No Copper for Blood: The need to stop Ivanhoe MinesPublished by MAC on 2001-05-01
No Copper for Blood: The need to stop Ivanhoe Mines
Aaron James, Peace for Burma Coalition
Vancouver-based mining company Ivanhoe Mines, controlled by the notorious Robert Friedland, is having an annual general meeting on June 15, 10 am - 12 noon at the Pan Pacific Hotel. The company not only profits from the misery in Burma, in which country they have formed a partnership with the ruthless military dictatorship that is currently engaged in systematic human rights atrocities against its own population. Millions have been forced from their homes into slavery, suffering, death, and rape. It is actively waged in a campaign of terror against ethnic minorities and profits and encourages the largest heroin cartel in the world.
Robert Friedland has been associated with mines that are celebrated environmental disasters in other countries including a gold mine in Summitville, Colorado which released cyanide-laden mine tailings into the Rio Grande. The shoddy construction and willingness to cut corners led the US Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Colorado to launch criminal investigations and a court challenge to hold him personally responsible for his role in the disaster after the company was declared bankrupt and he fled the US. When the company abandoned the site in 1992, the facility was in immanent danger of releasing catastrophic amounts of metal and cyanide contaminants into the Alamosa River. Canadian courts overturned efforts to seize Frieldland's assets to cover the US$50,000 daily clean up costs. In Guyana, a former company of his, Golden Star Resources, developed a gold mine with Quebec-based Cambior. Heap leach pads which dredged gold ores with a cyanide solution broke and 838 million gallons of polluted mine tailings spilt into Omai River, a tributary of the country's main water body and water supply, the Essequibo River. Fish stocks and farms that lined the fertile bank of the river were contaminated, and 15,000 impoverished Guyanans who live alongside the river at direct danger of cyanide contamination and the rest of the population to suffer indirect effects along the food chain. Friedland was involved in diamond mines in Angola and Sierra Leone secured by mercenaries from South African Apartheid-era elite battalions, and he made a windfall selling a nickel find in the mid 1990s to Inco on lands of the Innu and Inuit. Ivanhoe also held lucrative partnerships with an Indonesian tycoon with close ties to former Indonesian dictator Suharto.
Ivanhoe Mines is in joint venture with a brutally oppressive military regime that is undermining the foundations of life of the people of Burma. Its Monywa copper mine in central Burma will be one of the largest sources of foreign currency to the military regime, and it is currently rapidly expanding its activities within the country, profiting from environmental destruction, "slave" labour, and the exploitation of workers, while laundering revenue from Burma's drug economy.
The military partners of Ivanhoe came to power in a bloody 1988 coup and continue to rule illegally, ignoring the results of democratic elections in 1990 in which the National League for Democracy led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi won 82% of the seats. It has The military regime, known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has restricted basic freedoms of assembly, association, and speech and persecuted opposition supporters of democracy and ethnic groups, jailing of tens of thousands of political prisoners over the last decade. Five hundred students, 40 elected MPs, 100 women, 33 journalists, writers, poets and supporters of democracy languish among the 2,000 political prisoners in the notoriously cruel Burmese prisons where torture and beatings are common place.
In its bid to consolidate control over the country, often to make way for projects involving foreign companies including Ivanhoe, the SPDC has forced millions from their homes into misery and suffering. Over 750,000 are internally displaced and over 2 million have fled to neighbouring countries. Approximately 600,000 have been relocated into army-controlled camps where they are used as a standing pool of forced labour on economic ventures controlled by the junta or local commanding officers.
When the junta enters into joint venture with a foreign company, typically, the regime forces villagers to clear jungles, build army barracks, roadways and railways into the site and battalions are stationed in the area for security. This was the case documented by EarthRights International and the Karen Human Rights Organization of the oil pipeline Unocal and Total. What evidence exists from the area of the Monywa project indicates that the area was militarized after 1994, the year when the company first entered into joint venture with the junta. Further, according to refugees who have fled the area of the Monywa mine, lands were confiscated and villages relocated to make way for the expansion of the mine. No compensation was reportedly given to the local villagers. Further, according to All is Quiet on the Western Front? (January 1998, Images Asia, Karen Human Rights Group and the Open Society Institute), infrastructure, dam projects and hydro-electric dams around the mine built after 1990, including a number of new projects built between 1994 and 1997 was developed using forced labour, including the Pakokku-Monywa railway constructed with the labour of 921,000 people.
Populations that are relocated experience a cycle of extreme deprivation and conditions in towns and villages near the mine are atrocious. Most of the displaced farmers ended up destitute in disease-ridden shanties lacking proper sanitation, and some have turned to begging or prostitution to survive, while others have found menial dead-end employment. Homes are poorly constructed and often exposed to the elements, using wood posts covered in tin or tarp. Further, they must rely on wells and river water that has been severely contaminated from the toxic chemicals and tailings released from the mine site. Communities are drinking and bathing in polluted drinking water, there are few adequate hospitals, and schools lack adequate resources to teach children who are often incapable because of the heavy demands for forced labour from army battalions.
The International Labour Organization, a body of the United Nations, called its members to "review all ties" with the military regime in light of the horrendous practice of the military to force people into compulsory, unpaid labour. Children are recruited as young as 12 into the army. People are rounded up at random by roaming battalions for use as military porters on front-line battle where they are used as human shields and minesweepers. Millions, including the elderly and children, have been forced into indentured servitude building all manner of infrastructure, army barracks, and ecologically devastating rice, oil, opium, and rubber plantations, fish and prawn farms and timber operations. Failing to serve a forced labour order can result in villages being shelled and burned, village heads tortured, and women to be raped.
Farmers who once could provide amply for their families find that the time away from farming means that they are unable to harvest their crops and consequently their families starve. Since they are required to give a quota of their farm outputs to the military, and failing that, must purchase grain on the open market to cover the difference, the loss of time away from harvesting means that they are doubly punished, and often must incur debts with unscrupulous loan sharks that demand high interest rates. Rarely will they repay this debt, forcing them to loose their farms or sell of personal possessions or their daughters into prostitution.
It is not uncommon for military porters to be fed minimal rations of rotten rice, while those that serve as forced labour must bring money, food, hand tools and sometimes beast of burden. Already malnourished and ill, civilians endure 9 hours of intensive, grinding work. Solders sometimes shoot, often beat civilians with bamboo sticks, rifle buts and battalions for failing to keep up. Other serious human rights violations, including torture, arbitrary and summary execution, and rape, are routinely committed as people serve forced labour orders.
The ILO Report concludes that "all the information and evidence before this commission shows utter disregard by the authorities for the safety and health as well as the basic needs of the people performing forced or compulsory labour", revealing "a saga of untold misery and suffering, oppression and exploitation of large sections of the population from which people find no escape except by fleeing the country".
Since trade unions are outlawed and union leaders who have been jailed for exercising trade union rights, workers at the mine live under a constant state of insecurity knowing that if they complain or demand higher wages, they can be fired, their families will be destitute, or they can be jailed and tortured. Last January, the Toronto Star reported that workers employed at the mine earned C$6. Given the recent collapse of the kyat, the Burmese currency, now trading near 900 kyat to the US dollar, compared with 500:1 last December, and in 40:1 1990, it is not clear whether the company has adjusted wage rates to ensure that the miners earn beyond subsistence wages.
Meanwhile, the copper mine has precipitated serious ecological damage. To dredge copper, the joint venture operation leaches a sulphuric solution onto the ores within a pit, which permeates through the surface, contaminating ground water. Waste ores, or tailings, mix with rain and air to leach sulphuric acid, chemicals and reagents used in the refining process and heavy metals contained in the ores in waste pits. Intensive rain during the four-months of monsoon season can precipitate occasional flooding, heightening the risk of contamination of water bodies. Unless remedial efforts are made to contain the ores, waste rock will remain exposed to elements, indefinitely polluting air and water bodies. Reports from refugees from the area indicate that tailings from the mine have severely contaminated groundwater used by neighbouring communities for drinking, washing and cooking, which also effects aquamarine life and the fish stock of local communities. Meanwhile, the open pit mining methods involves significant ecological damage, disruption of the local topography and deforestation. Water channels are diverted, habitat is lost, and mountains are prone to collapse, inducing rock slides and further destruction of ecosystems.
Further, since the junta protects, encourages, and profits from the production of heroin, amphetamines, and other illicit drugs, revenue from the mine will help launder drug funds. Burma is currently the largest producer of heroin in the world. The US Embassy in 1996 estimated that drug exports from Burma was equivalent in size to all remaining exports. Thai officials estimate that 700 million amphetamine pills will enter Thailand in 2001. After an exhaustive study into the links within the drug business in Burma, the Geopolitical Drugwatch concluded that "all normal economic activities are instruments of drug money laundering.". The generals shelter notorious drug lords such as Lo Hsing-han and Khun San for the investment they bring to the otherwise underdeveloped economy. In exchange for cease-fire arrangements, the junta has permitted former insurgent groups to grow opium and refine and traffic heroin and amphetamines, often with the involvement of high-level military officers. The Bangkok Post recently reported that Thai intelligence reports revealed that SPDC and the Wa, one of the cease-fire groups, signed an agreement that permits the Wa "to retain control over the drug businesses of other minority groups, provided that they share profits and pay taxes to the Burmese military regime" (May 20, 2001). "Half of the [drug] money goes directly to support the Burmese military regime", said Harn Leebanond, Forth Army chief of the Thai army. "[This money] has not only helped build up the Burmese armed forces, it has helped to finance construction of roads and towns [and mines]." Proceeds from drug sales are in turn invested in army-controlled banks for investment in hotels, tourist facilities, wharfs and airlines used to traffic heroin, banks which Ivanhoe uses to exchange foreign currency into kyats in its investments within the country.
Contrary to what the company contends, profits from the mine will not benefit the local population. The fifty percent of profits plus the 2 to 4% of royalties received will be used by the corrupt generals who have imported over $3 billion worth of arms over the last decade, spending roughly half of its budget on military expenditures, ignoring the basic needs of its population and creating a humanitarian crisis within the country. The World Health Organization ranked Burma 190 out of 191 countries in its 2000 World Health Report. Spending on public health and education declined over the last decade. Per capita spending on primary education in 1990 was US$3.50, and by 2000, the figure dropped to US$0.30, while education and public health spending totalled 0.6 % and 0.2% of the nation's GDP respectively, "among the lowest in the world" according to the World Bank.
"It's complicated." said company president Daniel Kunz, "The military government, unfortunately, is probably the only form of government that can deal with such a complex problem."
We are planning to hold Ivanhoe accountable for the unscrupulous behaviour by staging a demonstration for the annual general meeting on June 15.