Mining

Canadian mining companies still global leaders in environmental devastation and Indigenous land theft

Greenwashing on the agenda at the world's largest mining conference in Toronto
Protest of Tahoe Resources' Escobar silver mine outside the Constitutional Court of Guatemala in 2018. Photo credit: Jackie McVickar
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As much as 75 per cent of the world’s mining companies are headquartered in Canada — companies that frequently come under fire for violating human rights, ignoring Indigenous sovereignty, and seriously damaging the environment.

These companies have extraction operations on every continent, including Asia, the Americas, and Africa, and many projects are operating against the expressed wishes of the local Indigenous communities.

Many of those Canadian mining executives will be in Toronto this week at the world’s biggest mining conference, the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada Convention 2022, June 13 to 15.

Mining watchdog groups are already calling it a "greenwashing” campaign. Many have been demonstrating in the streets outside.

“Mining doesn’t allow for a healthy future on this planet, and Pan American Silver’s proposed plans for Navidad project in Argentina will further exacerbate environmental degradation in the region”

MiningWatch Canada and Mining Injustice Solidarity Network have denounced the convention as a ludicrous attempt to distract from their colonial and capitalist destructive business — a business model that scientists say is also no longer justifiable in a climate emergency.

Canadian mining executives using philanthropy to greenwash their image

Canadian mining companies frequently come under fire for wreaking havoc on the natural world and violating human rights while cloaking themselves under a PR guise of sustainability and “corporate social responsibility.”

Among them is Vancouver-based PAN American Silver, one of the world’s largest silver producers.

Its founder, geologist and billionaire Ross Beaty, has constructed a public image as an environmentalist through philanthropic donations and the promotion of his investments in the alternative energy sector in British Columbia.

He is the chair of the board of the BC Parks Foundation. He is also the co-founder of nature and biodiversity conservation foundation, the Sitka Foundation, and has provided individual donations to the University of British Columbia’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum — significant enough for the museum to now bear his name.

But anti-mining campaigners argue that his philanthropy is simply an attempt to erase the community harm and environmental destruction that Beaty’s investments have wrought throughout Latin America.

There’s an ongoing petition against Equinox Gold, Beaty’s other company, for failing to address the violations of the rights of community members near the Aurizona open-pit gold mine in the Brazilian Amazon. The Brazilian community, located in the municipality of Godofredo Viana, Maranhão, has been without access to a regular and adequate water supply since March 2021 due to dam failure at the Equinox gold mine.

Demonstrators outside Vancouver-based mining company Pan American Silver's Annual General Meeting in 2021.
Earthworks

PAN American Silver claims to focus on “environmental stewardship and the responsible management of Earth’s finite natural resources” including “preserving water for local communities.”

Ricochet reached out to the company for comment but did not receive a response by press time.

The company recently released a statement that it became a signatory to the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights Initiative, which seeks to help companies anticipate and mitigate human rights risks related to the deployment of public and private security forces around industrial natural resource sites.

Blaming Indigeous communities for environmental damage

In a 2019 Bloomberg interview, Ross Beaty was asked about the Indigenous communities his company has engaged with in Brazil. He responds by shifting the blame to the Indigenous communities themselves, and said, “Indigenous artisanal mining” is the real cause of environmental devastation in northern Brazil.

“They devastated large areas of northern Brazil through Indigenous mining, artisanal mining... So we’re trying to show what a modern mining company with proper environmental protection can do”

“We’ve had to deal with that in Brazil. We are fairly remote and have to deal with many local communities. The area has been mined by Indigenous miners, by local miners, for about 400 years,” he said. “They made a heck of a mess of the surface, lots of holes and pits, and really they devastated large areas of northern Brazil, through Indigenous mining, artisanal mining.

“So we’re trying to show what a modern mining company with proper environmental protection can do.”

Beaty also laments that engaging with local Indigenous communities slows down the mining process.

“It’s getting harder to build a mine, slower to build a mine, more complicated to deal with all the different stakeholders involved, particularly in other countries. But actually even in Canada and the United States. It’s really an issue that mining companies have to deal with everywhere.”

However, in the communities where the company operates its mining sites, locals and Indigenous people have a very different perspective.

“From Mexico to Argentina, communities in the company’s path have suffered forced displacement, environmental contamination and disregard for local self-determination,” said Ellen Moore, international mining campaigner for Earthworks.

Earthworks has been closely observing PAN American Silver’s activities across several of its mines in Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina.

“Far from its discourse on sustainable and responsible mining, the practices of the Pan American Silver mining company show a lack of respect for the peoples who defend their territories and oppose mining,” said Moore.

Today, Pan American´s largest silver mine is the La Colorada mine in Zacatecas, Mexico.

Somewhere between 2014 to 2017, the company allegedly forced the local community out of their homes and off their land. Multiple news outlets have reported stories about villagers from the community of La Colorada, in the central northern Mexican state of Zacatecas, being violently uprooted by armed security forces hired by Pan American Silver.

As part of its growth strategy, the mining giant has been contemplating further large-scale mining in South America. Since as early as 2010, it has been staking its reputation and future growth on banned mining sites in Argentina and Guatemala.

Canadians in solidarity with Indigenous communities

Last month, Angus Wong, a senior campaign manager with corporate watchdog SumOfUs delivered a petition to the company’s AGM in Vancouver with over 86,000 signatures calling on the company to respect Indigenous communities’ self-determination in Guatemala and Argentina.

“The scale of the petition shows that people around the world are on to Pan American Silver’s business model: profit at all cost with a blatant disregard for the self-determination of Indigenous communities,” said Wong.

Although access to the AGM was limited, Mining Injustice Solidarity Network made their presence felt by hanging posters for shareholders to see.

At the shareholder meeting, the company stressed its goal to keep pushing for a repeal of the ban on mining sites in Guatemala and Argentina.

Pursuing expansion in spite of local mining bans

For over a decade now, Indigenous communities living near the Escobal mine in Guatemala and the Navidad Project in Argentina have been locked in a battle against PAN American to stop them from extracting resources in their ancestral territories.

But PAN American Silver is adamant in its stance and has stated that it has no plans to abandon the lucrative prospect of mining in either Escobal and Navidad. In fact, it has listed the two projects as being major catalysts for development.

“Mining doesn’t allow for a healthy future on this planet, and Pan American Silver’s proposed plans for Navidad project in Argentina will further exacerbate environmental degradation in the region,” said Christina Aguero Agüero, a long time anti-mining activist and member of No a la Mina Esquel (No to Mining in Esquel).

Protester holds a banner in support of Communities in Peaceful Resistance: El Escobal. The Defense of our Territories is our Right
Giles Clarke

If given the green light, the project would generate 418 million tonnes of waste and uneconomic ore — a vast amount of which will end up in waste heaps alongside the mining pits, left to be exposed to the elements and oxidize and leach into the surrounding environment for perpetuity, said Kirsten Francescone, a Latin America program coordinator at MiningWatch Canada.

“The operations would also require a significant amount of water, which is particularly troublesome for the communities in the meseta (plateau) region of the province where the proposed mine is located — some of whom have been without access to water since 2020,” she explained.

Given the environmental cost of operating a large-scale silver mining operation, such as the Navidad project, the local community’s response to the company has consistently been a resounding ‘no’. But the company isn’t willing to loosen its grip on the mine, despite remaining inactive for over 20 years.

Mining hasn’t been legal in Chubut province of Argentina since 2003. For years, the Indigenous Mapuche-Tehuelche people and popular assemblies around the province have organized to protect their lands from open-pit mining.

But that hasn’t stopped Canadian companies like Pan American Silver from acquiring projects in the province.

Canadian companies lobbying to change laws in other countries

The company acquired the Navidad project from Aquiline Resources in 2009. However, its plans to develop an open pit silver-lead mine in Chubut have been stymied for years due to a legislative ban on mining in the province.

“[Pan American Silver] acquired the Navidad project with full knowledge of the ban on open-pit mining, not to mention social opposition to large scale mining. Regardless, the company has dedicated itself to modify the law in favour of the project, in total disregard for local communities and the environment,” said MiningWatch’s Francescone.

On December 15, 2021, the company enjoyed a brief win when Chubut’s provincial legislature approved a new zoning law authorizing cyanide-free mining in the region. However, six days later, after a massive public outcry, the provincial government was forced to repeal the new law and reestablish the mining ban, yet again casting a pall over the company’s plans for Navidad.

Nevertheless, the company continues to maintain that its activities can and will benefit the people of Chubut. In a statement from the company, it states that it “plans to remain committed to Navidad and to contributing to the positive economic and social development of Chubut, should a favourable legislative framework be adopted.”

Showing even stronger resolve, though, the Mapuche Tehuelche Indigenous peoples and the Union of the Assemblies of the Communities of Chubut released a joint statement on May 5, just a week before the company’s AGM in Vancouver, stating: “If Pan American Silver has 20 years to wait, we have all our lives to resist.”

PAN American not recognizing the rights of Indigenous people

The site of the proposed mine, the meseta (plateau) region of the Chubut province, is home to the Mapuche Tehuelche Indigenous people, who have, thus far, been left out from any consultation process.

The company, according to Francescone, hasn’t recognized the rights of the Indigenous community.

“Pan American Silver does not make reference to the Mapuche Tehuelche in their sustainability documents,” she said.

“While they do address involvement in consultation with Indigenous communities in Guatemala, and Bolivia, the company and its founder Ross Beaty have been quoted referring to their territory as an empty wasteland.”

Failure to acknowledge the presence of Indigenous Xinka people in Guatemala

Tensions have been simmering between the Indigenous Xinka people of southeastern Guatemala and Tahoe Resources (now PAN American Silver after a 2019 acquisition) since buying the Escobal silver mine in 2010.

The company had failed to acknowledge the presence of Xinka communities in the area of the project site, thereby not conforming to the Indigenous community’s right to self determination, and informed consent.

Xinka communities marching in resistance in Guatemala City. More than 500 people from Santa Rosa, Jalapa and Jutiapa marched in Guatemala City on to protest the government's non-compliance with the Constitutional Court order to consult with the Xinka Indigenous people over the future of the Escobal silver mine.
Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network

Fears about pollution and water contamination, and potentially damaging effects to the primarily agricultural way of local life, led to the Indigenous Xinka people protesting the mine’s development. Despite protests, the mine was granted permission to start production in 2013.

“In the years that followed, Tahoe Resources, along with Guatemalan police and military, violently repressed the population to impose the mine. They launched a smear campaign to criminalize anti-mining activists and Indigenous communities,” said Ellen Moore, international mining campaigner for Earthworks.

Finally, after years of peaceful resistance from the Xinka people, the Guatemala Supreme court ordered the mine’s suspension over discrimination and failure to consult with Xinka people in 2017. The next year, Guatemala’s highest court not only suspended the Escobal mine but also ordered a consultation of affected Xinka peoples according to their customs.

“The court sentence wasn’t what the Xinka had hoped for because they wanted a definite ban on Escobal mining rather than a temporary suspension,” explained Moore. “But the opening of decision-making spaces through mandatory consultation processes provided a much-needed forum to participate in deciding the viability of the project.”

Following the court ruling, the company acquired Tahoe Resources in 2019 and has since committed to bringing the Escobal mine back into operation despite well-documented, broad-based community opposition to the project.

The company states that it has been acting in good faith and has already participated in six pre-consultations with the Guatemala Ministry of Energy and Mining and the Xinka Parliament.

It is unclear as to when the mine can come into operation but local community members continue to vehemently oppose any sort of mining in the region.

Additional photo credits: Third photo is Xinca people in Guatemala protesting Vancouver-based Canadian mining company Pan American Silver from mininginjustice.org; fourth photo is SumOfUs campaigner Angus Wong delivering the petition to Chris Lemon of Pan American Silver at the company's AGM in Vancouver last month; sixth image is a graphic showing some of the negative impacts of mining, from the group Resist Escobal; seventh image is Canadian and Indigenous groups from across Latin America demonstrating outside the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada Convention in Toronto in 2020, via mininginjustice.org

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