LONG LAKE NO. 58, Ontario — Along the remote stretch of highway that connects this northern community to the rest the world, it’s easy to distinguish the haves from the have-nots.
The aboriginal groups who first inhabited this region once sold furs and fish, but clear-cutting and water pollution have put an end to that. About 400 of their descendants now live in the Long Lake No. 58 First Nation reserve, where the homes are dilapidated, about 70 percent of residents are unemployed, and there’s just one business — a gas station.
But now those on the reserve are poised to gain from a surge of investment to their area, following the discovery of a $50-billion mineral deposit that has been dubbed “The Ring of Fire.” It’s the biggest resource development Ontario has seen in more than a century, often referred to as “Canada’s next oil sands.” The prospect of a mining project fills people here with a mixture of anticipation and concern.
Around the globe, the discovery of precious resources has proven both a blessing and curse for native people. They have sometimes tapped riches via profit-sharing and employment opportunities, but they have also seen the toll that mining takes on land and wildlife, disrupting subsistence economies. In Alaska, the pursuit of oil has brought development and jobs to some of the poorest, most remote settlements in the U.S. But it has also left bitter feelings among the people whose ancestral lands have been devastated by the crude rush.
From Greenland to Australia to Nigeria, mining companies often encounter opposition and roadblocks from the native communities that sit on mineral-rich land. And the clash is expected to become more pronounced in the coming years as indigenous people increasingly see their rights enshrined at national and international levels and exercise them more effectively.
Sixty percent of future resource reserves are on indigenous land, according to a study of 370 projects around the world by the advocacy group First Peoples Worldwide. Resource companies are expected to push into more remote regions and indigenous lands, which cover about 20 percent of the earth’s land mass but contain 80 percent of the remaining biodiversity, the group says.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in 2007, binds signatory countries to “free, prior and informed consent” of indigenous people for all decisions that could affect their land. Last year, the International Council on Metals and Mining called on its member mining companies — some of the world’s largest, including Barrick Gold, Rio Tinto, Newmont and BHP Billiton — to integrate “free, prior and informed consent” into their policies.
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