Mining Through Roots

In the highlands of Papua New Guinea, several villages rest on a man-made island literally surrounded by an open pit gold mine and its expanding waste dumps. As the waste dumps have grown, they’ve devoured homes, schools, and most of the areas once used for gardening, making the indigenous population rely on money to acquire food while crowding them into increasingly squashed living quarters. At the same time, these same communities – the original landowners of the mine site – are criminalized for what the company calls “illegal mining,” a practice of panning for gold that the local community considers its birthright.

This so-called illegal mining is used by the company as a pretext for detentions, killings, and even the burning down of an entire hillside of homes*. Meanwhile, public funds are diverted from schools and hospitals to deal with “law and order” issues and the construction of a multi-million dollar fence to surround the mine site.

This scenario – the protection of the have’s from the have-not’s by a process of criminalization, militarization and the construction of walls – is an all-too-familiar response to the social issues created by global capitalism and colonization. Immigration policies criminalize people, militarize borders, and separate communities along boundaries set up to trap people in an economic reality that conspires against them. Meanwhile, the developed nations that aggressively protect their borders against new entrants have created a global economic and military system that forces people out of rural areas that are then used by large industry to extract resources, be they cash crops, minerals, lumber, oil and gas, or the industrial infrastructure needed to produce and export these goods (such as dams, highways, and pipelines). This rural to urban migration turns cities into sweatshops with expendable labor and the corresponding rights, leaving few options for the dispossessed. Labor exploitation becomes codified inTemporary Foreign Worker Programs, where developed countries attempt to receive maximum benefit from the desperation of the world’s impoverished.

In Papua New Guinea, approximately 5000 adults** live within the Special Mining Lease area of Barrick Gold’s Porgera mine. They are desperately seeking resettlement into another area that could provide them with the means to live the subsistence lifestyle that remains the livelihood of 75% of the country. Their requests have been denied by the company, which prefers to offer individual cash payments to villagers as their homes fall victim to waste-related landslides and police-instigated arson.

They are not alone. According to the Sustainable Development Sourcebook for the World Bank Group’s Extractive Industry Review, more than 10 million people are involuntarily displaced every year to make room for development projects***. Worse, these development refugees are not adequately compensated for their forced removal. The World Bank Group’s review of involuntary resettlement in WBG-assisted projects between 1986 and 1993 found that only one project had satisfactorily compensated and rehabilitated affected people.

Besides the direct impact of development projects on migration, World Bank-promoted privatization schemes which convert collectively-held or untitled “state” land into individual land titles lead to the consolidation of land ownership by locking farmers into a path of debt and land-loss. This trend has been observed in many countries, from Latin American countries like Mexicoand Honduras to South East Asian countries like Thailand and Cambodia, which did not have privately held land until 1989. Additionally, many countries, such as Canada, have mining rights that supersede property rights such that the state reserves the right to usurp land if it can be used for mineral development.

Despite evidence that land privatization leads to land consolidation and increased social stratification, the lead advocate of these policies, Hernando de Soto, is hailed as the “Poor Man’s Capitalist.” De Soto argues that land titles pave the way out of poverty for poor people, as it gives them access to capital through loans. His stated analysis fails to recognize that this process also leads to land-loss, because the capital accessed through property titles necessarily puts land ownership at risk, especially when domestic markets are opened to cheap imports.

De Soto’s simplistic analysis and dangerous oversight seem disingenuous when viewed in combination with his former post as the president of the Executive Committee of the Intergovernmental Council of Copper Exporting Countries. Additionally, his ideas are promoted by mining industry magnates such as Peter Munk, the chairman and founder of Barrick Gold, who benefit from policies that facilitate privatization and dispossession. In particular, Barrick’s claim to land on and near the Pascua Lama project on the border of Chile and Argentina relies on a series of fraudulent land claims to collectively held- Diaguita Huascoaltinos land. Additionally, Barrick’s manipulation of Native Title at their Lake Cowal mine in New South Wales, Australia has led to the desecration of a Wiradjuri Sacred site and important wetland.

While large-scale mining operations directly displace people from their land and livelihoods all over the world, the environmental havoc caused by mining operations further pollute and deplete soil and water sources, robbing the land of its ability to sustain life. Approvals for such projects typically occur on a national level, with minimal consultation of impacted communities and minimal infrastructure provided to combat the negative social and environmental impacts that these operations bring.

Canada’s Dirty Secret is Only a Secret to Canadians

In 2003, the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxic Waste and Products had made special note of Canadian corporate behavior and lack of accountability. The report also noted that illicit movement and dumping of toxic and dangerous products and wastes by Canadian corporations had adversely impacted human rights. The rapporteur recommended “that particular attention is paid to allegations relating to threats to the traditional lifestyles and rights of indigenous groups” and called on “the Canadian and other Governments to explore ways of establishing extraterritorial jurisdiction over human rights violations, committed by companies operating abroad.“

Since then, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) joined the chorus condemning the Canadian mining Industry. It called on Canada in 2007 to better regulate and monitor its mining corporations abroad when they are operating on indigenous lands.

According to a Harper government-issued report entitled “Building the Canadian Advantage: A Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Strategy for the Canadian International Extractive Sector,” 75 per cent of the world’s mining and exploration companies are headquartered in Canada. This report rejected of previous attempts to create corporate accountability in Canada’s mining industry and offered no tools for redressing the abuses of Canadian industry abroad. Instead, it offered more subsidies to Canadian mining companies under the banner of CSR.

In reaction to this dismal response to calls for corporate accountability, Liberal John McKay has introduced private members bill C300 to introduce consequences to corporations that abuse human rights abroad. This bill – while a positive step forward in holding corporations to account – exposes the degree to which the Canadian government supports and promotes its mining industry abroad. This is because this bill merely withholds governments funds and diplomatic support for companies found – following a government investigation – to be abusing human rights. Government support (including billions worth in CPP investments) accounts for a large force in financing and promoting mining projects abroad, and the mining companies are fighting hard to maintain this relationship. But as awareness of these projects continues to grow, so does the awareness of Canada as a player in a global system of exploitation, displacement, and long-term environmental devastation.

These combined insights challenge us to abandon the charitable posturing that often accompanies debates around immigration, as they force us to recognize our own part in these systems of exploitation. In order to really address the impacts of global poverty, we must remove our support for the mechanisms which create it.

SAKURA SAUNDERS is the editor of ProtestBarrick.net. She can be reached at: sakura.saunders@gmail.com


* Between April and July 2009, police officers in Papua New Guinea – based on situation reports presented by Barrick Gold – illegally and forcibly evicted people from their homes and then proceeded to burn down a hillside of homes. When the villagers – original landowners from that area – rebuilt their homes, the police burnt them down again in June and then again in July. Locals allege that the company burnt down the homes to make way for mine expansion.

** This figure is according to estimates from the Porgera Landowners Association, who only surveyed the adults in the area.

*** This figure includes displaced people from non-World Bank funded projects. The Sourcebook was authored by Robert Goodland, who served the WBG as chief environmental adviser in Washington, D.C. for twenty-five years, during which time he wrote – and persuaded the WBG to adopt – most of its social and environmental safeguard policies.




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