Q and A: Sakura Saunders of Protest Barrick

The annual shareholders meeting of Barrick Gold has been a rite of spring for Protest Barrick. On Tuesday, April 26, the group marks a decade of protest against the firm outside the company’s AGM at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. There protestors will be calling for, among other things, adequate compensation for 120 women sexually assaulted – many allegedly gang raped – by Barrick security guards at its mine in Papua New Guinea. The group’s co-founder, Sakura Saunders, says it’s time for the federal government to start holding Canadian companies more accountable for human rights violations and environmental destruction abroad.  

You’ve been organizing protests against Barrick Gold at its annual shareholders meeting for 10 years. What is it about the company that first caught your attention? 

I used to work for CorpWatch and one of my roles was to scour the mainstream and independent media for articles about corporations doing bad things. I was always attracted to mining stories, because such a clear critique emerged from them: it was always a big corporation, often negotiating with high levels of government, to screw over a rural, mostly Indigenous and politically marginalized population.

I also traveled a lot for my job and met three representatives of communities that were impacted by Barrick all in one year. By the time I met the third, I had decided that it was my calling to start a campaign.

Would you explain the rationale when you say that we don’t need to mine gold?

We currently get 34 per cent of our gold from recycled sources. And we only use 11 per cent of gold for anything other than jewelry or investment. So, from my perspective, we get more than three times our practical use of the metal from recycled sources. At the same time, gold mining is ridiculously destructive. So, not only do we not need gold, but we are much worse off if we allow it to be mined.

Why protest Barrick and not the industry as a whole?

I take Barrick to be indicative of systemic abuse. If we just cherry-pick the worst cases, there is this illusion that some small percentage of the industry is really bad. I took one company and looked at about half of their operations in detail to dispels the “bad apple” argument.

Why do you target the AGM each year?

It’s a time that people from Barrick-impacted communities can speak to the shareholders directly, so we have a rally outside to support them. We don’t really expect to successfully shame shareholders into turning on the company, but we feel it is important to access this platform so that at least their grievances get on some sort of public record. 

We have used this time to lobby MPs, organize grassroots tours of Canada, and take concerns to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, so the shareholders are just one of the many audiences we pursue. 

I have been pretty disappointed in the mainstream media’s response to this presence though. Every year, impacted communities get the mic at the shareholder’s meeting, but only occasionally do the reporters covering the meeting pick up on what they say. 

Throughout the years, what has changed about Barrick, and how has your campaign changed?

Barrick is constantly adapting to our pressure. They set up corporate social responsibility (CSR) advisory committees, redress programs for rape survivors, human rights trainings for their security guards and incentive programs tying manager bonuses to CSR reporting. This is where working with the impacted communities is so important, because at a distance these programs look like positive changes. But Barrick were repeatedly fined for turning in false reports

Meanwhile, Mining Watch has done great work exposing how their redress programs for survivors forced people to sign away their right to sue the company in exchange for very little money. 

Barrick admitted that their security guards gang raped women in Papua New Guinea. After an intense screening process, they compensated 120 of them with about $10,000 each. So, Barrick got out of that scandal for $1.2 million total. Does that seem like justice to anyone? 

You’ve had some interaction with Barrick founder Peter Munk. What do you think of each other?

He seems to divide NGOs into two categories, those he can work with, and those he can’t. The ones he can work with will take Barrick’s money to do some good work near Barrick’s mine sites, but never tell of the abuses. The ones that he can’t work with would never take his money to begin with. You can guess which category I fall into. 

I think of him as someone who justifies the harm that his company does by imagining that the communities would be in even worse squalor without him. He has been quoted saying things like human rights are idealistic and gang rape is just a cultural habit of some places. 

What do you see next for Protest Barrick?

The documentation, protests and support for the communities I’m in touch with will continue, but now that a new government is in power in Canada, I would like to work in coalition with a range of folks working on mining issues and international issues to push for some major reforms. The Liberals definitely will not do anything on their own, but with a lot of pushing, change is at least possible, which is more than I can say for government under Harper.

Any advice for young people wanting to launch a global campaign against a massive multinational corporation?

Don’t start any campaign unless you are in touch with and accountable to the people most impacted, don’t promise more than you can deliver and stick to your word even when it may not make the most sense. Building trust is the most important pillar of your campaign. Also, be aware of who you are empowering and how that is affecting community dynamics. 

While that may all seem like a lot to be accountable for, right now there are so many networks to tap into that it is easier than you might think. If you are the type of person who works well with others, is a good communicator and can make good on long-term commitments, there is likely a network of impacted communities and advocates already formed out there that could use help organizing. 

David Gray-Donald is a freelance journalist and community organizer.

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