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Mine over Matter

Canada’s mining interests blind it to atrocities in Latin America

For Ana Ruzo, life pre-Covid-19 pandemic was already one of uncertain death tolls. Before the virus confined Chileans to their homes, the filmmaker and photographer took to Santiago’s streets for months alongside more than a million others throughout the rest of the country to protest against rampant inequality, demonstrations that were initially sparked by a rise in subway fare in October 2019. “I have images in my brain that I will not be able to forget easily,” she said of the state repression that followed  the protests. “I saw people who had lost their eye and many people bleeding.”

Ruzo recounted the difficulty of witnessing the violence: “It was hard to come home after seeing that knowing that [some] . . . of those people [in the streets] were not going to be there tomorrow.”

“I would describe it as an experience of absolute war,” she added. “Absolutely.”

Chile’s neighbor to the north, Bolivia, was experiencing a crisis of its own around the same time, following the takeover of Bolivia’s presidency by Jeanine Áñez, an opposition lawmaker, after South America’s first Indigenous president, Evo Morales, was pressured to resign following a disputed election in late October 2019. Thomas Becker, from the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law, was then on the frontlines. He also described Bolivia’s situation under the new interim government as akin to war. “It smelled like death and suffering,” he said, describing the aftermath of the Sacaba massacre, one of two massacres since Áñez’s takeover, in which at least eight people were killed after state forces allegedly fired at a group of largely Indigenous protesters. “I’ve worked in war zones . . . and it reminded me more of a war zone than a country during a democratic period.”

“I would describe it as an experience of absolute war.”

The lawyer, who helped bring the case against former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and former Defense Minister José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín for a similar massacre of Indigenous protesters in 2003, recalled his visit to a nearby hospital following the massacre in Sacaba. He saw the body of one man whose head had “quite literally . . . exploded from a bullet.” He spoke to another man there who had hid in a home until the military “basically broke down the door.” The man began suffocating from the gas officers had thrown, but “didn’t leave because he was too frightened that he’d get killed or disappeared outside,” Becker said. The officers were beating the other people in the house, the man told Becker, yelling anti-Indigenous slurs.

A lot of people in Bolivia, Becker explained, are calling Áñez’s government dicta-suave, or “dictatorship-light.” There is fear the coronavirus pandemic is bolstering its aggression.

The international response to these ongoing crises has been varied. Canada has taken a more proactive approach towards Latin America under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But beyond condemning “election irregularities in Bolivia,” the government issued no statements about state repression in either country apart from travel advisories for Canadian citizens, despite mounting evidence of human rights violations from the UN and international organizations. Instead, it agreed to work with Áñez, and has maintained its ties with Chile. The role of Canadian mining—and the way it informs how Canada chooses to form or keep allies—may explain its approach to the region.

There is a considerable link between Canadian mining and Canadian foreign policy. According to lobbying records obtained by the Justice and Corporate Accountability Project (JCAP), a partnership of two Canadian law schools that advocates on behalf of communities affected by resource extraction (particularly Indigenous communities), mining industry officials wage powerful and persistent lobbying campaigns aimed at the Canadian government. Many of these contacts include those part of Global Affairs Canada, the country’s foreign affairs department, and Natural Resources Canada, the governmental department of which Canada’s mining industry is a part.

Furthermore, Canada dominates this industry: the majority of mining companies in the world have their headquarters in Canada, while 41 percent of the large mining companies in Latin America are Canadian, according to JCAP. These companies have also been mired in controversies in recent years. A landmark report JCAP published in 2016 found that twenty-eight of these companies were implicated in forty-four deaths, 403 injuries, and 709 cases of criminalization in thirteen Latin American countries over a fifteen-year period.

The Canadian organization MiningWatch has suggested that the country’s silence on state abuses in Chile is strategic: “Canadian mining interests might just be at the centre of this decision to turn a blind eye to some of the fiercest repression since the Pinochet dictatorship.” According to Natural Resources Canada, there are more than forty Canadian mining companies in Chile, making it—alongside Mexico—the country with the second-most Canadian foreign direct investment after the United States. The repression Ana Ruzo witnessed there has been documented by various international rights groups, yet Trudeau took a phone call with Chilean President Sebastián Piñera late in October during the height of the protests. In their conversation, Trudeau does not seem to have explicitly addressed the demonstrations. Instead the two leaders leveled concerns about Bolivia’s election and discussed continued efforts to “address the crisis in Venezuela,” according to a press release from the Canadian government.

Vladimir Díaz-Cuellar, a scholar of Bolivian political economy at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, agrees that Canada’s reaction to events in Latin America should be viewed through the lens of its economic interests. “If they don’t say anything about the crisis in a country [where many people died], that says a lot about the bias of the Canadian government,” he said, referring to Chile.

Ruzo doesn’t doubt the connection either, saying it explains Canada’s silence about its key ally.A while ago Piñera said that Chile was a paradise,” she said, “And it is a paradise: for businessmen and for all those who want to overexploit the land and people, and enrich themselves by destroying the heritage of an entire country.”

Canadian mining activity in Bolivia, by comparison, is not as prominent, but it has had profound social consequences in the country, Cuellar explained. Two of the most important mining conflicts in the country in the last three decades involved Canadian mining companies: the Amayapama conflict in 1996 and the Mallku Khota conflict in 2012. “[With respect to] Canadian mining interests in Bolivia, what really matters historically is the social and political consequence of that very small capital invested in the country that actually cost a few lives in some rural communities—mining centers—in Bolivia,” said Cuellar.

In a 2016 academic article Cuellar co-authored alongside Kirsten Francescone, titled “Canadian Mining Interests in Bolivia, 1985–2015: Trajectories of Failures, Successes, and Violence,” the two detail the impact of these conflicts. The first, Amayapama, also known as the Christmas massacre, involved Vista Gold (a company formed after a merger between the Canadian company Da Capo Resources and Granges, a U.S.-based junior), its workers, and Indigenous communities in the area. Conflict escalated between these groups when on December 19, 1996, three thousand security forces were sent to the site after workers took control of the mine and expelled company personnel. Da Capo shareholder David O’Connor had pressured Bolivia’s government to take action. In three days of unrest, nine people were killed by the military, including students, miners and Indigenous peasants. Vista Gold’s CEO, Michael B. Richings, later said the action had been “necessary.”

Canada has long opposed nationalization efforts in Bolivia.

In 2012, South American Silver Corp. (SASC) and its Bolivian subsidiary Compania Minera Mallku Khota (CMMK) were behind another large-scale conflict. CMMK had been attempting to develop one of the largest silver mines in the world on Mallku Khota in Northern Potosi, despite resistance by Indigenous communities in the area over the years. Tensions escalated on July 7, 2012, when four hundred police were sent to the area to recover company hostages who were allegedly being detained by the community, resulting in one death and thirteen injuries. As a result, the government—then under Morales—cancelled CMMK’s right to explore at Mallku Khota and called the move nationalization. The office of the then-Canadian minister of international trade, Ed Fast, sent a letter to the Bolivian government expressing criticism about these nationalization efforts and warning they would hamper foreign investment in Bolivia. SASC soon took Bolivia to international court, claiming it had incurred losses as a result of the Bolivian government’s action. In 2018, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration awarded SASC (now owned by TriMetals Mining) $28 million, though it had sought compensation in the amount of $385.7 million.

Canada has long opposed nationalization efforts in Bolivia. As Cuellar and Francescone explain, the Canadian government’s development arm assisted Bolivia with a number of privatization efforts in the 1990s, alongside the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This included the denationalization of the Corporacion Minera de Bolivia (COMIBOL), among other neoliberal reforms. Following the enactment of these reforms, the presence of Canadian mining companies began to bloom in Bolivia.

Given this history, explained Cuellar, “This transition government . . . and very likely the government that is going to come after [is going to be more open] to foreign direct investment—and that includes Canadian mining interests.”

The global crisis brought on by Covid-19 has brought unique challenges to both Bolivia and Chile.

Bolivia’s May 3 elections were postponed after the country issued a lockdown in March in order to quell the virus’s spread, stoking fears of heightened repression. “There’s a lot of concern by critics of the government that they will use this [to] buy them more time to repress more opponents,” said Becker. Rights groups like Human Rights Watch have already expressed concern about a new Covid-19 decree Âñez’s government put in place on March 25, with a provision against misinformation they believe could be used to prosecute those critical of the government. Bolivian government officials, the human rights organization says, have mentioned political opponents as possible targets of this provision.

In Chile, a plebiscite to change the country’s dictatorship-era constitution has been postponed till October, also halting street demonstrations, though people have shifted to banging pots and pans from balconies in continued protest.

In the capital, Ruzo has taken notice of something more hopeful. “What is starting to happen is that the same people who were in the streets . . . defend[ing] unarmed people from terrorist attacks by the State and the Chilean police,” she explained, “are the same people who now come out accompanied by bottles of chlorine and spray . . . to disinfect the streets, bus stops.”

“So, you see,” Ruzo added. “The people protect the people.”

The pandemic has also impacted the Canadian mining industry. In Bolivia, Canadian company Pan American Silver suspended operations in late March 2020 to comply with Bolivian regulations. But preparations are underway for their restart. In Chile, Canadian company BHP has prevented high-risk workers from coming to sites, and incorporated social distancing measures in their worker camps, but has otherwise remained open. A new report released by Mining Watch alongside six other non-profits in the United States and UK this month, titled “Voices from the Ground,” has criticized the Canadian mining industry for its actions. The organizations accuse the industry of spreading Covid-19 both among its workers, as well as the remote communities their mines operate in, both in Canada and abroad

One thing seems clear: neither the pandemic, nor the ongoing repression in either Chile or Bolivia, will see Canada cease its mining operations in the region anytime soon.