MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Urgently needed: mining ethics

Published by MAC on 2005-10-21

Urgently needed: mining ethics

By SUE MOXLEY and MARK LEWIS AND PAUL HANSEN Op-Ed Special to Toronto Globe and Mail

October 21, 2005

'My heart dropped when I felt the blast," Ana Maria Alvarado Garcia told us over a crackling phone line from Cerro de San Pedro. Residents of this tiny community in central Mexico have been locked in a 10-year legal struggle trying to stop a Canadian company, a subsidiary of Metallica Resources of Toronto, from developing a nearby open pit gold and silver mine in what is a state-recognized preservation site. These villagers fear the mine will destroy their way of life, wipe out centuries-old buildings, devastate the ecosystem and contaminate the local water supply.

Last week's blast -- in the midst of a series of conflicting court rulings, and just as the Canadian government was set to respond to a report critiquing corporate activity abroad -- caught almost everyone by surprise. When the explosion went off, Alvarado Garcia was a mere 1.5 kilometres away, testing topsoil for contamination. The instruments began shaking out of control, confirming the kind of full-blown seismic vibrations that might bring down the town's most treasured structures. "We feel helpless," she said. "It's as if the blast went off in our faces." In many respects, it's as if it went off in Canada's face, too.

In June, the House of Commons standing committee on foreign affairs and international trade completed its investigation into Canadian corporate activity abroad by recommending that the federal government implement laws to ensure that Canadian mining and other companies conform to the highest human-rights, labour and environmental standards. The committee's message was clear: If you are going to bank abroad on Canada's good name, then you have to uphold this country's reputation in the way you conduct your business.

The report followed dozens of news stories in recent years that showed Canadian resource companies in Sudan, Guatemala, Colombia and, recently, the Philippines operating without local consent and, in some cases, linked to environmental damage and human-rights violations.

It's a message we church leaders have been promoting for a long time. Since the implementation of the North American free-trade agreement in 1994, Canadian churches have been monitoring the human-rights situation in Mexico. And, in March, KAIROS, an ecumenical social justice organization, helped send a group of us to Cerro de San Pedro to see first-hand the situation there. What we found was a group of concerned citizens - community property owners, agronomists, ecologists, lawyers and others who make up an organization called the Broad Opposition Front (FAO) and who have been fighting the proposed mine in court for at least 10 years.

Throughout this, they thought the law was on their side. In 1993, a state decree recognized the Cerro de San Pedro area as a preservation site for at least the next 20 years in order to protect the region's flora and fauna. The decree outlaws any activity - and that would presumably include preparatory blasting - that would lead to changes to the topsoil.

In recent months, however, a series of seemingly definitive court decisions in favour of the community were suddenly overturned. We heard reports of increasing repression and intimidation of FAO members. At a recent peaceful demonstration, five members were roughed up by local police, and some 20 FAO members have had charges brought against them, including defamation suits, to try to silence the debate.

Is this Canada's fight? We say it is. On hearing of the Commons committee's report, FAO members circulated a petition in Mexico in support of the recommendations. Last Friday, they made the trek to the Canadian embassy to hand deliver the names of thousands of area residents who are calling on the Canadian government to urgently adopt the report. Cerro de San Pedro's residents know that binding legislation is needed to prevent companies such as Metallica from operating without a community's explicit consent. Sadly, it appears their efforts have fallen on deaf ears.

This week, the government tabled its response, ignoring the committee's most critical recommendation to "establish clear legal norms in Canada to ensure that Canadian companies and residents are held accountable." Ottawa is willing to work closely and diligently with resource companies and international organizations to help develop a code of corporate responsibility. But the federal government is taking a pass on some of the key issues the parliamentary committee was asking for: making Canadian financial support contingent on meeting defined human-rights and environmental standards when operating abroad; and establishing a clear legal route for redress in Canadian courts where necessary.

Acknowledging the problem and committing to further study simply does not go far enough, particularly when Canada is an acknowledged leader in resource extraction: Nearly 60 per cent of the world's exploration and mining companies are listed in Canada, and they account for almost $50-billion in direct investment around the world, on almost 3,200 properties in more than 100 countries. Canada needs to act boldly and implement legislation that would hold Canadian corporations legally accountable to human-rights and environmental standards and ensure explicit consent of local populations. We can certainly set the standards high for how we expect our corporations to act.

As Ana Maria reminded us: "All we are asking for is respect: respect for our culture, respect for our village, respect for our wishes. We call on Canadians for their respect, support and understanding." So do we.

Bishop Sue Moxley is a suffragan bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada, Rev. Mark Lewis is former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada and Father Paul Hansen is chair of KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives.

HOW TO PARCIPATE IN THE DeBATE

The Hearings referred to at the top of this posting will last until mid- December. There is also an "e-consultation" which consists of a series of pre-determined questions and can be found here

CCIC has prepared a background resource on the International Policy Statement which is available at here.

If you present a brief to the Committee over the next few weeks, please send a copy to Brian Tomlinson (btomlinson@ccic.ca).

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