Photo from the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal hearings, via the author.
“Not all that glitters is gold.”
It's a cliché, but it takes on a whole new meaning when you are sitting across from a member of the Diaguita Huascoaltinos indigenous community in Chile who says that his people are facing a genocide if Canadian mining interests in his region have their way.
The words came from Sergio Campusano, a representative of the Comunidad Agricola Huascoaltinos, who was in Montreal for the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal (TPP) hearings on the Canadian mining industry's impact in Latin America—not to be confused with the clandestine, multi-national trade agreement that is still being negotiated. Campusano was one of the 20 witnesses from the Americas and Europe who came to testify to the Canadian mining industry's disastrous impacts in the southern hemisphere, and how Canadian and host governments have colluded to protect them.
Campusano's primary beef is with Barrick Gold, their subsidiary Nevada, and their Pascua Lama gold mine project in the mountains above the Diaguita people's home in the Huasco Valley of the Andes. The Diaguita say that the mine threatens the mountain glaciers that provide water for them and their agricultural land; farming is their primary industry and their means of subsistence. In our conversation, Campusano spoke of dust from construction settling on the ice and causing it to melt faster and become polluted; chemical toilets dumped into rivers, and leaking drainage canals. Barrick has denied allegations that they are damaging the glaciers and polluting groundwater, but Pascua Lama has been shut since late 2013 when its license was revoked by the Chilean government because of environmental violations.
“If this mine goes ahead, we would all die, or we would have to leave,” he said. “It is a genocide.”
His first hand testimony was only one among many at the hearings into how Canadian mining companies across Latin America—from Honduras' Siria Valley to southeastern Guatemala to Chiapas, Mexico—with the support of local authorities and the Canadian government, have been committing environmental and human rights abuses in the pursuit of gold.
At the end of the two days of hearings at a downtown Montreal community centre, the judgement of the eight jurors who listened to the testimony—ranging from the Council of Canadians' Maude Barlowe to physician and TPP Secretary General Gianni Tognini to human rights and international law experts from Peru and Spain—was unanimous:
“The cases examined by this Tribunal shine a light on the violation of human rights, and the Tribunal consider it proven—backed by the documents and testimonies received—that the Canadian mining companies located in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and Chile, whose actions were examined during these proceedings, clearly led to the violation of multiple [human and environmental] rights,” they wrote in their preliminary verdict, adding that the Canadian government and the companies' host governments have also clearly been complicit in allowing these crimes to take place. The final verdict, which will include more detailed proposals for solutions to the violations of international law and human rights they identified, will be released in the coming weeks.
“It is a very good verdict in that it really confirms the allegations that were brought to the tribunal against the mining companies, but also against the Canadian state for its complicity in this situation,” said Claire Doran, one of the hearing's two spokespeople and longtime human rights and international development activist. “The tribunal went even further in that it also laid down the responsibilities of the host states, which we hadn't really presented for the tribunal to look at, but is of course intimately linked to the rest.”
There won't be any criminal charges laid or CEOs hauled off to jail, though. The TPP, founded in 1979 and marking its 40th session with this latest hearing, is a tribunal of opinion, meant to shine a light on wrongdoings that evade the courts. Over its history, it has investigated everything from the violation of human rights in the Algerian civil war, the human and environmental rights impact of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the policies of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Founded in Italy by legal experts, writers and human rights advocates, it was designed to follow on the work of the Russell Tribunal, which in 1967 exposed war crimes committed against the Vietnamese people.
According to the TPP's Secretary-General, Gianni Tognoni, who served as a juror at the Montreal session, the role of the tribunal is “identifying and publicizing cases of systematic violation of fundamental rights, especially cases in which national and international legislation fails to defend the right of the people.”
For juror Mireille Fanon-Mendès-France, president of the Frantz-Fanon Foundation and a human rights expert with the United Nations, the issue of Canadian mining companies in Latin America is just the type of situation the tribunal is meant to look into.
“Because these companies don't listen to the people whose land they are stealing, it's important that we give space for the voices of these people,” she told VICE in an interview following the release of the verdict. “It's extremely important that [these tribunals] exist in order to get to the bottom of the issue.”
While some may question whether the scope of Canada's mining industry in Latin America deserves this kind of investigation, Doran says that's exactly the kind of misconception that made the tribunal necessary.
“I think the public is not always aware that we're talking here about large scale projects,” said Doran. “[These projects] are going to have a huge impact on a number of countries and communities, and they are implemented without any respect for the right of self-determination of the people there and for their right to define for themselves kind of development they want.”
In all, it is estimated that over 230 Canadian miners operate in the region, representing between 50 percent to 70 percent of all mining activities in the region, and that almost 1,500 mining concessions in Latin America are operated by companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Canada in general is a mining behemoth, with three-quarters of the world's mining companies based in the country. And the list of concerns and accusations is long and damning.
According to the Observatory of Mining Conflicts in Latin America, of the 200 community conflicts they identify across the region, more than 90 involve Canadian companies.
In the charges for this tribunal, the TPP looked at just five companies operating in Latin America: Barrick Gold and its subsidiary Nevada; Goldcorp and its subsidiary Entre Mares; Tahoe Resources and its subsidiary San Rafael S.A.; Blackfire Exploration and its subsidiary Blackfire Exploration Mexico S. de R.L. de C.V.; Excellon Resources and its subsidiary Excellon de México S. A. de C. V.
But their alleged transgressions run long: destruction of the environment and water sources in Honduras and Chile; ignoring the right to self determination and the right to free, prior and informed consent for Indigenous Peoples in Chile and Guatemala; denying the right to full citizenship, including attacking peaceful protesters in Mexico and Guatemala, and union busting in Mexico; and spurring on conflicts that lead to community division and violence, including murders, in Mexico.
While the tribunal sent the charges to all the companies, none responded or participated. VICE reached out to some of the companies for response. Only Barrick Gold spokesperson Andrew Lloyd wrote back: “We do not tolerate human rights violations by our employees, or by anyone working on our behalf and our mining operations apply world-leading environmental standards,” he wrote in an email to VICE. “Our operations in Latin America support thousands of high-quality jobs, along with substantial economic development and meaningful contributions to important initiatives in health and education.”
The Canadian government was also in the hot seat for directly and indirectly aiding mining companies as they committed these violations, including from using diplomatic pressure and foreign development funding to influence mining legislation throughout Latin America. As has already been revealed, development assistance money granted to non-profit organizations has been tied to promoting the profile of Canadian mining companies in the region. The Tribunal also pointed to the Canadian government interfering in Honduran and Colombian legislative processes in order to push for more favourable mining legislation. And as VICE has previously reported, public funds through crown corporations go to many of these companies to bodies like the Canadian Pension Plan, which invests hundreds of millions of Canadians' dollars in the lucrative extractive industry.
While the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development was contacted for comment, they did not reply by deadline.
Also of great concern, and one of the main focuses of 40 or so non-profits and community organizations across Canada and Latin America that organized the TPP, is what they refer to as a “judicial gap”: the fact that people affected Latin America have little to no power to pursue these companies in Canadian courts. While a company may be accused of committing a crime abroad that they would be prosecuted for if committed in Canada, there is no way for them to be pursued domestically. While this verdict may not be an immediate tool to solving that problem, Doran sees it as a crucial step in that direction: It helps as a tool to spread awareness at the Canadian and international level, pressuring the government to act. But, she added, it also provides an outlet for people who have been seeking some kind of recourse for years, with very few people willing to pay attention.
“We heard from people from Chile going to the Canadian embassy, hoping somebody would listen to them there, and were denied any kind of sympathy or even politeness,” she said. “So I think that for them, to have their case listened to and presented and analyzed by experts and also sent around the world... That's really very, very significant.”
As Canadian and international organizations push for reforms domestically, the fight continues on a daily basis for people like Campusano, who see their land under threat. He hopes that this tribunal helps drive home the message to Canadians that they need to look beyond what they hear from mining corporations and the Canadian government.
“Canadians can't put their faith in Barrick Gold,” he said. “We're not for sale, not looking for compensation. We may be economically poor, but they are spiritually poor."
“Which is worse?”