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April in Review

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Issue: 51 Section: Month in Review Geography: Earth, Canada

May 19, 2008

April in Review

Regional autonomy in South America, Goldcorp's social irresponsibility, global food prices

by Dominion Staff

No TV crews allowed, no reporters, no pictures are to be taken of the most infamous tailings pond on earth after a flock of 500 ducks landed -- and drowned -- in Syncrude toxic "tailing pond" (shown here), a vast lake more than four kilometres across. Tim Gray, corporate security adviser for Syncrude Canada, sent out a confidential e-mail memo to staff that says: "Although this is certainly a very sad incident, it is our responsibility to ensure that the best interests of Syncrude are maintained." Photo: Dru Oja Jay

"It is a terrible event. It is not going to do anybody's image any good," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said of hundreds of ducks that died after landing in a giant toxic lake built by tar sands extraction operations owned by Syncrude, near Fort McMurray. The Cree and Dene community of Fort Chipewyan, which lies downstream of the "tailing ponds" that line the Athabasca River, have reported abnormally high cancer rates in recent years. "Air cannons" are usually used to scare birds away, but Syncrude did not have the cannons in place when the birds landed.

Ducks Unlimited, an organization with the mandate, "conserving Canada's wetlands," was criticized for its silence over the massive duck die-off. Ducks Unlimited has accepted millions of dollars from major tar sands operators Suncor and Syncrude, and channels millions of dollars to Canadian environmental groups through the Canadian Boreal Initiative.

Another conservation organization, the Nature Conservancy, has also come under fire for accepting corporate money, this time from Shell Canada Limited. A Prince George forestry professor and former supporter of the organization sent a public letter criticizing the relationship, citing Shell's controversial coal bed methane projects near the headwaters of the Skeena river.

Activists could pose a serious threat to the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, a former RCMP security analyst told the Canadian Press. "There is some commonality of thinking here between anarchist groups, social activists groups... and then I see native groups," said Tom Quiggan. "When you see that kind of convergence coming up, it makes you a little nervous."

The book launch for Noir Canada: Pillage, corruption et criminalité en Afrique was cancelled when the authors and publishers (Édition Écosociété) received letters from a law firm representing Barrick Gold. The letters claim inaccuracies in the books account of an incident in Bulyanhulu, Tanzania, where more than 50 small scale miners were buried alive in 1996. Barrick Gold is suing for $6 million.

Authorities in the Guatemalan village of San Miguel Ixtahuacán voted to carry out a community referendum (consulta) about the operations of Vancouver-based Goldcorp in their territory. The neighbouring municipality of Sipakapa rejected mining almost unanimously in a community referendum in June of 2005. They also presented a denouncement of the company’s operations in their territory to the municipal government, focusing on the many houses that have cracked as a result of mine operations, the drying up of streams and wells, the increased violence in the municipality, intimidation and arrest of local authorities who are against mining, and water contamination.

Fernando Lugo, a former bishop, was elected president of Paraguay on April 20. Election day was relatively peaceful, but there were targeted assasinations of leftist leaders in the weeks leading up to the elections. Lugo’s victory marks the end of more than 60 years of governance by the right wing Colorado Party, a significant shift in the South American nation.

In a surprise reversal, Nepal's Maoists won a majority of the votes in national elections. The former guerillas, who laid down their weapons subsequent to a 2006 peace pact, have promised to abolish the Nepalese monarchy in the coming months.

The Venezuelan government announced plans to nationalize a major steel plant, which was privatized in 1997. Observers say the announcement could strain relations with Venezuela's ally, Argentina, as Argentinian conglomerate Techint is the plant's largest shareholder.

Some political leaders in Venezuela's oil-rich region of Zulia have begun a campaign for "autonomy." Legislators in the country's national government have called the move an attempt to destabilize the socialist government. Many politicians involved in the campaign have benefitted from millions in "aid" and "democracy promotion" funding that have poured into the country since Hugo Chavez was elected President in 1998.

Bolivia's resource-rich region of Santa Cruz has been making a similar move with the backing of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The agency has provided $13 million in funding to political parties, organizations and projects in Bolivia, most of it aimed at "reinforcing regional governments." The campaign has become a fight between the socialist national government and the wealthy region over control of resources. Politicians from Zulia cited Santa Cruz's campaign as inspiration for their own activities. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), as well as the Dutch Cooperation Agency have also supported the autonomous referendum in Santa Cruz. CIDA's support was part of a three million dollar "strengthening of democracy" grant made in 2005 to the National Electoral Court, funneled through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Tyendinaga organizer Shawn Brant was arrested and detained on assault and weapons charges on Friday, April 25. Living under strict conditions imposed when he was charged in 2007 in relation to community rail and highway blockades near Desaronto, Brant had a fishing spear in his hand when he ordered an unidentified group of men to leave a distressed group of women and a child alone near a site of recent blockades. Photo: uriohau.blogspot.com

Under intense pressure from Colombian military commanders to register combat kills, the army has been killing peasant farmers, dressing them in combat fatigues and calling in local newspaper reporters to write about the supposed combat that had taken place. Soldiers are given incentives -- extra pay and days off -- for amassing kills in combat. “This is because the army gives prizes for kills, not for control of territory,” said one soldier. Human rights groups say that between mid-2002 and mid-2007, 955 civilians were killed and classified as guerrillas fallen in combat. The spike has come during a military buildup that has seen the armed forces nearly double to 270,000 members in the last six years, becoming the second-largest military in Latin America. US Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, said he is holding up $23 million in military aid until he sees progress in the fight against impunity and state-sponsored violence. “We’ve had six years, $5 billion in US aid. More than half of it has gone to the Colombian military, and we find the army is killing more civilians, not less,” Leahy said in an interview.

The US congress also blocked the ratification of the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia over concerns with the human rights violations, violence against union organizers, and increasing paramilitary activity in the country. Canada is currently negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia. International Trade Minister David Emerson told Embassy Magazine: "There's a government in Colombia that's working hard trying to build a viable democracy and deal with human rights, and why not give them the economic opportunities to go with what can keep them out of poverty and off of businesses that may be linked to drug trades."

The US Navy announced that they will be reactivating the "Fourth Fleet." Disbanded in 1950, the reactivated Fleet will "oversee ships, aircraft, and submarines operating in the Caribbean and Central and South America," including a nuclear aircraft carrier, according to the New York Sun.

Global food prices continued to rise, putting pressure on the poorest populations dependent on the global economy for nourishment. Analysts explained that despite higher prices, a shortage of food is not the cause of the price increases. A Wall Street Journal report explained that "one of the chief causes of food-price inflation is new demand for ethanol and biodiesel, which can be made from corn, palm oil, sugar and other crops."

Price increases have provoked a new round of condemnations of World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) policies, which some analysts say have undermined poor countries' ability to feed themselves and exercise control over food policy. In Haiti, food riots have been traced to a 1986 IMF-imposed policy that lifted tariffs on rice, resulting in a flood of subsidized rice into the country from the US, putting most Haitian farmers out of business and rendering them dependent on foreign supplies.

Haiti’s senate fired Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis following seven days of “spectacular, and often violent,” protests against hunger, poverty, unemployment, and the high cost of living. Although prompted by the explosion of frustration from Haiti's poor, the Senate vote was chiefly led by members of Haiti's elite, particularly Youri Latortue, the nephew of former interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, who ruled Haiti in the two year's following the coup of elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. Youri Latortue is widely believed to have been linked to corruption, the drug trade, and the 1994 killing of Jean-Marie Vincent, a Catholic priest. Preceding the senate’s demand for the Prime Minister’s resignation, Haiti’s president Rene Preval, a former agronomist, spoke of the need to subsidize domestic farming instead of subsidizing imported products in Haiti. He then met with Haiti’s principle rice importers who agreed to reduce – with government subsidies – the price of a 50kg bag of rice from $51 to $43.

Dozens of groups, communities and organisations in more than 25 countries around the world organized more than 50 actions such as farmer's markets, conferences, direct actions, cultural activities and demonstrations to defend their right to food and their right to feed their communities. These actions marked April 19, International Peasants Day, a commemoration of the 19 landless demonstrators killed by military police of the State of Pará in Brazil in 1996. Often marginalised, impoverished and oppressed, farmers and rural populations represent almost half of the people on earth. Farmers organisations believe that sustainable family farming and local food production can solve the current crisis.

The number of refugees waiting to have their claims heard by Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board has more than doubled, to 42,300 from just over 20,000. The Board's chairman told the Canadian Press that the Conservative government has not been filling vacant adjudicator positions. The number of empty positions has increased from 10 to 58 since the Conservatives took power. The Liberal immigration critic told reporters that he suspects the government is trying to sabotage the board in order to impose a "more restrictive" system.

Conservatives have recently said that the immigration system is "on track to collapse," Immigration Minister Diane Finley told the House of Commons. The Conservatives have introduced a new set of changes to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, embedded in Bill C-50, a 136-page "budget implementation bill." The changes would give the immigration minister the authority to arbitrarily reject applications, and set quotas on the number of immigrants allowed from a particular ethnic group or country.

Mohawk demonstrators from Tyendinega blockaded a road near Deseronto, Ontario in opposition to a housing development on disputed territory. The Culbertson Tract is an area the federal government has acknowledged is unsurrendered Mohawk land, but development has been allowed to continue. Mohawks have occupied a quarry, which they point out is literally removing Mohawk land at a rate of 20,000 tonnes per day. The latest blockade opposed a housing development that began in the area, despite ongoing negotiations over land rights. Three men, including Shawn Brant, were arrested during a show of force by the Ontario Provincial Police.

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers voted in favour of a resolution supporting an ongoing boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign aimed at ending Israel's policies with regard to the occupation of Palestinian land. "It's time to push for a fair and just settlement so that both Palestinians and Israelis can live in peace," Denis Lemelin, the union's president, told reporters. "There can't be a solution while settlements exist on Palestinian land and while a security barrier restricts the movement of Palestinian workers." The union represents more than 50,000 postal workers in Canada.

One year into the strike at the French-language daily Journal de Québec, negotiations remained at a standstill. On strike over a proposed extension of working hours and additional duties, the reporters have been operating their own free newspaper, MédiaMatinQuébec.

Members of the Lubicon Cree Nation delivered a statement opposing unilateral approval of construction of a natural gas pipeline accross their territory. After the statement was delivered, the Lubicon representatives and their supporters walked out of the Alberta Utilities Board (AUB) hearing. The AUB, said Lubicon representatives, "does not have legitimate authority in unceded Lubicon Territory" and "the Lubicon people will oppose [the proposed pipeline] every inch of the way, every way we can."

Due to criticism regarding the environmental and human rights impacts of its mining operations in Guatemala and Honduras, Goldcorp Inc. agreed to conduct an independent Human Rights Impact Assessment at the request of its Canadian and Swedish shareholders. Jantzi Research, an independent investment research firm that evaluates and monitors the social and environmental performance of securities, recommended that Goldcorp be considered ineligible for socially responsible investment (SRI) portfolios that seek to avoid companies with relatively poor records in the areas of community and aboriginal relations and environment.

April 25 2008 was the first ever World Malaria Day. Malaria is one of the most common infectious diseases; each year, there are approximately 515 million cases of malaria, killing between one and three million people. One child dies of the disease every 30 seconds, most of them in Sub-Saharan Africa. Malaria parasites are transmitted by female Anopheles mosquitoes. No vaccine exists for malaria, and existing drug treatments are often too expensive for people living in endemic areas. Malaria breeds poverty and underdevelopment in regions of the world where it is most prevalent, contributing to issues such as illegal migration and security.

US President George W. Bush declared that he knew his top national security advisers discussed and approved specific details of the CIA's use of torture. Bush reportedly told ABC, "I'm aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved." Top advisers signed off on how the CIA would interrogate Al Qaeda suspects -- whether they would be slapped, pushed, deprived of sleep or subjected to simulated drowning, called waterboarding, sources told ABC news. This is the first time sources have disclosed that a handful of the most senior advisers in the White House explicitly approved the details of the program. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is calling on Congress to demand an independent prosecutor to investigate possible violations by the Bush administration of laws including the War Crimes Act, the federal Anti-Torture Act, and federal assault laws. Said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU, "It is a very sad day when the president of the United States subverts the Constitution, the rule of law, and American values of justice." Darius Rejali, an expert on the history of torture, told Democracy Now! "Torture is actually the clumsiest method that one could possibly use…to gather information."

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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