Conflicts surrounding Canadian mines ‘a serious problem’ – by Catherine Solyom (Montreal Gazette – December 18, 2012)

This series was made possible thanks to a Bourse Nord-Sud grant attributed by the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec and financed by the Canadian International Development Agency.

Last of a three-part series.

Canadians abroad have long benefited from what psychologists call “the halo effect”: Because of its reputation as a peace-loving, human-rights respecting, tree-hugging land, Canada can do no wrong.

But perceptions in Latin America are changing, say observers here and there, as conflicts pitting Canadian mines against local communities become entrenched and spread across continents, and the line between those companies and the Canadian government becomes increasingly blurred.

“Last week, there were demonstrations outside the Canadian Embassy in Mexico. But it’s not just Mexico, it’s throughout the region,” says Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert, a history professor at McGill University and the coordinator of the McGill Research Group Investigating Canadian Mining in Latin America. “What embassy in Latin America has not been the locus of protests because of a Canadian mine?

“As a country and as citizens of this country we have a serious problem.”

Canadian foreign direct investment in mining has nearly doubled in the last five years, from $23.8 billion in 2006 to $45.3 billion in 2011, and half of that was in Latin America.

Barrick Gold has spent $3.7 billion just on its Pascua Lama open-pit mine, on the border of Chile and Argentina, and expects to spend another $5 billion there before it’s up and running in mid-2014. Then there’s Cerro Casale, 130 kilometres north of Pascua Lama, currently on hold, for which Barrick would need to spend another $6 billion.

But as mining investment has exploded over the last decade, so too have conflicts involving Canadian mines, from the Pueblo Viejo mine in the Dominican Republic, where 25 people were injured in clashes with police in September, to the Pierina mine in Peru, where one person was killed that same month. (Both are mines owned by Barrick Gold, but protests are not restricted to Barrick mines.)

All the while the Canadian government’s role in defending, even promoting, mining companies’ interests has solidified.

Consider the apparent shift in priorities of the Canadian International Development Agency. Long mandated to reduce poverty in developing nations, critics say it is now targeting resource-rich countries with Canadian aid, especially where mining companies and communities are locked in conflict.

Last year it began a pilot project in Quiruvilca, Peru, near Barrick Gold’s Lagunas Norte mine, where local residents have accused the company of contaminating the water supply and expropriating communal lands. CIDA has partnered with Barrick Gold, matching its funding for a $1-million World Vision project to provide loans for small businesses and to foster capacity-building for local leaders.

In development circles, the project, announced by then-minister for CIDA, Bev Oda, raised alarms over the mingling of private and public funds in a project whose result might have been to quell protest. In that light, CIDA’s contribution — with taxpayers’ money — was seen as a disguised subsidy to Barrick.

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