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San Cristobal de Las Casas, MEXICO—The mood was celebratory the weekend of August 29, 2009.
Activist and community leader Mariano Abarca Roblero had just been released after eight days in jail for alleged anti-mining activity.
In the town of Chicomuselo, near the Guatemalan border, people gathered for a weekend conference organized by the Mexican Network of People Affected by Mining (REMA) to discuss the effects of mining and how best to oppose local projects. Besides helping organize the event, Mariano—who had been fighting against a barite mine near his home operated by Canadian company Blackfire Exploration Ltd.—was treated like the guest of honour.
As the weekend came to a close, Mariano’s four adult children and his wife gathered around him as people attending the conference asked to have their photos taken with him. He was a hero for having survived several days in jail for his anti-mining stance. On top of everything, he said he was as determined as ever to keep fighting.
But less than three months later, Mariano was dead, shot in the neck and chest outside his home in Chicomuselo.
Three people arrested in connection with the murder all have ties to Blackfire as current or former employees. Blackfire has said they had nothing to do with the killing and they have no control over their employees outside of work hours.
Mariano’s death came after he had reported death threats by Blackfire employees to the police.
“A few weeks after my father made a report against [two Blackfire employees] one of them came to the house and said he was going kill my father,” Mariano’s son Jose Luis said.
“They completed their objective. At 8 p.m. that same day I got the news that my father was dead.”
Sadly, Mariano’s death is but one in a spate of recent killings in Mexico and Central America that have targeted locals who were known for their opposition to mining projects in their communities.
As Bill C-300—proposed legislation that would hold Canadian mining companies more accountable for their activities in developing countries—is debated back home, the practices of Canadian mining companies are yet again being questioned.
“The image that the [Mexican] population has of Canadian mines is that they’re murderers, and that’s throughout the region,” said Gustavo Castro, a close friend and colleague of Mariano’s who works for Chiapas NGO Otros Mundos.
“People have seen lives lost, dead livestock, waterways contaminated—that’s what they’ve seen of Canadian mining… And there’s a resistance movement that’s getting stronger all the time.”
It’s not that Canadian mines are necessarily worse than the mines of other countries—it’s that there are so many more of them.
“The Americans and the Brits and the Chinese and the Australians are no better, and if anything some are worse,” said Jamie Kneen, Communications Coordinator for MiningWatch Canada. “But because Canada is so dominant in the industry the odds are that if there’s a problem it’s going to be a Canadian one.”
There’s no doubt Canada is a global leader when it comes to the mining industry. According to an article written by Michel Bourassa, coordinator of the Global Mining Group at law firm Fasken Martineau, “As of 2008, over three quarters of the world’s exploration and mining companies called Canada home.” Extractive industries account for five per cent of Canada’s GDP.
A recent report released by the Latin American Observatory for Environmental Conflicts stated there are currently 118 mining conflicts in 15 countries in Latin America. By my own count, a total of 33, or 28 per cent, involve Canadian mining companies.
Kneen believes the increased violence is partly due to the mining industry's push into "more remote and sensitive areas."
“The more they have to go off into new places the more they are running into conflict, and the conflict turns deadly sometimes.”
El Salvador has seen the worst death toll with three activists killed. Each was opposed to Pacific Rim’s proposed El Dorado mine.
In an October interview, Pacific Rim CEO Tom Shrake denied the company had anything to do with anti-mining activist Marcelo Rivera’s murder in June. In a follow-up email interview in January, he said the same with regards to anti-mining activists Ramiro Rivera and Dora Sorto’s murders, accusing the media of pointing to the mining issue with no factual basis.
“These most recent murders are in the area of our now inactive Santa Rita Project, not El Dorado,” Shrake said. “They have been reported by the police to be related to a family feud. We have no presence in the area and have not since 2008. There are no mining or exploration activities in the area. Hooded armed gunmen who—according to the locals in the area—came from another town ran us off the site. Certain outlets continue to point to the mining issue as the motivation for the murders, without factual basis. We would hope they are not purposely using this feud as a tool to generate opposition and worse yet, violence.”
However activists on the ground say the violence is being generated by Pacific Rim’s presence.
“We think there’s a link between the company and the violence in our country associated with this struggle [against mining]” Roberto Calles of the Mesa Nacional frente a la Mineria Metálica said.
“The company had pitted communities and people against one another,” Calles said, noting deep divisions exist between family members who are for and against the mine. Calles said local politicians have received benefits from mining companies in exchange for their support and have been known to turn against their anti-mining constituents, generating more conflict.
“Even if the company is not directly killing people, the result is related to them and their actions,” he said.
In Guatemala, a country that has a long history of struggle against Canadian mines, two lives were lost in mining related violence in September 2009. Kneen said he’s heard of travellers in Guatemala being warned not to identify themselves as Canadian for fear of being attacked.
According to Uriel Abarca Roblero, brother of murdered Mexican anti-mining activist Mariano Abarca Roblero, Canadians are getting a tarnished reputation in Chiapas as well.
“The people of Chicomuselo [near where the mine is], the newspapers, the family… all say Canadians—not the company—are the murderers because they came from another country and killed us,” he said. “That’s what everyone thinks. I know it’s not true but people really feel that way.”
Blackfire admitted they paid off the mayor to control opposition in Chicomuselo. These recent admissions of corruption have done nothing to quell people’s anger.
The government authorities in Chiapas shut down the Blackfire mine near Chicomuselo in early December, citing environmental concerns. Mariano’s son Jose Luis wants the company gone altogether.
“We don’t want that company in our town, in Chiapas, or in our country. They have divided us, threatened us, damaged the environment and brought nothing but tragedy to our community.”
* Anti-Mining Activists Murdered
The following is a list of people who have died in mining related conflict in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador since June 2009.
· Marcelo Rivera—El Salvador—opposed the El Dorado mining project headed by Canadian firm Pacific Rim. Tortured and killed. Disappeared June 18, 2009, body was found 12 days later.
· Adolfo Ich—Guatemala—opposed HudBay nickel mining project. Allegedly shot by security guards hired by the mine on September 27, 2009.
· Martin Choc—Guatemala—shot and killed when men opened fire on a minivan he was traveling in September 28, 2009.
· Mariano Abarca Roblero—Mexico—opposed mine operated by Canadian firm Blackfire. Shot outside his home on November 27, 2009.
· Ramiro Rivera Gomez—El Salvador—opposed the El Dorado mining project. Despite 24 hour police protection shot and killed when the car he was driving in was ambushed, December 20, 2009.
· Dora Alicia Sorto Recinos—El Salvador—opposed El Dorado and was the wife of a man who had lost two fingers due to opposition to the mine. Murdered while eight months pregnant, December 26, 2009.
** Bill C-300, the Conservatives and Corporate Responsibility
Liberal MP John McKay introduced Bill C-300, also known as An Act Respecting Corporate Accountability for Mining, Oil and Gas Corporations in Developing Countries, to the House of Commons in February 2009.
The Bill seeks to “promote responsible environmental practices and international human rights standards on the part of Canadian mining, oil and gas corporations in developing countries.” It proposes to do this by withholding taxpayer and political support and creating a complaints mechanism with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Companies that have received investment from government pension funds could see that funding withdrawn if it is proven they are violating international standards for corporate accountability.
Bill C-300 would not affect all mining companies. Blackfire Mining Exploration—the firm implicated in the murder of Mariano Abarca Roblero—would likely not be affected because it is private. But public companies like Goldcorp, which has stakes in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras “would have a lot to lose politically and financially,” according to MiningWatch’s Jamie Kneen.
While Bill C-300 has received widespread support from Canadian NGOs, the mining industry has predictably denounced the Bill. The Conservative government is also against the Bill, with Minister Peter Kent calling it a “poorly written piece of legislation which addresses some issues that are already part and parcel of our government’s policies abroad.”
Bill C-300 has been on shaky ground since it was first introduced and getting it through the Conservative-heavy Senate will be extremely difficult. The Bill barely made it to 2nd reading in April 2009, squeaking through with a vote of 137 to 133. It had most recently been debated in Committee hearings, with various interest groups presenting briefs before the Christmas break.
Surprisingly, according to John McKay, Stephen Harper’s decision to prorogue Parliament may actually prove to be an advantage for the Bill.
“With proroguing we have an extra 60 days to study the Bill,” he said, adding that he’s not “overly fussed” about having the extra time.
A Facebook group for supporters of Bill C-300 has been created and McKay suggests those who support the Bill contact local Conservative MPs to express their support.
“Just make the lives of Conservative MPs as hard as possible. That seems to be about the only thing that works,” he said.
Dominique Jarry-Shore is a freelance journalist based in Chiapas, Mexico. This work was carried out with the aid of a grant from the International Development Research Center in Ottawa.
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.