|December 15, 2015|
Can Canada's new PM stop mining abuses in Latin America?
|A Guatemalan investigative journalist named Luis Solano was in Canada last month to launch a report about a Canadian-owned silver mine in south-east Guatemala. The mine, Escobal, began operating last year and is run by Minera San Rafael (MSR), a subsidiary of the British Columbia-incorporated Tahoe Resources.|
The 27-page report, titled Under Siege: Peaceful Resistance to Tahoe Resources and Militarization in Guatemala, was commissioned by the International Platform Against Impunity in Central America and MiningWatch Canada, which published it in November. Based on the experience of several years research and interviews with local inhabitants conducted in mid-2015, one of the key allegations is that 1000s of people living in the region have voted against the mine and further expansion plans, with numerous plebiscites and peaceful marches held.
According to Solano, the percentages of those voting "No" to Escobal in municipal plebiscites were 98.86, 98.34, 98.61, 98.68, 98.3 and 98, while the percentages of people who voted "No" in "good faith" plebiscites in eight villages in one municipality where authorities prevented an official plebiscite being held were 99.27, 93.44, 99.20, 96.65, 97.33, 98.84, 98.26 and 100. In only one plebiscite did the majority - 53% - vote in the mine's favour.
Another key allegation made in the report is that opposition to the mine is being "criminalized." Solano states that more than 100 cases of legal charges have been brought against opponents - all "dismissed for lack of evidence or for including false evidence and/or statements" - while some people have been unlawfully detained, leaders' homes have been raided, and MSR and Guatemala's Chamber of Commerce have brought legal challenges to stop plebiscites. According to the report, people are being stigmatised, defamed and, in some cases, called "terrorists."
One further key allegation is that opposition to the mine is being met with a military response. Solano alleges that an "Inter-Institutional Committee Office" installed by the government is considered by local people to be mainly intended to gather military intelligence, and, in 2013, it declared a "military state of siege" when three "military outposts" manned by the Guatemalan army were established - two of which remain to this day.
In addition, the report alleges that Tahoe has adopted a security strategy to protect Escobal which Solano calls "quasi-military" and of a "counterinsurgency nature", giving rise to what he describes as a "quasi-war scenario" in the region. According to the report, security firms that Tahoe has previously or currently contracted have strong military connections. These include International Security and Defense Management (ISDM), hired in 2011 and described by Solano as "amongst the most important private military companies in the world and as one with mercenary roots in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars", and the Grupo Golan, which Solano calls "an Israeli private security company founded in 1983 by members of the Israeli Special Armed Forces." According to a sworn affidavit by Tahoe's vice-president, Donald Paul Gray, quoted in the report, MSR "terminated" its contract with Grupo Golan in April 2014, and since then it has retained a company called Centurion Security, which Solano connects to a firm founded by "former British soldiers", to provide "complete facility protection services" to Escobal.
The consequences of Tahoe's and the government's response include, according to Solano, the "militarization" of community life, what local people feel is a "state of terror", and regular violence. Arguably the most emblematic example of the latter is a civil action, acknowledged in the report, that was brought against Tahoe Resources Inc. in Canada in June 2014 in which six farmers and one student claimed that in April 2013 they were "shot at close range by Tahoe security personnel during a peaceful protest on the public road outside of the gates of the Escobal mine." According to the civil action, they were shot "using weapons that included shotguns, pepper spray, buck shot and rubber bullets", and as a result they claim they suffered "serious injuries including wounds to their backs, faces, feet and legs."
Grupo Golan is named in the civil action, but the plaintiffs argue that it was Tahoe that was "vicariously responsible for their conduct." On 9 November, just the day before Solano's report was published, a judge in British Columbia's Supreme Court refused to hear the case and ruled that "Guatemala is clearly the more appropriate forum."
What do these companies think of Solano's allegations? ISDM could not be reached, while Fernando Samayoa, from Alfa Uno, part of the Grupo Golan, declined to comment but told the Guardian that Alfa Uno's services to MSR ended in April 2014. Ira Gostin, speaking for both Tahoe and MSR, declined to answer questions about the case, stating "We are currently not granting interviews." Peter Snell, from Centurion, told the Guardian, "[We] will not comment about current or historic clients as we have a responsibility of confidentiality to our clients."
And what about the allegations made in the civil action? Grupo Golan's Samayoa told the Guardian "we are not interested in, to respond or comment to any allegations and/or claims related with such unfortunate event."
And Tahoe? According to Canada's CTV news on the day the civil action was filed in 2014, Gostin emailed: "Tahoe has reviewed the Notice of Civil Claim and believes it to be without merit and replete with factual errors."
This year, though, Gostin told the Guardian "We do not discuss ongoing legal issues. This case is pending in the Guatemala courts." Indeed, this process is referred to in Tahoe's vice-president's affidavit which states that "Guatemalan prosecuting authorities" have charged MSR's security manager with "causing injuries and obstruction of justice", although the charges "remain unproven" and the "Court in Guatemala has yet to make a ruling about whether he should stand trial on the charges."
"The prosecutor is still investigating the April 2013 incident with MSR's full cooperation," Gray's affidavit reads.
As previous articles of mine in the Guardian have highlighted, Escobal is far from the only Canadian-owned mine alleged to be having, or which has allegedly had, appalling impacts on 1000s of Guatemalans. Others include the Marlin gold and silver mine in Guatemala's far west, run by a subsidiary of Vancouver-based Goldcorp, and the Fenix nickel mine, now owned by Cyprus-based Solway Investment Group but previously belonging to Toronto-headquartered Hudbay Minerals.
Indeed, the role of Canadian mining firms is currently drawing increasing alarm and attention across Latin America as a whole. And why shouldn't it? According to a report to which more than 30 Latin American civil society organisations contributed and was presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in April 2014, between 50% and 70% of all mining in Latin America is now done by Canadian firms.
That report, titled The Impact of Canadian Mining in Latin America and Canada's responsibility, focused on 22 large-scale projects in nine countries - Marlin among them, but not Escobal or Fenix. It alleged that operations are having serious environmental and social impacts, including destroying glaciers, contaminating water and rivers, cutting down forests, forcibly displacing people, dividing and impoverishing communities, making false promises about economic benefits, endangering people's health, fraudulently acquiring property and persecuting opponents to the mines.
That was followed in June 2014 by a session on Canadian mining in Latin America at the Permanent Peoples Tribunal - when Escobal was one of the projects discussed - and then another report on Canadian mining in Latin America presented to the Inter-American Commission in October 2014, written by the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability. More recently, in August 2015, MiningWatch Canada and the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group released a report on Canadian mining in Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru and Canada itself which, once again, highlighted Escobal.
All of the above make serious allegations of human rights violations and environmental abuses involving Canadian mining, and claim that Canada's government has played a key role in supporting such operations. This allegedly includes providing financing through "tied aid", among other means, as well as contributing to changes in mining laws favourable to Canadian companies, stopping people affected by mining from seeking legal redress, ignoring complaints, exploiting investment treaties and trade deals, and implementing a "mining diplomacy" in which embassies and diplomats provide explicit support for Canadian companies.
MiningWatch Canada's Jen Moore says that, in Escobal's case, both Tahoe and Guatemala's government have received the "tacit support" of the Canadian embassy too. Moore told the Guardian that just two days after the alleged shooting of protestors by security guards at Escobal and three days before a "state of siege" was declared on surrounding communities, the embassy participated in a public ceremony to celebrate the royalty payments Tahoe would pay to the Guatemalan government.
"It publicly demonstrated support for the company at the height of plebiscites, protests and repression in April 2013," Moore says.
Given the alleged role of the Canadian state in much of this, the August 2015 report and the two reports presented to the Inter-American Commission in 2014 made a series of hard-hitting recommendations to Canada. These included: 1) stopping "overseas development aid and diplomatic services toward the promotion of large-scale mineral extraction overseas"; 2) abstaining from "providing any kind of government support" aimed at making legal systems in Latin American countries more flexible in order to promote mining investments to the detriment of human rights; and 3) changing Canadian laws to "hold companies based or registered in Canada to account for individual and collective Indigenous and human rights violations committed in another country."
Of course, Canada now has a new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who campaigned on a slogan of "Real Change", promises to protect the environment, fight climate change and support "the world's most poor and vulnerable countries" in doing so, and is heralding a "new era in Canadian international engagement." In addition, his official campaign "platform" committed to support "innovation and the use of clean technologies" in the mining sector, while back in 2010 he voted in favour of a defeated bill, C-300, intended to "promote environmental best practices and to ensure the protection and promotion of international human rights standards in respect of the mining, oil or gas activities of Canadian corporations in developing countries."
Trudeau's party, the Liberals, issued a statement to the media earlier this year supporting that bill. Will his government move to resurrect it - or, even better, significantly improve it? And will his government heed any of the recommendations made in the reports cited above specifically regarding Canadian mining in Latin America?
As for Guatemala and Escobal, Solano told the Guardian he hopes that Canada, mining companies and interested members of the public understand what is happening around the mine, and they don't just listen "to the mining company or the economic groups working for it doing lobbying and communications work."
"They portray it as a development project, when the communities say the opposite," Solano says. "They should recognise that there have been community consultations in which the majority have said that they don't want the mine. That local communities have a position should be acknowledged, and their decision respected."
A Guardian enquiry regarding MiningWatch Canada's Jen Moore's allegation about Canada's embassy in Guatemala providing "tacit support" to Tahoe was made to the embassy. It was forwarded to Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada, which said it would respond but did not do so.
Justin Trudeau's office did not respond to requests for comment.