Last October, when the government of Honduras fell to a military coup d’etat driven by powerful business interests, one of the largest piles of chips on the table, the San Martin mine in the Sirian Valley, was owned and operated by Vancouver mining giant Goldcorp. For years the mine had been at the centre of protests and blockades, as well as a court case, over its alienation of indigenous land and the diversion and pollution of water needed for agriculture.
Ousted president Manuel Zelaya was about to entrench peasants’ land and water rights in law, as well as a national minimum wage, measures that would have cost Goldcorp and other foreign corporations a lot of money. Backed by a program of beatings, shootings, arbitrary arrest, and torture, a new president took office this January. Since then, judges who criticized the regime have been shoved out of their jobs, and seven journalists who failed to write the party line have been murdered. Zelaya’s social reforms are now dead, and it’s full speed ahead in San Martin.
Reports from Amnesty International, Mining Watch, the United Nations, and many others hold Canadian mining companies both directly and indirectly responsible for human rights abuses, from alienation of indigenous lands to the brutal repression of protest, to the murder of anti-mining activists in Honduras, Guatemala, Argentina, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Burma, Congo, and the Philippines, to name a few. According to a mining industry report, Canadian companies face four times as many such charges as companies from other major mining nations.
Last week, the Canadian Parliament voted down a private members bill that would have enforced ethical standards on Canadian resource extraction companies operating abroad. The governing Conservatives voted against the bill in a block, while the opposition Liberals, one of whose members sponsored the bill, absented themselves in high enough numbers to let it fail.
Why did the leaders of Canada’s two big-business parties shut down a bill that would have held companies responsible when they trample indigenous land rights, steal farmers’ water, pillage minerals, pollute rivers and lakes, emit toxic smoke, leave behind toxic tailings, hire thugs and militias to suppress dissent and finance repressive governments?
The Mining Association of Canada, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, and the Yukon Chamber of Mines speak with one voice on this question: it’s all about false accusations. Perrin Beattie, CEO of the CCC summed it up: “It would encourage groups, and particularly the competitors of Canadian companies, to launch false accusations.” Or as Carl Schultz of the Yukon Chamber of Mines puts it, “A bad reputation can live on, if it’s proven wrong.”
I’m surprised we don’t see more of this false-accusations argument. It’s a tidy answer to any kind of complaints process, indeed to regulation at all. Let’s face it, if you have rules, anybody can claim that somebody broke them. Such claims can be very damaging to the reputation. Civilian oversight of police? Environmental regulations? Traffic laws? The Criminal Code? Each and every one an invitation to false accusation.
During debate, much was made of the idea that the defeated bill would have harmed mining in Canada, particularly in the North. How would a law against human rights and environmental abuses in foreign lands harm mining in Canada? Are mines here so unprofitable that they have to be propped up by offshore revenue obtained by stealing land and water, exploiting miners, and violently repressing dissent?
The Yukon Party government introduced a motion in the territorial legislature urging our MP to vote against the bill. Did they buy the argument that trying to prevent widespread pollution, land theft, violent repression, union-busting, and murder in poorer countries would somehow make it harder to extract minerals out of the Yukon’s mountains?
Let’s get real. Corporations and the political parties that support them oppose accountability because it would harm profits. It costs money to negotiate fairly with farmers and peasants for their land. It costs money to reduce pollution and to treat workers decently.
This is not a story about false accusations, or about some nebulous harm that may be caused to mining in the Yukon when giant Canadian corporations are curtailed in their ability to tramp all over Third World communities. It’s a story about corporate profits, and about a country that has just announced to the world we don’t give a damn about human rights. Just show us the money.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.