Originally published in Embassy News.
Every day in northern Brazil, 12 long trains filled with minerals leave the largest iron ore mine in the world. Estimates put the worth of each train’s cargo at tens of millions of dollars, while the dilapidated houses on the side of the tracks are home to families who somehow survive on $1 a day.
In the Philippines, after environmental catastrophes and violence against mining opponents, some local governments have banned mining altogether. According to a church worker, “not a single Catholic diocese of over 100 in the country is in favour of mining.”
In El Salvador, a church-supported moratorium on mining has been in effect since 2008, mostly over concern for the tiny nation’s water supply. Nevertheless, foreign corporations are suing the government under the terms of free trade agreements that (companies allege) disallow such protective decisions.
And in northern British Columbia, the August tailings spill at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley copper and gold mine released millions of cubic metres of slurry into neighbouring waterways. Since the mines opened, Chief Bev Sellars reports that “cancer rates have skyrocketed in our community.” Now Aboriginal people must live through what has been described as one of the biggest environmental disasters in modern Canadian history.
Such was the testimony received at a conference held at Saint Paul University in Ottawa on Nov. 7 and 8, entitled The Global Cry of the People: Mining, Extraction and Justice. The symposium was organized by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (a Catholic order of priests), Saint Paul University and local parish groups. It was sponsored by a number of civil society organizations that have long been active on mining justice concerns.
The university took advantage of the symposium to grant an honorary doctorate to Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian theologian best known as a founder of “liberation theology.”
Liberation theology has been described as “theology which does not stop with reflecting on the world, but rather [which] tries to be part of the process through which the world is transformed.” This theology famously called upon Christians to adopt a “preferential option for the poor.” Frowned upon by previous popes, liberation theology and its proponents are now experiencing a renewed acceptance under Jorge Bergoglio, the first Latin American pontiff.
Increasingly frail at 86, and having had an eye operation that very week, Father Gutiérrez was unable to address the symposium as planned. Nonetheless, he encouraged a collaborator from the Latin American Council of Catholic Bishops to speak on his behalf. Father Peter Hughes, who lived in Peru for 40 years, told conference participants that the Latin American church has identified three major challenges from unethical mining: risks to human health, abuse of human rights and environmental destruction. He challenged religions to advocate for affected communities, saying, “The moral authority of the church is like water: if you don’t use it, it evaporates.”
Pierre Gratton, president of the Mining Association of Canada, confirmed that his organization lobbied hard against Bill C-300, a private member’s bill introduced by Liberal MP John McKay, calling for corporate accountability for extractive industries in developing countries. The bill was defeated in October 2010 by only six votes. Nonetheless, Mr. Gratton explained, “a heavy price was paid” in terms of negative public perceptions of the industry.
Although all political parties were invited to speak, NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar noted how laudable it was that industry was present, but the governing party declined to participate.
This has been the experience of just mining campaigners over the past decade: constant difficulty in finding sufficient political will on the Hill for change.
NDP MP Ève Péclet’s corporate social responsibility bill, C-584, was defeated in October. Paul Dewar’s bill on conflict minerals and John McKay’s “Sunshine Bill” demanding companies release information on payments to foreign governments, were also recently defeated.
Although a Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor’s Office was established through the government, after the counsellor resigned, even this toothless position has remained vacant.
One week after the Ottawa conference, Trade Minister Ed Fast announced the government’s revised corporate social responsibility strategy, acknowledging that Canada could repeal the services of its embassies and Export Development Canada funding from offending corporations.
The Open for Justice campaign continues to suggest two initiatives for necessary change: the creation of an independent extractive-sector ombudsman in Canada, and legislated access to Canadian courts for those harmed by Canadian companies.
If projections hold true, that between now and 2050 humans will consume more minerals than we have used to date in human history, change is overdue. Canada’s soon-to-be named CSR counsellor needs to quickly prove that they enjoy enough power, and political will, to heal the black eye Canada’s reputation has received from its extractive sector.
Photo: Dennis Gruending