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VANCOUVER—It’s no secret that Canadian mining companies are fanned out around the world. Conflicts linked to large-scale mining projects have come to the fore as some of the most intense social and environmental struggles in this hemisphere and beyond. But well outside of the headlines, another industry, one that purports to link Indigenous people internationally in order to benefit from resource extraction, has slowly taken off.
Whether or not they are upfront about their connections to mining companies, Canadians with labyrinthine corporate, consulting and Indigenous affiliations have been paying unexpected visits to Indigenous communities throughout the Americas. A closer look at an example of this intervention reveals how their promotion of the Canadian mining industry in impoverished communities undermines local struggles to protect territory and exacerbates conflict.
In Panama, Vancouver-based Corriente Resources began promoting the Cerro Colorado copper deposit in recognized Ngabe-Bugle territory three years ago, even though the company never secured permits from the government. In February 2011, Law 8 was passed, revising the 1963 mining code to allow direct foreign investment in mining concessions. Together with a proposed hydro-electric dam, mining interests at play even before the legislation changes were at the heart of intense protests and repression. The government repealed Law 8 in March 2011, but protests demanding a definitive ban on mining in Ngabe-Bugle territory continued.
Two Indigenous protesters were killed on February 5, 2012 when police opened fire on highway blockade actions taken to defend the Comarca’s land and resources. On March 21, after an agreement between the government and the elected Ngabe-Bugle leadership, the National Assembly of Panama passed Special Law 415, prohibiting mining concessions and development in the Ngabe-Bugle territory, and requiring consent for hydro-electric development.
The Ngabe-Bugle Comarca—a State-recognized territory with some degree of political autonomy—was established by the Panamanian government in 1997, in large part due to political pressure from the Ngabe and Bugle peoples seeking political autonomy and control over lands threatened by resource exploitation. With the largest Indigenous population in the country, the level of poverty in the Ngabe-Bugle Comarca is among the highest in the country. Since the Panamanian government did not cede subsoil or water rights as part of the agreement, struggles to protect the territory, subsistence agriculture and traditional culture are ongoing.
While Corriente is only one of many threats, the company's presence has involved much more than mine exploration: Canadian Don Clarke has been active in the Comarca. Clarke is a member of the Black River First Nation, head of a consulting company, Kokopelli, and was previously a community relations representative of Ecuacorriente, a Corriente subsidiary in Ecuador. During his time in Ecuador, Clarke was involved at the inception of a small pro-mining Indigenous Shuar federation led by a man who was expelled from other Indigenous organizations and confederations, according to a report by MiningWatch Canada.
In western Panama, the Jadran Nigwe Nirien Ngwaire Ngobe Association appeared around the same time Clarke was first reported to be promoting mining in the Comarca. Jadran claims to represent the majority of the Ngobe communities. According to the association, communities want a 50 per cent stake in the Cerro Colorado deposit so that, in the event of its sale to a mining corporation, the money can be used to finance community development. At the same time, Jadran insisted that it was not necessarily in favour of mining; the association claimed that its objective of a 50 per cent stake in the deposit’s ownership did not entail support for mining activities in the Comarca.
Jadran has denounced organizations opposing mining as unrepresentative foreign-influenced groups. In a letter to the editor published by the Panama America newspaper last December, Jadran president Adriana Sandoya called on the government to reject the claims and demands of organizations opposing mining in Ngabe-Bugle territory. “Our association rejects the so-called ‘Special Law’ promoted by the so-called ‘Coordinadora,’ [for the Defense of Natural Resources and the Rights of the Ngabe-Bugle and Peasant Farmers] which represents no one, was never elected by anyone, and that only seeks to propagate and increase the existing levels of poverty in our Comarca,” she wrote.
Despite Sandoya and Jadran’s claims that the association speaks for thousands of local residents in the Ngabe-Bugle Comarca, its own membership process is questionable. In early 2011, a post on Jadran’s website explained how to become a member: “If you want to be a member of Jadran and join our struggle, you only have to sign our membership book during our meetings and it’s done!”
This process allows the organization to unilaterally enroll members without their explicit consent, mirroring a practice common among mining companies, which often claim consultation with, and support from, anyone signing an attendance list.
In February of 2011, Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli signed a decree to halt speculation over mining activities in the Ngabe-Bugle Comarca. The Government of Panama subsequently issued a public statement that gave foreigners involved in promoting activities relating to mining in Ngabe-Bugle territory a deadline of two weeks to leave the jurisdiction of the Comarca.
According to widespread reports in the Panamanian press, the primary reason for the measure was the persistence of Kokopelli, Clarke and Chilean associate Loreto Cubillos in promoting mining in the region.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an individual working with Corriente Resources told The Dominion that Clarke held a position with the company five or six years ago in Ecuador, but has not since been employed by Corriente or any of its subsidiaries. He later had a contract with the company to work in Panama, but both the contract and all company activities in Panama were terminated when the company was taken over by a subsidiary of a Chinese consortium in 2010. According to the Corriente source, however, Clarke may well be working with other mining companies in Panama. While none were specified, Canadian corporations Petaquilla Gold and Inmet are both active in the country.
"We're seeing that a lot of these companies don't have the understanding and the experience to understand the local communities and of course you're seeing a lot of conflict," Don Clarke told the CBC in 2007. At the time, Clarke was pitching the idea that First Nations could sell their expertise on managing conflicts over natural resources to the Southern Chiefs Organization and Manitoba Keewatinook Ininew Okimowin. "We see a real business opportunity for our First Nations people to capitalize on the knowledge that we have and the experiences," he told the CBC.
The same CBC article identifies Clarke as “an adviser to the mining committee of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce” in Ecuador. But Clarke's titles were many: adviser of International Affairs, Southern Chiefs Organization; Clarke Educational Services; and Black River First Nation. This chameleonic identification allows for the obfuscation of ties to industry when it is advantageous.
In Panama, it would appear that Clarke's presence instigated activity by a small vocal group advocating for involvement in a mining concession and criticizing opponents, something that was not achieved through his interactions with the Diaguita council in northern Chile.
Sergio Campusano, President of the Diaguita Huascoaltino Indigenous and Agricultural Community in northern Chile, has a clear memory of Clarke.
Campusano’s community council has long been an outspoken opponent of Canadian mining projects in their territory. In 2005, at beginning of organized Diaguita opposition to Barrick Gold’s planned Pascua Lama gold mega-project, the community was approached by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC).
“What happened is that at that time, it was the first time we were faced with a project of that scope,” said Campusano. “They said that in Canada, Indigenous Peoples had good agreements with the companies in their territories—they received up to 50 per cent of the production profits, that they were given university [education], that thanks to the money they had houses, had work,” Campusano told The Dominion this June.
The Diaguita Huascoaltino community was opposed to Barrick Gold’s Pascua Lama project, but open to learning more about the proposal and weighing their options.
After Campusano and the directive council met with AMC representatives—including political advisor Don Clarke—in Vina del Mar, Chile, they researched his claims with the help of a Chilean Indigenous rights group. Campusano said that try as they might, they could not find an example of an Indigenous community in Canada receiving any more than four per cent of the production profits, plus some education and other benefits. Clarke, Campusano and others met again in Santiago to discuss cultural and other exchanges, and an International Agreement of Indigenous Co-operation on January 19, 2006.
Six days later, the AMC assembly passed a resolution to establish an International Relations Committee of Chiefs. The AMC resolution focused on trade and cultural relationships in broad terms, but on the ground it became apparent that they were seeking to intercede in negotiations with Barrick Gold.
“The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, through then [Grand] Chief Ron Evans, said that they could achieve much more than that, but only as long as we gave them the mandate to negotiate for us, because they had experience getting more money, more profits for the benefit of the community,” Campusano told The Dominion, adding that the mandate sought by the AMC for negotiations with Barrick Gold was a sort of power of attorney. “It was as legally authorized representatives.”
The Diaguita Huascoaltino leaders took each proposal back to their own bi-annual community assemblies, which chose to negate the right of the AMC to negotiate or act on their behalf. The communities did request a visit by Ron Evans, which was accepted by the AMC.
“He said he was going to go. We prepared a massive ceremony. We made a tremendous schedule. And only Don Clarke shows up,” said Campusano. The Diaguita Huascoaltino authorities informed the AMC that without a visit by Ron Evans and clarification as to connections to Barrick Gold, the co-operation agreement was null and void.
“I have documents where the famous Don Clarke wrote to me and every time he wrote these emails to the institutional Huascoaltino email, there would be copies sent to three high-ranking Barrick Gold representatives,” said Campusano. According to documents obtained by The Dominion, copies of an update were sent by Clarke to Barrick Gold VP of Operations Kelvin Dushinisky and Barrick South America Director of Community Relations Rod Jimenez.
“So that was when I realized that this mining company was behind it,” said Campusano.
Clarke's involvement in Chile is far from the exception to the rule. Not only is he just one among several similar consultants for hire, but mining companies are also not the only financiers of Indigenous partnerships in the mining sector.
The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has also been involved in the Indigenous promotion of mining activities over the past two decades. One project under CIDA’s ongoing Indigenous Peoples Partnership Program (IPPP) was a “Mining Sector–Indigenous Capacity Building” project in Guyana, Colombia and Suriname from 2007 to 2011, to “[enable] two-way learning between Canadian Indigenous peoples and Indigenous partners in Latin American and the Caribbean regarding interactions with mining companies and governments,” according to CIDA’s project description.
“The initiatives supported by the IPPP were conceived both by indigenous organizations in the Latin American and Caribbean region and their Canadian Aboriginal partners,” wrote CIDA media relations representative Katherine Heath-Eves in an email to The Dominion.
But closer examination shows the initial project documents were not developed by Indigenous organizations in either Latin America or in Canada. They were instead developed by a consultant who frequently works for Canadian mining corporations.
Although not Indigenous himself, the founder and president of Canadian consulting company Wayne Dunn & Associates has often worked in Indigenous communities through contracts in dozens of countries around the world over the past 20 years. His clients include government agencies, extractive industry corporations and other sectors.
“I actually had the contract to develop the initial documents for the Indigenous Peoples Partnership Program for CIDA,” Dunn told The Dominion in a telephone interview from California.
Aware of some of his prior work in Canada regarding Indigenous business partnerships, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) asked him to submit a proposal for a project under the auspices of the UN’s International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People, 1995-2004. “So I made them a proposal and next thing I know I was mission leader on this seven-country mission that started this whole Inter-Indigenous Partnerships thing,” said Dunn.
What began as a 1994 UNDP scoping mission for Indigenous-to-Indigenous business and trade opportunities in Central America soon became a larger project for Apikan Indigenous Network, Dunn’s consulting company at the time, with funding from CIDA, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and several other agencies. In fact, Dunn accompanied Jean Chretien on his first Prime Ministerial Trade Mission to Latin America in January 1995, shortly after the initial scoping mission.
At the same time, the Canadian government began involving Indigenous individuals and particularly First Nations band council Chiefs in its trade, business and investment promotion visits and activities in Latin America.
Proposed mines continue to spring up around the world and governments, corporations and non-governmental organizations are increasingly focusing their attention on Corporate Social Responsibility. The forecast for the niche market of extractive sector consultants seeking "social license" in Indigenous territories has never been brighter.
“Businesses—especially extractive sector businesses—need to be able to work effectively with local people and communities. And I think, you know, participation in the Trade Mission is able to talk about how some Canadian companies have been able to do that,” said Dunn. “We see [a] broader group of Canadian Indigenous Peoples involved internationally than we did, you know, 15 years ago. We see more individual First Nations and Indigenous businesses directly involved than we did then.”
In the context of questions about how Indigenous communities are approached where there is conflict or opposition regarding a proposed mining project, Dunn emphasized the importance of companies focusing getting a return on their “social license investment” just as they would on other things.
“My role is to help [companies] to find ways that they can produce more local benefits for less costs, or that they can get a better return on what they're investing in. I find often when I go into a project that...companies can be investing a lot of money in trying to do it, but they're just not strategic about it,” he told The Dominion. “We've developed some pretty sophisticated and successful frameworks and strategies around that.”
In Panama and throughout the Americas, consulting company strategies and the involvement of Indigenous individuals acting on behalf of Canadian mining interests continues. Whether this will be enough to overcome the increasingly militant opposition to multi-national mining ventures remains to be seen.
Sandra Cuffe is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist who has way too much fun doing research.
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.