Mining firms must fix own reputations – by Brian MacLeod

Brian MacLeod is the managing editor for the Sudbury Star, the City of Greater Sudbury’s daily newspaper. This column was published on February 10, 2011.

Canada should not act as a de facto police force to Third World countries where Canadian mining firms operate, but recommendations by Human Rights Watch would lead in that direction.

HRW’s report on Toronto-based Barrick Gold’s actions in Papua New Guinea, released Feb. 1, supported the provisions of Bill C-300, which was narrowly defeated in Parliament last fall. It would have set standards and punishments for companies operating internationally. The mining industry argued some companies might have moved their head offices out of Canada if the bill passed.

HRW’s report is valuable because it details the challenges faced by Canadian companies when they operate in countries with poor standards. As a result, they’re forced to act as better stewards of human rights — which is where the responsibility should be, on the company and the host government.

Papua New Guinea has almost 7 million people. It occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, north of Australia. It faces rampant poverty and crime, including human trafficking. It’s populated with tribal villages with low literacy rates. The government, though democratic, does not closely police mining activities because it needs foreign investment.

Barrick Gold bought the Porgera gold mine from Placer Dome, another Canadian company, in 2006. (Mineral Resources Enga holds 5% ownership.) Porgera is located in a remote highland area with little police presence.

Barrick employs about 500 private security personnel to police the mine and the surrounding area. HRW investigated after reports of violence by the security force. It documented six vicious gang rapes, which HRW said is likely indicative of a “broader pattern of abuse” by security personnel. Because people don’t trust the police, most crimes — including the rapes — do not get reported to authorities or the company. To address this, HRW wants Ottawa to adopt legislation that would punish mining companies based here if they don’t adhere to human rights standards abroad.

There are two problems. Most of the world’s 1,800 mining and exploration companies are headquartered in Canada. They employ more than 300,000 people in about 100 countries. How would Canada monitor operations in a remote region of a country where most of the population doesn’t even have telephones? Do they depend on reports from NGOs, or from local authorities, who are most likely corrupt? Do they set up a new bureaucracy to monitor companies’ actions?

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