Intervenor: Vol 25. No 1 January - March 2000

Collective Memory: On The Ground Testimony Against Canadian Mining Practices Abroad

Over the past few years here at CELA we have chronicled how recklessly the present Ontario government has stripped away important environmental safeguards and regulatory capacity, including mining practices. However, Ontario is not the only jurisdiction having trouble with Canadian mining companies. A key component of our response to the power and impact of the mining industry has been to forge links within Canada and internationally. We actively collaborated with others to set up MiningWatch Canada and contribute a representative to the Board of Directors. We provide assistance and collaborate with groups in Latin America, including CooperAcción in Peru. (See Miguel Palacin's report below.)

Over the weekend of April 14-16, 2000, activists from around the world came to Ottawa for a Workshop called "On the Ground Research: Identifying the Research Needs of Communities Affected by Mining". The testimonials that follow outline the similarity of the experiences of people with Canadian mining companies wherever they encounter them and outline, in a very stark way, the need for a much better way to deal with the global reach of Canadian based mining companies.

Miguel Palecín, Cerro de Pasco, Peru

There is no mining in my community, but we have experienced the terrible impacts of mining. The mines are above 4,000 meters of altitude, in a place where two major rivers have their origin.

Until 1993, communal lands were an inalienable right. The state is promoting privatization of the communal lands to give individual land title.

In 1992, the company El Brocal began exploration on our lands, and carried out their work without authorization until 1996. The government passed a law that facilitated land access by mining companies. My community, which values its land rights, has resisted this. We have successfully defeated two attempts on the part of the company to achieve servidumbres [land grants for the purpose of mining]. We have attempted to dialogue with the company, but with poor success. I personally have been accused of kidnapping, and within three days of this accusation they had a warrant for my arrest.

There are 5,670 campesino communities in Peru, of which 3,200 are affected by mining claims. In 1992, there were 4 million hectares of mining concessions, but in 1999 this area had reached 22 million hectares. The mining concessions law is unconstitutional, as it violates guarantees to land rights. Mining has contaminated lakes. In Cerro de Pasco the open pit is in the middle of the city. In La Oroya, the smelter is located in the middle of the city. This smelter has been identified as one of the worst polluters in the world. In Tambogrande, mining exploration is taking place in the middle of the town.

There is no access to information on impacts. Environmental impact studies are not available. Lagoons have been drained. Benefits of the mining don't reach the localities. There is the imposition of a different culture: discotheques, bars, an increase in families headed by single mothers. Mining is entering areas previously not exposed to mining.

In November of 1998, with the support of CooperAcción [a Lima-based non-governmental organization], we gathered together 40 communities to analyse the problems posed by mining.

Judith David, Bartica, Esequibo River, Guyana

The Omai mine was built in 1992 and entered production in 1993. The agreement that was officially signed stipulated that there would be three tailings ponds; however, they started with only one. An expert said that it was bound to fail. This was known after the disastrous day of August, 1995, when 3.2 billion cubic litres of cyanide-contaminated water spilled. The government of Québec identified this as one of the worst gold mine disasters in history.

Nevertheless, Omai resumed operations six months later, and is still dumping small amounts of cyanide on a regular basis. People lost their livestock and their land was poisoned. The river is used by the people for domestic use, for transport, and for recreation. All of these uses have been impacted. People suffered and continue to suffer symptoms like vomiting, skin irritations, and some deaths. Workers at the mine have also suffered. Canadian doctors visit Guyana annually, and in their last report it was clearly stated that the water is highly contaminated with mercury and cyanide, and that this has entered the food chain. The people of my community were able to file a lawsuit in the courts, but this was dismissed by the Canadian court in Québec because they felt it was better heard in Guyana. This case was brought forward with the help of Canadian lawyers and the help of PIRA. The Québec pension fund became the number one shareholder.

Omai has not paid any settlements to communities, except for some individuals who have received the equivalent of $100 US. This was limited to the time that the area was officially declared a disaster area, and people cannot make further claims for damages to fisheries or other impacts. On March 28, 2000, a local judge dismissed a case against Cambior, the Canadian parent company, on technicalities, but there is still a case against Omai. We have demanded clean water sources and compensation. The river is used as the main source of transportation from the villages. In Guyana today, tourism is one of the priority areas, and Bartica is one of the areas with the greatest potential, but this spill will have a negative impact on tourism. There is also the biggest water sport in Bartica every Easter, and there is an impact on it since the spill.

Since the spill of August, 1995, the Guyana Research Environmental Network (Green) was established in March, 1999 as an environmental non-governmental organization by a group of environmental activists. The aims are to address the damage and to continue to raise awareness locally and internationally about the dangers posed by the use of multiple toxins on health and environment. Our action plan includes educating people about toxics everywhere in Guyana; monitoring industries and toxic producers to reduce contamination; bringing lawsuits against polluters and government agencies that fail to take action against polluters; and developing an industrial pollution prevention plan for Guyana.

Kevin O'Reilly, Yellowknife, Canada

There are two operating gold mines in Yellowknife, located on Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Giant Mine, operated by a series of owners over several decades, has been the source of particularly severe social and environmental impacts. There is high arsenic content in the ore, and in the early years of the mine, large quantities of arsenic were released into the air through the roasting process. Cattle were killed from arsenic contamination. The local First Nation people report that two children died as a result of drinking water melted from snow. There are still high arsenic concentrations in the soils of the area. In later years most of the arsenic was captured on site and included in material backfilled into abandoned shafts of the mine.

The owner of the mine in the 1990s, Royal Oak Mines, was a notoriously nasty operator. Five years ago there was a tragic strike at the mine. Royal Oak brought in "replacement workers", something that isn't often done in Canadian mine strikes. The community was bitterly divided; the divisions are still felt today. There was violence on the picket lines; nine miners died in a tragic explosion underground. In 1998 Royal Oak went bankrupt, and in a deal with the creditors the federal government assumed liability for the environmental problems at the Giant Mine site. Workers lost severance and pension funds to which they were entitled. Today, the vast stores of arsenic-contaminated waste underground at Giant represent a long-term environmental threat to Great Slave Lake, and no one really knows how to deal with the problem, or how much it will cost.

Dennie Frits Pryor, Nieuw Koffiekamp, Suriname

My village is called Nieuw [new] Koffiekamp because some of the people there have already been relocated once to make way for a hydro dam. The original community of Maroons, who are people who are descended from African slaves, was split into three, one part going to the capital, one part to another village and the third to Nieuw Koffiekamp. The people were told that they would have good new houses and electricity but the new houses were one room only and there were no economic activities in that area for the people. The people were not given any compensation for the move. As it turned out the new village was located on top of a rich gold deposit so the youngsters started to dig for gold.

The area attracted various mining companies, including Placer Dome, who dug holes for exploration, By 1992 Golden Star and Cambior came and stayed. Some villagers took some work with the mining companies but others opposed the proposed mine. As the project advanced the people lost ever more of their rights. Trenches made it impossible for people to go to their usual places. Later the company brought in security forces and police to stop the people from mining. The people do not have rights to the surface or the subsurface of the land they live on. There were confrontations between the security forces and the youth. At one point the people blocked a road but they gave up their blockade when they were told negotiations would start. But the people have not been able to negotiate the right to do small-scale mining. The companies' activities are moving ever closer to the village and are now up to the mountain where the village cemetery is located. The people can't go where they need to, to hunt and fish. They are being shot at when they go into areas that are off bounds now. The people have also been told that they will be relocated again in a few years to make room for the mine. As Cambior is weakened by financial troubles Golden Star is looking for a new partner.

Sixteen community representatives from around the world were at the MiningWatch Conference. Their complete testimonies, plus descriptions of how they are defending their communities from pollution caused by Canadian mining companies are collected in a booklet called, "Collective Memory".

The booklet can be ordered from MiningWatch Canada: 508 - 880 Wellington St. Ottawa ON K1R 6K7 ph: 613-569-3439

Ken Traynor is a researcher at CELA, and works on the International Programme