An Act Respecting Corporate Accountability for the Activities of Mining, Oil or Gas Corporations in Developing Countries”, aimed at ensuring that Canadian extractive companies follow human rights and environmental best practices when they operate overseas.

It would create a mechanism allowing Canadians and affected communities to sue companies that violate these standards, and impose sanctions – such as the loss of government loans or assistance – on firms found guilty of such violations, according to MiningWatch Canada.

In addition, the Canadian government launched a web site in January offering Canadian mining companies advice and information to help them adopt ethical business practices.

And in a late January decision that focused on a Red Chris (owned by Imperial Metals) mining company project in the western Canadian province of British Columbia, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not split projects into artificially small parts in order to avoid comprehensive environmental impact studies.

In its verdict, the Court stated that under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, entire projects must be environmentally evaluated, and the government “cannot reduce the scope of the project to less than what is proposed” by the company.

The ruling also said the Canadian government had acted unlawfully by excluding public input from its assessment of the planned Red Chris open-pit mine, which would process 30,000 metric tons of copper and gold a day in a pristine wilderness area.

“We have gone from a position of ignorance on the question of mining companies to a situation in which the parties are well-informed on the issue and are working to get the bill approved,” Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert, coordinator of the McGill Research Group for the Investigation of Canadian Mining in Latin America (MICLA), told IPS.

“Awareness has been increasing on the issue,” said Studnicki-Gizbert, an associate professor at the Department of History at McGill University in Montreal who has researched the environmental impact of mining companies in Mexico and Panama.

The Canadian parliament’s House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade has already examined Bill C-300. In the meantime, that country’s main parties – the Liberal Party, the New Democratic Party and the Conservative Party – have all introduced their own versions, which indicates that passage of a law regulating the operations of mining companies abroad is imminent.

“What is happening in Canada…is an example of what should be done in Mexico, with respect to the adoption of laws as well as the obligation for firms to be transparent, auditable and accountable. There is a long list of pending issues here,” Agustín Bravo, a lawyer with the non-governmental Mexican Centre for Environmental Law (CEMDA), told IPS.

CEMDA has worked closely with opponents of the Paredones Amarillos gold mine project of the U.S.-based Vista Gold company, which was eventually denied a permit by Mexico’s Secretariat (ministry) of the Environment and Natural Resources to mine for gold in a forested area.

Vista Gold wants to extract the precious metal for 10 years in an area adjacent to the Sierra de La Laguna biosphere reserve in the northwestern state of Baja California Sur, some 4,000 km from the Mexican capital.

Conflicts that kill

The fight against environmental and health damages caused by mines in Mexico can be lethal. In November 2009, Mariano Abarca, a leader of the Mexican Network of People Affected by Mining (REMA), was killed.

He had fought hard against Canadian mining company Blackfire Exploration’s operations in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, and had requested police protection, saying he had received threats from people linked to the mining firm.

Mineral-rich Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, is one of the areas in this country that has proven most attractive to foreign mining companies, especially from Canada.

Abarca’s murder triggered an outcry in Mexico and abroad, and protest demonstrations were held in front of the Canadian Embassy in the Mexican capital.

Nearly 60 percent of the world’s mining corporations are Canadian, and mining companies from that country have at least 578 projects in Mexico.

But while MICLA reports that only 13 of them have generated conflicts in Mexico in recent years, it says these disputes have “tarnished” the entire industry.

“Only measures designed to put pressure on mining companies will force them to comply with ethical standards of practice,” wrote Studnicki-Gizbert and Christine Fréchette, coordinator of the Chair in Contemporary Mexico Studies at the University of Montréal, in an article published February in “Focal Point; Canada’s Spotlight on the Americas”, a bulletin put out by the Canadian Foundation for the Americas.

MICLA has identified at least 100 cases of local communities in conflict with Canadian mining companies throughout Latin America.

“Abarca’s murder occurred just when the issue was gaining attention in the Canadian media; the debate on the bill (C-300) in the Committee coincided with the killing,” said Studnicki-Gizbert.

Violence in Ecuador too

A case that could help strengthen the accountability of mining companies is a one billion dollar lawsuit brought before the Ontario Superior Court of Justice by Ecuadorean activists Marcia Ramírez and brothers Polibio and Israel Pérez against the Copper Mesa Mining Corporation (formerly known as Ascendant Copper), two of the members of the company’s board of directors, and the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX).

The legal action, filed in March 2009, claims the copper company used aggressive and coercive tactics, including hiring armed thugs, to acquire land and natural resources in the village of Intag near the town of Junín in western Ecuador.

According to the lawsuit, the TSX, which financed Copper Mesa’s open-pit copper and molybdenum mining project in Intag, and the two executives are complicit in the company’s use of death threats and intimidation against villagers

Polibio Pérez is president of the Community Development Council of Junín, Ramírez heads two community groups, the Asociación EcoJunín and Defensoras de la Vida, and Israel Pérez is a local resident.

On Dec. 2, 2006, a group of armed men working for the firm threatened a peaceful, unarmed gathering of local residents, and fired shots. One of the ricocheted bullets hit Israel Pérez in the lower leg. In addition, Ramírez was sprayed in the face with pepper spray and Polibio Pérez received death threats.

Polibio Pérez was later assaulted on Jul. 31, 2007 by a group of men with connections to Copper Mesa, the lawsuit also states.

“Something must be done immediately, because we are just now realising the magnitude of the phenomenon. There are 400 new projects in the pipeline,” said Studnicki-Gizbert.

In 2007, the Canadian government held roundtable sessions with representatives from the mining industry, activists and academics to discuss the lack of oversight for the industry.

One of the recommendations was the creation of an oversight mechanism, set up two years later, to allow an independent corporate social responsibility counsellor to investigate allegations against mining companies – but only if the company facing accusations agrees to the inquiry.

The “independent” counsellor, named in October, turned out to be Marketa Evans, founding director of the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre – named for and funded by Peter Munk, founder of Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold, which is accused of widespread pollution in Peru and Chile.

“The system is still too lax, compared to other activities like industry and the tourism real estate sector. In the midst of this mining boom (driven by high prices), full legal compliance and enforcement is needed,” said Bravo.

The United Nations Committees on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Elimination of Racial Discrimination have urged Canada to take measures to prevent abuses abroad by corporations domiciled in their territory, and to hold them accountable.

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