by Sakura Saunders
On December 14, 2009, the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry (MNDMF) announced an agreement paying $5 million to mining corporation Platinex in exchange for releasing its mining claims to the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation’s territory. Three years later, the Ontario government forked out another $3.5 million to Toronto-based God’s Lake Resources for releasing their claims to KI’s land. Both payments highlighted an inconsistency between mining rights and native land rights. On the ground, the KI nation had the power – they physically blocked the company’s planes from landing and their leaders went to jail, refusing to be pressured into striking a deal. But in the courts, the mining companies were in the “right”, giving them free entry, or the ability to explore Indigenous territory without permission. Even when consultation is required, Canadian case law is clear that Indigenous communities do not have veto power, or the right to say no.
Around this same time, another mining conflict was raging in El Salvador. In the department of Cabañas, after successfully convincing the government to not grant mining licenses to Canadian mining company Pacific Rim, anti-mining activists were subject to death threats and then assassinated. The first, Marcelo Rivera, was found at the bottom of a well after having gone missing for almost two weeks. His body had clear signs of torture, missing his finger and toe nails. Less than a month later, an activist priest was run off the road, while three journalists covering the issue were warned that “they will be next”. Within 6 months, four high profile activists were murdered, including pregnant mother Dora Alicia Sorto.
In addition to the physical and psychological violence inflicted on anti-mining activists in Cabañas, Pacific Rim brought El Salvador into arbitration over an alleged violation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Basically, Pacific Rim wanted El Salvador to pay $77 million (a number that eventually
ballooned into $310 million) in perceived lost profits to the mining company. To put it in perspective, this amount was roughly 5% of the entire country’s GDP, equivalent to the country’s 3-year budget for health, education, and public security.
Seven years and $13 million in legal expenses later, El Salvador “won” the arbitration, with the World Bank Tribunal ordering the mining company (now called OceanaGold) to pay $8 million in the country’s legal expenses. Over a year later, Oceana still has not paid the fine nor have they made any commitments to do so. El Salvador has since moved to ban all metals mining, a result of years of grassroots campaigning in the small, Central American country. Meanwhile, Oceana has not even left the country. Instead, the company is investing in their local charity and paying for full page ads in the newspaper, extolling the benefits of “responsible mining”. Many speculate that OceanaGold is attempting to influence the outcome of the next national election, which is less than one year away.
As Canada enters its 150th year, it is important to reflect on how Canada was built on the theft and exploitation of land, promoted and protected by an imposed system of colonial and capitalist laws. Today, after 150 years, Canada has exported this form of Colonialism, becoming the world leader in the global mining industry. Over 50% of of world’s mining companies are headquartered in Canada, and these companies are also responsible for the majority of mining-related abuses. In a study of 171 high profile incidents involving mining companies, Canadian companies were involved in four times as many incidents as their closest peers in Australia and the UK.
Canada aids these companies through its embassies, export development loans, CPP investments, and even International aid dollars. This government assistance by and large benefits the mining corporations, while leaving the community with short-term jobs and long-term environmental destruction. When a country is not playing nice with the mining companies, elections are interfered with, aid money is withheld, and countries are sued – a process that reflects the legal and financial repression of First Nations governments within Canada.
Take Honduras, which like El Salvador had a popular groundswell to reform mining laws to empower local communities directly impacted by these operations. In June 2009, one year after then-president Zelaya announced a moratorium on new mining concessions and less than 2 months after a new mining bill was drafted, a military coup ousted Zelaya. Canada and the US isolated themselves within the Organization of American States (OAS) by not condemning the coup, and quickly supported the post-coup government elected months later. Canada urged the OAS to support the new government as well, despite the electoral environment of “targeted violence” against journalists, LGBT activists, campesino leaders and environmental defenders.
Within months of the election, Canadian government officials set upmeetings between the new government and Canadian mining executives. Within a year, talks for the Canada – Honduras Free Trade Agreement were underway.
Today, Canadian mining companies in Honduras enjoy more rights and investor protections than they ever have, as the repression of campesino activists continues. According to Global Witness, which named Honduras the “most dangerous country for environmentalists in 2017”, more than 120 activists have been killed since 2010 while trying to protect their rivers, forests or land.
For most countries, such high level political manipulations are not needed for central governments to play nice with Canadian extractive industries. Modest royalties (and often bribes to key government players) are usually enough to have the full support of central governments in the exploitation and repression of the Indigenous communities and the rural poor within their state boundaries.
Indigenous peoples are disproportionately targeted by large-scale extractive projects, in particular mining. Over half of gold mining and 70 per cent of uranium mining is carried out on Indigenous lands. For many Indigenous people, mining threatens not only their livelihood, but also their traditional way of life.
While the pollution and water depletion that accompanies mining constitute human rights abuses in and of themselves, mining operations in the developing world are associated with gross human rights violations as well. In places like Tanzania, DR Congo, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Central and parts of South America, militarization of entire communities accompanies mining projects. The most targeted for violence are often the small-scale miners displaced by the large-scale corporate operations. Sexual violence and killings are common, and criminalization occurs on an even larger scale. In this context of extreme violence, there are no laws in Canada to hold these transnational companies accountable for this abuse.
Rather, as the KI Nation experience points out, the laws uphold the right of corporations to invade Indigenous lands without consent. Free prior and informed consultation (not consent) is the World Bank standard, considered a high water mark by global investors.
In this context, it is clear why a rejection of these laws is advantageous to local communities faced with the threat of becoming a sacrifice zone to the global demand for metals. As Canadian colonialism continues through mining, communities resisting this invasion deserve solidarity. The laws are stacked against them, but when they win it creates more freedom for communities everywhere.