MAC: Mines and Communities

Report Reveals How Canadian Diplomacy Supported Deadly Blackfire Mining Project in Mexico

Published by MAC on 2013-05-13
Source: Statement (2013-05-06)

Report Reveals How Canadian Diplomacy Supported Deadly Blackfire Mining Project

United Steelworkers - Common Frontiers - MiningWatch Canada statement

6 May 2013

Ottawa/San Cristobal de las Casas - Documents released from the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) in response to a request under the access to information act reveal that Canadian authorities put public resources at the service of Calgary-based Blackfire Exploration despite connections with suspects in the murder of a local activist, mine suspension, and widely reported allegations of corruption.

"Our analysis of these documents found that mere days after a damning report about the company was circulated to the highest echelons of the Canadian government, Canadian authorities sought advice for the company about how to sue the state of Chiapas under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for having closed the mine," observes Rick Arnold who participated in a 2010 fact-finding delegation to Chiapas . "It's as if people's lives don't matter to the Canadian Government, only narrow commercial interests."

On November 27, 2009, Mariano Abarca was murdered in front of the restaurant that he owned and operated in the town of Chicomuselo in Mexico's most southerly state of Chiapas. Abarca was a father of four and an active citizen who had fought for lower electricity rates. At the time he was murdered, he was leading a fight against Blackfire's barite mine given concerns over social and environmental impacts.

One week after his murder, Chiapas environmental authorities suspended the mine. Days later, the Globe and Mail reported that Blackfire had been making payments into the personal bank account of the mayor of Chicomuselo. An RCMP investigation into the allegations is ongoing .

"From these records, we learn that even before my father's death, the Canadian Embassy was closely monitoring the conflict in Chicomuselo," remarks José Luis Abarca, son of Mariano. "But they completely disregarded the concerns that my father and others were raising, giving credence only to the company's version of the story. One has to wonder how things might have been different today, if they had taken us seriously."

DFAIT records show that the Embassy received 1,400 letters expressing dire concern for Abarca's life following his arrest in August 2009. One month earlier, Abarca had complained to an Embassy official that Blackfire workers were armed and intimidating mine opponents. Nonetheless, when Embassy officials visited Chiapas weeks before Abarca's death, they appear only to have inquired into concerns about the security of Blackfire's investment.

"The picture we've been able to piece together is deeply troubling, given Canada's role as a top investor in Mexico's mining industry and conflict-ridden projects from Chiapas to Chihuahua," says Jen Moore, Latin America Program Coordinator for MiningWatch Canada. "The Blackfire story highlights the need to reign in Canadian government promotion for our overseas mining sector given how this may be enabling much of the destructive practices that we're seeing."

Contacts:


Canadian mining company got embassy help amid controversy in Mexico: Advocacy group

By Julian She

Toronto Star

5 May 2013

Secret diplomatic emails and briefings suggest the Canadian embassy in Mexico provided "active and unquestioning support" to a Canadian mining company before, during and after it became embroiled in controversy over the murder of a prominent local activist in Chiapas and corruption allegations, according to a report issued Monday by MiningWatch Canada.

The study, made available by the advocacy group to the Star and La Presse, is based on 900 pages of documents obtained through Access to Information from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade about its dealings with Calgary-based Blackfire Exploration.

In late 2009, three men with links to the company were arrested after the drive-by shooting of Mariano Abarca, who was leading the fight against Blackfire's barite mine in the often turbulent state of Chiapas.

Shortly after that, Mexican authorities suspended Blackfire's Chiapas operations for environmental violations , and the mine has not reopened.

In 2011, RCMP raided the Calgary office of the company, alleging in a search warrant that Blackfire paid a local Chiapas mayor to ensure protection from anti-mining protesters.

At the time of the police raid, Blackfire denied any wrongdoing, saying that "contributions intended for the public" had been misused by the mayor.

In a statement last week to the Star about the ongoing RCMP investigation, the company said: "We are co-operating fully."

MiningWatch says the sometimes heavily redacted emails and internal documents show that starting in 2007, the embassy's support and lobbying with the Chiapas state was "essential to the company's success in starting the mine" even though Canadian officials were aware of what they called "difficulties" Blackfire had with some sectors of the local population and workers .

An unnamed company executive emailed embassy officials in September 2008, thanking them for everything "that the embassy has done to pressure the state government to get things going for us. We could not do it without your help."

By 2009 the embassy was already tracking news reports of blockades and protest marches by several thousand people against the "Payback" mine as it was called.

But MiningWatch faults embassy officials for echoing uncritically what it describes as Blackfire's "hostile view of community resistance" in their reports back to Ottawa and never pushing the company for answers to criticisms raised by its opponents.

On Nov. 27, 2009, Abarca - who had once warned "if anything happens to me I blame the Canadian mining company Blackfire" - was shot in the back at close range outside of his house.

Within days, the embassy reported to Ottawa that three men connected to Blackfire - one former contractor and two men still working for the company at the time as an employee and as a contractor - had been detained in connection with the assassination.

"Regarding the actions of former contractors and employees, we are unable to control what individuals do in their personal lives and their actions do not reflect upon Blackfire in the slightest," the company said in its statement released to the Star last week.

Angry protests over the killing greeted the then-governor general Michäelle Jean and then-minister of state for the Americas Peter Kent when they arrived in December 2009 for a long-planned visit to Chiapas.

Jean called the killing "deplorable, inexcusable" and said Canada hoped "that justice will be served."

Kent took a more measured stance, stressing that many Canadian companies in Mexico "are held up and recognized as virtual models of corporate social responsibility."

A few weeks after Kent and Jean departed, the embassy sent a political counsellor named Karim Amégan to Chiapas to get a better sense of the mood on the ground by meeting with community associations and leaders.

Amégan wrote that among some of the local people he met, "Blackfire, which is considered corrupt and responsible for the murder of the activist, has tarnished Canada's image among the population of Chiapas."

But MiningWatch says the counsellor's report appeared to have "little impact" and "the embassy continued to defend the company to Mexican state officials and provided it with information on how to sue the state of Chiapas under the North American Free Trade Agreement for closing the mine."

"It's not that we're saying that the embassy doesn't have a mandate to support Canadian economic interests," said Jennifer Moore, Latin America Program Coordinator for MiningWatch and a co-author of the report. "In part, that is what they are supposed to do.

"But Canadian embassies around the world are supposed to ensure the protection of individual and collective human rights - and that is just as important to us as Canadians."

Caitlin Workman, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs, said the department could not comment on the specifics of MiningWatch report until they had seen it, but she said Ottawa expects Canadian firms operating abroad to "respect the laws of those countries . . . as well as our ethical norms and corporate social responsibility."

"The government of Canada continues to monitor closely the human rights situation in Mexico," she said.

Abarca's family told MiningWatch that eventually a former Blackfire contractor, Jorge Carlos Sepulveda Calvo, was convicted and sentenced to 24 years in prison

MiningWatch says Caralampio Lopez Vazquez, described as the "head of personnel and security for Blackfire and a translator and driver for a Blackfire executive," was prosecuted for an earlier assault on Abarca received a fine and short prison sentence.

Canadian mining companies exercise huge economic clout in Mexico and around the world.

According to Foreign Affairs, 204 of 269 foreign-owned companies in Mexico's mining sector in 2010 were Canadian.

MiningWatch says 75 per cent of the world's mining companies are headquartered in Canada, but it cites an industry study that found Canadian companies were four times as likely to be at the centre of conflict where they operate than mines than other western countries.

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