Indigenous rights put heat on major gold producer

A mining giant linked to Western Copper shut down an attempt to make the company more accountable to indigenous people at its annual shareholders' meeting last week.

A mining giant linked to Western Copper shut down an attempt to make the company more accountable to indigenous people at its annual shareholders’ meeting last week.

Vancouver-based Goldcorp, one of the world’s largest gold companies, opposed the motion, which was submitted by a small group of concerned investors.

The company’s San Marlin mine in Guatemala, and the San Martin mine in Nicaragua, have been heavily criticized for damaging the health and environment of local indigenous people.

A referendum by groups of Mayan-Sipakapan people in the region around the San Marlin mine held a referendum in 2005 which found 11 out of 13 communities opposed the mine. The vote was ignored by Goldcorp.

The shareholder proposal would have forced Goldcorp to recognize the right of indigenous people to free, prior and informed consent before beginning mine development on traditional territory. It would have forced Goldcorp to recognize the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as best practice.

The proposal also demanded the closure of any mine where the consent of affected people had not been obtained.

Shareholders voted down the proposal at their annual meeting in Toronto on May 19, said Lynette Gould, an investor relations manager for Goldcorp.

Gould did not know by what margin the proposal was shut down.

In a comment submitted before the vote, Goldcorp’s board of directors opposed the proposal, calling it “unnecessary.”

Goldcorp is committed to implementing the principles of the International Council on Mining and Metals, which demand companies uphold fundamental human rights, says the comment.

The company is also developing a human rights policy, it says.

Goldcorp will not say why the standards of an industry group are better than the United Nations’.

When asked for more detailed information on Goldcorp’s opposition to the proposal, Gould e-mailed a copy of the board’s comment.

“That’s their formal response,” she said in a phone conversation later. “That’s all they will be providing.”

It’s not clear whether the proposal would have affected Western Copper, but the proposal did demand it be applied to “any licence with partial or full Goldcorp ownership.”

Goldcorp owns Glamis Gold Limited, which it took over in 2006. And Glamis acquired Western Silver that same year, which owned the Carmacks Copper mine licence. That licence was given to a new company named Western Copper. Glamis and Western Copper shareholders entered an agreement that year, but it’s not clear what direction Glamis has over Western Copper.

Western Copper came under fire this month for proposing a heap-leach copper mine outside of Carmacks. The concept was rejected by the Yukon Territorial Water Board three weeks ago due to concerns over the heap-leaching process, which would have involved piles of ore, some as high as a 30-storey building, to be doused with sulfuric acid.

Heap leaching was heavily opposed by the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation throughout the regulatory process.

“We are not against mining, but we will not accept a mine on our traditional territory that threatens the very existence of our land and water,” said Chief Eddie Skookum.

“We need real mines, not industrial experiments.”

The New Democratic Party filed a motion before the end of the spring session to put pressure on the Goldcorp file.

The motion, moved by MLA Steve Cardiff, calls on Ottawa to pass C-300, a bill that is currently tabled in Parliament.

That bill, sponsored by Liberal John McKay, would force the Canadian Pension Fund to withdraw its investment from Goldcorp if the company does not get the consent of indigenous people before mining overseas, said Grahame Russell, a lawyer and co-ordinator with Rights Action.

A stronger bill is also before Parliament, but it has less of a following, said Russell.

That second bill, sponsored by New Democrat Peter Julian, would be much tougher on companies like Goldcorp.

“When a Canadian company contributes to environmental or health harms or human rights violation, in a country like Guatemala, then a victim from Guatemala would be able to come to Canadian courts and sue the company here,” said Russell.

But that bill has little chance of ever becoming law, he said.

It’s not even clear whether the Goldcorp shareholder proposal would have made much of a difference in Guatemala, according to Russell, who has covered human rights issues in the country for 15 years.

“None of these standards are enforceable,” he said. “The issue is impunity.”

The right to free, prior and informed consent for indigenous people is already binding law in Guatemala by way of the International Labor Organization’s conventions, which have been vetted by the country’s congress. But the right is not enforced.

A United Nations commission is currently studying impunity in the country, said Russell.

Goldcorp also commissioned a report by Guatemalan expert Jim Handy a few years ago on impunity. The report determined laws have little force in the country.

“They’re operating in a country where the rule of law doesn’t work, it’s a country which is dominated by the wealthy centres,” he said.

“Why is a Canadian company allowed to work in a country where the laws don’t work?”

Contact James Munson at