Tags: agnico eagle mines, amazon rainforest, belo monte, belo monte dam, belo sun, Canada, canadian mining, environment, environmental rights, gold mining, indigenous rights, open-pit mining, roger hollander
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Roger’s note: it may be that Canada has a young hip looking (if vacuous) Prime Minister and a reputation for being more peace loving and less aggressively capitalistic than the United States, but that image is belied by Canadian mining companies in Africa and Latin America.
On the banks of Brazil’s lower Xingu River, a toxic controversy looms large, threatening to heap insult upon the grievous injuries of the nearby Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. In early February, the Canadian company Belo Sun received the final operational licence for its proposed Volta Grande mine from the Pará state environmental agency (SEMA-PA). The sprawling nearly 620 square-mile concession would become Brazil’s largest open-pit gold mine, straddling the territories of three indigenous peoples and other traditional communities that are already reeling from the many social and environmental impacts of Belo Monte.
Since field research for the mine began in 2008, the peoples of Xingu have publicly decried the occurrence of human and environmental rights violations in the lead-up to the mine’s construction. They have also warned of the likely negative social and environmental impacts that the mine project will cause, and recently they and their allies have taken these complaints to the courts.
First, they have denounced that some of the land on which the mine will be constructed was purchased illegally, given that it is land that the federal government designated for agrarian reform in the 1980s. Second, the mine is close to the village of Ressaca, a community of 300 families, all of whom would be displaced and have not been relocated by the company as required.
Third, local communities fear that the project may well end in a tragedy, like the Samarco Mariana dam collapse in 2015, given that Belo Sun intends to use a mining waste storage dam similar to the one used in Samarco. And even if the mine did not suffer a major catastrophe, the environmental and health impacts of the liberal application of cyanide, arsenic, and other toxic chemicals frequently employed in gold mining would lead to dire implications for communities already dealing with the dramatic changesto their way of life caused by the Belo Monte dam.
In a small piece of good news for communities, on February 21st a judge issued a 180-day injunction on the license in response to a legal complaint filed by the local public prosecutor’s office. In doing so, Judge Álvaro José da Silva Souza recognized that the license issued by SEMA-PA had ignored the community’s complaints, that the allegations of illegal land purchases warrant further investigation, and that the company had not fulfilled its promises to properly relocate the families that would be displaced by the mine. As Judge da Silva said in issuing the injunction, “I understand it to be completely absurd and unjustifiable that the families are currently still at the mercy of their own luck.”
The ruling gave the company 180 days to develop a plan to reallocate impacted communities. The company insists that it will appeal the decision.
Public hearing airs concerns and condemnations
Such concerns were front and center at a March 21st public hearing in the city of Altamira, where Belo Monte’s affected communities aired their grievances to a panel of government and corporate representatives, including from Belo Sun.
After attending the hearing, local analysts described the companies’ neglect of the affected communities as an intentional tactic meant to give them no recourse but to accept meager resettlement plans far from the river and their traditional livelihoods.
During the hearing, Janete Carvalho, an environmental licensing agent from the Brazilian indigenous agency (FUNAI), recalled the toxic legacy of the 2015 Samarco disaster on the Doce River, which killed nineteen people and left another 700 homeless, as a warning to those threatened by Belo Sun. “The closest indigenous territory to Samarco is more than 300 kilometers away and the Krenak people still do not have enough clean water to live,” she stated. “Any accident by Belo Sun will create a situation of ethnocide. The risk is unacceptable.”
FUNAI representatives reiterated that their office does not recognize the mine’s original environmental impact studies and demanded that a new, more rigorous, analysis be conducted that respects the communities’ right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent.
“We would like prior consultation to be conducted,” said Chief Gillarde Juruna of Miratu village, located only six miles from the mine’s epicenter. “I was born and raised in that region. We never asked for any project and now there are two of Brazil’s largest projects there. We have no guarantees.”
To address these irregularities, FUNAI filed a lawsuit against Belo Sun in February charging that its installation license was issued by completely ignoring the indigenous agency and its demands that the project’s impact assessment and licensing adhere to a specific study of its impacts on nearby indigenous communities. That case is currently pending.
“Who are you lying to, Belo Sun?”
At the close of the contentious hearing, public prosecutor Humberto Alcântara Ferreira Lima raised serious concerns about the true size and scope of the Volta Grande mine. He revealed a major discrepancy between the mine’s projected gold production as reflected in the license granted by SEMA-PA (pending resolution of Judge da Silva’s injunction) and what the company is telling its investors it will extract. Licensed on the basis of a 2012 estimate that the project will yield roughly 37.7 million tons of gold, Belo Sun has separately touted different projection numbers to its investors: 88.1 million tons in 2013 and most recently 116 tons in February of this year.
“What is the real dimension of Belo Sun’s Volta Grande gold mining project?” asked Mr. Lima. “The one disclosed to Brazilian public institutions or the one disclosed the company’s shareholders, which is more than three times as large? Who are you lying to: the investors or the [licensing agencies]?”
Like Belo Monte, Belo Sun is likely to cause more harm than good
One thing is clear: Belo Sun’s mega-mine is shrouded in irregularities and incalculable risk, much like its neighbor, the Belo Monte dam. Like Belo Sun, local communities and allies warned of the serious environmental and social impacts of Belo Monte, and, unfortunately, those dire warnings have proved prescient. And also like Belo Monte, the corporate interests behind the mine demonstrate neither concern nor prudence, rushing instead to initiate operations at any cost.
Belo Sun is owned by Canada’s Forbes & Manhattan, a private merchant bank. Canadian mining giant Agnico Eagle Mines is the company’s largest shareholder, with a 19% ownership of Belo Sun. Known for its notorious Malartic urban gold mine in Quebec, Agnico is subject to no fewer than 4,000 violations of environmental laws and regulations and is subject to a CAD $70 million lawsuit for its impacts on local residents.
The struggle to preserve what is left of the lower Xingu’s environment and communities from another catastrophic mega-project is not over. Even as political and economic forces line up behind Belo Sun and the region’s untapped riches, the local communities and their allies prepare to resist them. Amazon Watch has been standing with the communities of the Xingu for many years, and we will we not give up our support for them now!
Taking stock of Canada’s mining industry: Landmark lawsuit against the Toronto Stock Exchange could strip Canadian mining companies of impunity May 11, 2010Posted by rogerhollander in Canada, Ecuador, Energy, Environment, Latin America.
Tags: ascendant copper, Canada, canada justice, canada mining, copper mesa, copper mining, Ecuador, ecuador environment, ecuador mining, environment, human rights, intag, jennifer moore, Latin America, marcia ramirez, mining, open-pit mining, roger hollander, toronto stock exchange
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By Jennifer Moore
Marcia Ramírez hopes to set a precedent in Canadian courts that will benefit peasant farmers and indigenous peoples across the Global South.
A community leader in her mid-20s, Ramírez is one of three Ecuadorian plaintiffs suing the Toronto Stock Exchange for over $1.5 billion. The lawsuit alleges that violence in their rural community could have been avoided had the TSX not listed the Copper Mesa Mining Corporation (formerly Ascendant Copper), which is also named in the lawsuit. The TSX Group and TSX Inc. are accused of causing or materially contributing to alleged violence committed by the company in response to local opposition to an open-pit copper mine. An environmental impact study had indicated that the mine would displace several communities and jeopardize the health of forests and rivers in the northwestern valley of Intag. The defendants have vigorously denied the allegations.
“I ask the noble people of Canada,” Ramírez stated in her comments when the civil suit was filed in March 2009, “that you demand from your elected authorities significant changes in your national legislation so that what has happened with Copper Mesa in Intag will never happen again, not in Intag nor in any other part of the world.”
The TSX is a principal source of global mining financing today and specializes in services for junior mining companies like Copper Mesa. According to the Mining Association of Canada, 55 per cent of the world’s publicly traded mining companies were listed on the TSX at the end of 2008, far more than any other stock exchange. Canadian stock exchanges also provided 31 per cent of the world’s mining equity and handled 81 per cent of financing transactions for the global mining industry between 2004 and 2009.
In Latin America, a prime target for Canadian mining investments, Canadian-listed companies operate roughly 1,400 projects and have been the focal point of widespread protests and human rights abuses throughout the region. Just in the past year, anti-mining activists have been reported killed in Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala in presumed relation to Canadian projects. In Argentina and Honduras, Canadian operations have led to complaints of water scarcity, contamination and illness. In Peru, a Canadian mining operation has provoked opposition among northern Amazonian peoples who question why a national park intended to protect their territory was reduced by half, giving miners access to pristine forests in headwaters of great importance to them. Alleged human rights violations and abuses by such companies are seldom investigated and almost never brought to justice.
As a result, Canadian mining companies have developed a reputation for human rights violations and environmental devastation that even the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racism has complained about. Members of the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability were also dismayed when the government released a belated response to a series of public recommendations on the Canadian overseas extractive industry in March 2009 that only reaffirmed its commitment to the status quo: voluntary Corporate Social Responsibility guidelines. The government’s position “falls far short of international human rights norms,” said Amnesty International. KAIROS, a faith-based organization advocating for human rights, ecological and ecumenical justice, complained that Canada leaves “mining-affected communities with no recourse.” MiningWatch added that the government’s complaint mechanism “undermines the principle of independent fact-finding.” One survey of Canadian mining companies has also demonstrated that adherence to international standards by our overseas extractive industry is “inordinately” low, especially among junior mining companies.
In other words, voluntary principles are not enough.
Intag, Ecuador, says no
The Ecuadorian community of Intag has a long history of opposition to large-scale copper mining, beginning with the expulsion of a Japanese mining company in the 1990s. In 1997, Bishi Metals left the area when locals balked after obtaining a copy of its environmental impact assessment, which detailed how its projected open-pit mine would cause deforestation, dry up rivers and displace at least four local communities.
Following this victory, Intag continued organizing, aware that although Bishi was gone, the copper remained. Various initiatives were undertaken to demonstrate that Intag could live without mining, including a local conservation organization, an ecotourism project, a women’s committee, a committee of all the rural parishes in the valley, a coffee co-operative, a community newspaper, a local radio station and a community development association.
By the time Copper Mesa acquired mineral rights in Intag in 2004, it was local organizations rather than the technical challenges of working in the remote area that would prove to be its greatest obstacle. As a result of the strong collective response, the company never managed to get a drill in the ground.
According to Polivio Pérez, president of the Community Development Council for the rural parish in which Copper Mesa’s project is situated, “the company came in trying to buy support and divide the communities” in an effort to weaken local resistance. When it could not gain enough support, he continues, “they tried to enter by force.”
Prior to listing the company in 2005, the TSX was warned that violence and human rights abuses could result from facilitating access to capital. Human rights abuses had already been documented by the well-respected Ecumenical Human Rights Commission in Quito (CEDHU), including physical mistreatment, death threats, persecution, slander, false charges against community leaders and intimidation. Such concerns motivated the county mayor to write a letter to the finance and audit committee of the TSX urging them not to list the company. The company’s own prospectus, which the stock exchange requires of companies before they are listed, also indicated “the potential of further escalating violence” given existing problems with its community relations in Intag.
It was no surprise, then, that things heated up once the company was listed and started raising funds.
The worst incident, both Ramírez and Pérez agree, occurred in December 2006 when heavily armed security guards were hired to reach the company’s mineral claims and set up camp.
Villagers blocked the only access road to the potential mining site with a single-link chain and stood guard. A sign posted on a nearby tree read: “Mining companies are prohibited here. We don’t sell our land, we defend it.”
The residents, including men, women and children, refused to let the private security agents pass. But the guards were impervious to their arguments and began to fire their weapons and to spray Ramírez and others at close range with tear gas. Israel Pérez, the third plaintiff in the case and Polivio’s brother, was shot and injured in the leg.
In response, local residents successfully carried out a peaceful citizen’s arrest and the guards were held in a local church for several days until local authorities arrived. “Despite being assaulted with tear gas and bullets,” says Polivio Pérez, “we were able to demonstrate once again the strength of our local organization and our decisiveness [against mining] here.”
The incident was captured on film by two German journalism students and is featured in Malcolm Rogge’s 2008 film Under Rich Earth. Ultimately, government authorities suspended the project and declared that they were unable to process the company’s environmental impact assessment.
Months later, after company directors had been personally informed about the December events and persisting tensions, individuals believed to be linked to the company assaulted and uttered death threats against Polivio Pérez. The statement of claim for the lawsuit alleges that the directors could have done more to avoid further confrontations, such as actually signing and implementing the “Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights” that the company publicly purported to respect.
Challenging Canada’s “judicial paradise”
The Toronto-based Klippenstein legal firm, best known for its defence of the Dudley George family against the province of Ontario, is representing the Ecuadorian villagers in their suit against the TSX and Copper Mesa. Their lawsuit, Murray Klippenstein says, seeks “the same level of corporate accountability that is expected in all other areas of Canadian life.” He anticipates a tough battle.
In 1997, the last time a mining company was sued in Canada, the plaintiffs were told to go elsewhere. Twenty-three thousand Guyanese villagers filed a class-action lawsuit against Cambior after the collapse of its tailings dam at the Omai Mine, which polluted their water supply. But the Quebec Superior Court ruled that it was not the best jurisdiction for the case. When the suit was later filed in Guyana, it was dismissed and the plaintiffs were ordered to pay the defendant’s legal costs.
In order to address jurisdictional issues, explains Klippenstein, the Intag lawsuit focuses on decisions that stock exchange and company executives made in Ontario, “rather than on the finger that pulled the trigger in Ecuador.”
This aspect of the legal strategy appears to be working. The Toronto lawyer says that the TSX and Copper Mesa have decided not to challenge the Ontario court jurisdiction. This puts them one step ahead and potentially trims years off the time they might have spent in legal battles before going to trial.
However, it is not just the reticence of Canadian courts to deal with cases of abuse beyond our own borders that this case aims to confront, but also the skittishness of an entire industry to subject itself to legal oversight.
Given the weak reporting requirements for listing on the TSX and the lack of relevant legislation in Canada, author Alain Deneault calls Canada a “judicial paradise” for our overseas mining industry. “Listing on the Toronto Stock Exchange,” writes Deneault, who co-authored an exposé of Canadian mining abuses in Africa entitled Noir Canada, “is a way of seeking shelter in one of the more permissive stock exchanges in the world, while taking advantage of the reputation of the rule of law in Canada – all the while knowing that one is outside of state control and regulation when operating overseas.”
The Toronto Stock Exchange openly markets itself to companies hoping to work in areas with weak governmental institutions and vulnerability to conflict and violence. Its own online promotional materials give the example of the Democratic Republic of Congo as one potential site for which it can help companies raise financing.
In other words, the Intag lawsuit is just the tip of the iceberg. Just as Klippenstein’s legal team will argue that members of Copper Mesa’s board of directors and the TSX had significant prior indications that further violence and human rights abuses could result from listing Copper Mesa Mining, it is highly possible that a plethora of other such cases exist for which this lawsuit could set an important precedent. Coincidentally, the same year that Copper Mesa was listed, La Presse reported that another junior mining company was allegedly implicated in the massacre of about 100 Congolese civilians.
MiningWatch Canada is a coalition of 18 faith, social justice, indigenous and union organizations. Communications and Outreach Coordinator Jamie Kneen told Briarpatch that if the lawsuit succeeds it could really “open the door” for other communities that have been harmed as a result of Canadian mining operations. From the Congo to Papua New Guinea to Guatemala, people who have faced illegal land appropriations, forced relocation, water contamination, threats or even murder could sue.
The lack of suitable mechanisms for addressing such disputes in Canada has also drawn the attention of parliamentarians and legal experts. Recently, Supreme Court Justice Ian Binnie, speaking at the 2008 Canadian Bar Association conference, urged Canada to draw up new legislation that would provide a forum for foreign citizens and companies to have such cases heard. In the spring of 2009, two Members of Parliament initiated attempts at legislative reform by tabling private member’s bills. NDP MP Peter Julian’s Bill C-354 aimed to replicate the U.S. Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows foreign citizens to fight global human rights violations in U.S. courts, while Liberal MP John McKay’s Bill C-300 would make public financing for the extractive industry subject to government oversight. Up against a fierce industry lobby and government opposition, both bills were stalled when Parliament was prorogued.
“It’s not fair,” says Ramírez, “that a foreign company comes onto our land and violates our rights, when all we want is to live in a clean environment and to defend our water and our land.” She hopes, after the procedural battles are over, for a cathartic day in court when “the stock exchange will listen and understand that we’ve been hurt by a company of theirs.”
Ramírez, the other plaintiffs and the legal team will face a tough fight. But the underlying principle of their case is straightforward, says Klippenstein: “You shouldn’t harm somebody and you shouldn’t use your money to hire someone whom you know is likely to do harm” – a golden rule that Canadians would likely agree to in any other circumstances.
However, only time will tell whether Canadian courts are prepared to hear Ramírez’s voice and those of many others calling for a 180-degree turnaround in a sector rife with human rights and environmental abuses.