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Canadian mining kills, but at the planet's largest mining conference in Toronto this weekend, the industry will spin fantastical tales for investors that ignore the suffering of the communities bearing the brunt of its "successes"
It’s been called the Superbowl or the Oscars of the resource extraction industry. And between workshops, cultural performances, the annual awards ceremonies, prime ministerial visits and the trade show – 2016’s convention even had a shoe-shining station! – it seems like an exciting place to be.
The Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada’s (PDAC) convention, the largest mining and mineral industry conference and trade show in the world, happens every year in Toronto. This year’s 85th annual event takes place March 5 to 8 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, with some 25,000 people from more than 125 countries attending.
Promoters say the convention injects about $60 million annually into the Toronto economy. Tourism Toronto is a “Gold Plus” sponsor, alongside CIBC. “Platinum” sponsors Barrick Gold and Goldcorp, two of the industry’s biggest players, also happen to share a bad reputation for human rights violations and environmental damage abroad.
But the largely fantastical world of the PDAC convention exists far away from the reality of the communities bearing the brunt of these mining “successes.”
Courting public opinion, stifling local dissent
In the face of worldwide resistance from impacted communities, plummeting stock prices and increasingly shaky investor confidence, this year’s conference will play an important morale-boosting function for a floundering industry.
But the imperative to “keep optimistic” isn’t limited to the confines of the convention. PDAC’s board of directors also spends a great deal of resources on stifling dissent.
A central focus of PDAC is to foster pro-industry sentiment among elementary-level children, university students and Aboriginal communities. PDAC has congratulated itself for playing a major role in stopping C-300, a bill that would have addressed the international human rights violations and environmental damage for which the Canadian mining industry has become notorious.
The organization’s extensive lobbying efforts in favour of the Canadian industry extends beyond the corridors of power in Ottawa.
PDAC also courts positive public opinion through Canadian embassies abroad in communities most negatively impacted by Canadian mining projects. It has even paid journalists from affected regions to attend the convention to be “educated” about the Canadian mining industry.
Tacit support from the Canadian government for all things mining
Every year, the PDAC gathering is partially funded by “country sponsors” whose governments’ support for the industry are highlighted and promoted throughout the convention.
This usually includes a full day dedicated to discussing the benefits of mining investment in these regions to local innovation and technology. This year, Ecuador, Peru and Chile are the main country sponsors, sending speakers and representatives from governmental ministries related to energy, mines and the environment.
Ecuador, for one, is far from being open for business. Since its government switched its focus from oil to mining, community members and civil society groups have taken to the streets in protest.
Instead of listening to impacted communities’ and environmentalists’ concerns about projects in the province of Morona-Santiago, the Ecuadorian government, declared a state of emergency earlier this year after a violent protest against a Chinese copper exploration project. A policeman was killed and nine security officials injured. At least nine people were detained, including the president of the Shuar Indigenous Peoples’ community, whose offices were raided.
Tacit support by the Canadian government for all things mining-related rings loud and clear at PDAC.
Representatives from different offices of the federal government come to promote Canadian mining. Canadian ambassadors are invited to showcase environmental “innovations.”
This year, the Canadian ambassador to Peru, Gwyneth Kutz, will deliver opening remarks on Peru Day, and a representative from Export Development Canada will speak about “good practices” in “social investment” and external stakeholder engagement.
But what picture will Kutz paint?
Most likely, she will skip over the story of Máxima Acuña de Chaupe, a subsistence farmer who was hospitalized after an attack allegedly perpetrated by hit men hired by a Peruvian subsidiary of Denver-based Newmont Mining. The projects of Newmont, a “Gold Plus” PDAC sponsor, in Canada, Latin America and Africa are well known for a wide range of problematic social and environmental issues and human rights abuses.
As the industry attempts to compensate for its negative image, what important facts are left out? Is this really who we should be listening to?
Activists with banners and a sound system disrupt a special session of the Conference of American Armies at the Sheraton Hotel on February 9. The gathering of military leaders from North, Central and South America was hosted by the Canadian Army and explored “domestic operations,” alarming anti-mining activists who say CAA liaison officers are linked to the repression of land defence struggles and other political activism throughout Latin America, including Honduras and Guatemala. Activists tracked down the location of the conference, which was not open to the media or public, through pictures sent out by Canadian military participants on Twitter.
Corporate social responsibility contradictions
One of the central ways the mining industry has attempted to improve its image is through the rhetoric of “corporate social responsibility,” or CSR, the industry’s answer to widespread calls for accountability.
Scholars have argued – rightly – that CSR sidesteps many of the most important issues at stake in mining-impacted communities. That’s because the policies are generally voluntary, and failure to implement them carries no consequences.
Running for the past eight years, a CSR event series held during the convention supposedly “aims to facilitate multi-stakeholder dialogue and peer learning on key issues related to responsible exploration and mining.” It’s clear, however, that the CSR series is mainly about promoting “nice” ways to nullify communities’ right to say no to mining in their territories.
Finding holes in PDAC’s CSR program isn’t difficult. To those familiar with the pervasively problematic practices of the mining industry, the double-speak companies use in conversations about CSR is shameless.
For example, in 2014, mining company Goldcorp led a session on “proactive communication” with impacted communities even as the company was actively benefiting from the criminalization (including the filing of charges, detention and arrest) of community leaders in Latin America speaking out against human rights violations and environmental devastation near project sites.
Goldcorp is not alone in this track record a detailed November 2016 report by Osgoode Hall’s Justice and Corporate Accountability Project (JCAP) corroborates 709 cases of criminalization related to numerous Canadian mining projects in Latin America alone.
The mining industry speaks about community resistance to mining projects the same way it talks about plummeting stock prices – as an obstacle to be overcome. One of the most fundamental obstacles is the pre-existence of people on the land they want to dig up.
Land, capital and Aboriginal affairs
In 2012, the PDAC board of directors approved a five-year plan to focus on three major goals through their convention and committee work: access to land, access to capital and “Aboriginal affairs.” This plan highlights the contradictions and hypocrisies of PDAC’s mandate.
In Canada and throughout the world, “access to land” for mining companies means either displacing Indigenous communities entirely or else contaminating water and land so that residents’ health is compromised and continuing traditional practices becomes impossible.
There are, in fact, many Aboriginal attendees at PDAC, a fact lauded in every annual report. While Indigenous nations are not homogenous and include diverse perspectives on the mining industry, PDAC’s Aboriginal affairs program ignores the perspectives of the many Indigenous people around the world who oppose the encroachment of mining projects on their land.
PDAC attendees are encouraged to see land as capital, a resource to be turned into profit. This focus on the bottom line obscures the human impacts of the industry.
“Disruptive” ideas not welcome
At PDAC’s convention this year, Goldcorp is putting $1 million into a Shark Tank-style competition called #disruptmining, inviting participants to submit proposals representing the best new “disruptive” ideas and innovations in mining and exploration.
But many key stakeholders, especially the dissenting voices of impacted communities, are not represented at PDAC or even invited to participate.
Last year members of the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network and allies registered for the PDAC convention, signed in and met up in the middle of the investor trade show. We laid down a banner reading “Canadian Mining Kills,” held flowers and, with the support of an Anglican minister, calmly read aloud the names of almost 40 people who’ve been killed in relation to Canadian mining. Passersby heckled, yelling things like “Not all companies are like that,” “Get a job!” and “Where do you think your computer came from, dummy?”
Police and security guards swiftly ejected all 20 protesters from the convention. Evidently this isn’t the kind of “disruption” PDAC’s looking for.
Merle Davis, Kate Klein and Caren Weisbart are organizers with Toronto-based activist group Mining Injustice Solidarity Network.
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