The following article was first published in Engagement, Vale’s magazine for socially responsible and sustainable mining.
In partnership with Vale Inco, aboriginal peoples from Canada keep their ancestral customs alive while they learn to deal with new technologies
Known as First Nations, or aboriginal peoples, two of the first ethnic groups that inhabited the continent, the Innu and the Inuit, have lived for about 7000 years in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador in the northeast of Canada. The nomadic tribes confront the intense cold and survive by fishing and hunting animals such as deer and moose. The men chant ancestral music to attract whales to request and conduct ceremonies of blessing of the shaman, torngak, especially for their hunting equipment.
However, over time the ancestral traditions have been losing out to the encroachment of Christian and colonists’ religious customs. In 1995, concerned about the gradual loss of customs and high degree of dissatisfaction in the relationship of the Innu and Inuit and other inhabitants of the provinces, the Canadian government recognized the original rights of the aboriginal peoples to land, signing partnership agreements with governments representing the indigenous groups. Five years later, this was one of the major concerns of Inco when it began its mining activities in Newfoundland.
The company, part of the Vale Group since 2006 when it became known as Vale Inco, discovered a nickel mine in Voisey’s Bay in 1994. Mining activities began the following year. Ever since, the company’s operations have been infused by dialogue with the representatives of the native communities. More than preserving the land and local customs, Vale Inco hires most of its employees from the aboriginal peoples, who are given access to scholarships to complete school and take technical classes. “We are still new in Vale, but the company’s top management has made it clear that this partnership with the Innu and Inuit not only will proceed, but will be strengthened,” emphasizes Labrador operations general manager, Tom Paddon, 44.
Tom explains that all of Vale Inco’s actions are approved after extensive environmental impact studies have been conducted. The process involves partnerships with the native communities, and includes education, training, cooperation and strict safety regulations. “We have a variety of programs, ranging from offering supplemental schooling through scholarships to coordinating the visit of young people from the communities to the mines so they can see how the work is carried out and enrol in the courses,” he reports.
When operations began in the province, 50% of the employees were aboriginals or descendents. Today, their numbers have reached 54% out of approximately 450 employees. Through the integration plans and training the target is to make this percentage grow even more. The Voisey’s Bay projects are conducted in partnership with the federal and provincial governments, along with the local communities. Respect for the environment is of fundamental importance – mainly taking into account the fact that the traditional population survives through hunting and fishing in a land covered by ice.
Environmental impact studies are conducted annually to monitor the delicate ecosystem. “Each one of the groups select representatives who act as environmental watchdogs. They remain for two weeks at a time in the mining areas and submit reports about what they find. For instance, I work in the head office but travel through the communities, “recounts Isabella Pain, 39, superintendent of Aboriginal Affairs.
Isabella traveled as the representative of her community, the Inuit, during negotiations between the government, companies and aboriginal peoples until 2004, when she was invited to join the Inco team. “I decided to work here because I saw that commitment to aboriginal rights is very high at all levels of the company,” she says. “More than just protecting the Innu and Inuit homeland, Vale Inco seeks ways to merge them with its operations.” Isabella points out that surveys about the social and cultural impacts are carried out annually and indicate that the communities are satisfied with this communion of ancestral habits and modern technology. “The aboriginals do not have any other job opportunities along the coast. We’re the only company that offers jobs without their needing to leave their native land, “says Tom Paddon.
At Voisey’s Bay, Innu and Inuit peoples have many different functions: from supervisors to directors. The environmental technicians exercise one of the most important: the control of the icebreaker ships used to make it possible to extract the nickel during the winter months. Between January and May, Labrador (most of the Province is joined to the island of Newfoundland, thus the reason for its name) ices over and the delicate operation to break the layer of ice needs to be coordinated.
To ensure safety and not impact the fishing zones, Vale Inco’s staff carefully monitors the ship’s routes. “All of the icebreaker’s routes are followed and the communities receive reports about where the ice could be thinner. Moreover, there is a toll-free telephone number where the population can obtain this information as well as representatives in the communities with radio transmitters who continuously update the data, “explains Isabella.
These representatives are members of the team Vale Inco recruits on a number of different fronts. Those with little formal education are encouraged to return to school through scholarships. Furthermore, they receive technical (for instance, learning how to operate computers) and practical training. Among the courses offered are modern techniques in electrical installations, and an introduction to the mining process. Some of these courses are taught in the communities themselves.
Investments in Professional Training
Some aboriginals also are members of the professional training teaching staff. A number have traveled to Texas to acquire further experience. Many return to the company after taking the first introduction to mining course, according to Tom, “Nearly half of those who take the course seek our office to obtain more information. Recently, we taught the class for millrights in the Sheshatshiu community that lasted nine months. Half of those who took the course subsequently sought out our headquarters for further information. Some of those who graduated are already working as apprentices. Others are working in the mining operations as instrumentation technicians, pipe controllers and automotive technicians, among other functions,” he reports.
There also are employees who are specially contracted to evaluate skills and native peoples divided into groups balancing newcomers with more experienced individuals. The workers who do not know anything about the aboriginal’s habits and customs receive training, so that the different cultures can co-exist in harmony. “All new employees receive a handbook about the history and culture of the Innu and Inuit when they enter the company, designed to facilitate the coexistence, because many know nothing of their habits,” Tom explains.
Respect and maintenance of the culture is taken very seriously, even at the symbolic level. A few months ago, Innu Vale Inco bought coats that were probably hand-stitched in the 17th century, to keep them from being auctioned off and winding up in the hands of private collectors. The pieces are now in The Rooms Provincial Museum, located in the provincial capital of Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John’s. “Many of the traditions have been passed down orally and few physical examples of the Innu tradition have survived. These coats, therefore, have extraordinary importance. Because they are extremely rare, they are concrete examples that we pay close attention to new initiatives that can contribute to our partnership with the Innu and Inuit. This is a policy we intend to further strengthen,” according to Tom Paddon.
In Brazil, Multidisciplinary Projects
In order to work with indigenous peoples and Quilombo (descendents of escaped slaves) in the areas where the company has operations in Brazil, Vale invests in partnerships with NGOs, anthropologists and technical centers. The multidisciplinary teams help understand the history and culture of each community and to identify the best way to relate to each group, as well as to stimulate the generation of income. Two major examples of this are the projects run by Onça Puma Mining and Rio do Norte (MRN) in the state of Idaho, which constantly monitors the environment and supports improvements to the local infrastructure – such as building houses and hospitals, the introduction of new farming techniques and the training of local manpower.
Incorporated into Vale since 2005 and located in North Ourilândia in the southeast portion of the state of Para, Onça Puma produces nickel. The indigenous villages of Cateté and Djudjekô are located ten kilometers from its mine on the Xikrin of Cateté native lands. The first ethnic and ecological study was conducted in 2005 and subsequently the community and submitted to the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI). “The first step is to understand the uses of the land and local customs. That is why the ethnic and ecological studies are so important, “explains Sun Tomich, Onça Puma’s communications manager. “Next we research sources of income that do not interfere in the indigenous communities’ routines, such as collection of seeds and production of seedlings, ideas developed by the multidisciplinary team of agronomists, forestry engineers, biologists and anthropologists. The goal is to no longer be financially dependent on others and become self-sufficient, “he says.
Responsible for 78% of the extraction of bauxite in Brazil, Mining Rio do Norte (MRN), located in the municipality of Oriximiná, in the west of Para, is betting on a partnership with NGOs to improve the quality of life of the members of the quilombo communities who lies on the banks of the Trombetas River. Together with the Hope Foundation (Hope Foundation), the Quilombo Project brings medical assistance to the riverside communities, which has reduced infant malnutrition from 39% to 11% in the region.
Another initiative consists of courses designed to foster professional improvement, such as Culture of Barro (Mud Culture) coordinated by MRN. Promoting decades-long local traditions such as ceramic production and fish farming, the communities now have more work options, enhancing their economic conditions and, consequently, quality of life. “We support social projects that help education, health, the environment and sustainable development,” summarizes Jose Chaves Haroldo de Paula, Community Affairs consultant at MRN. “For example, fish farming involves the raising of tambaquis in tank-nets. It is a very successful project. Besides combating predatory fishing, the project provides alternative income for the river dwellers, “he notes.