McGill Research Group Investigating
Canadian Mining in Latin America

The Two Sides of Mining

Posted on by Amelia Berot-Burns

When people hear that I am a Political Science student interested in Canadian Mining, their first question is always “are you pro or anti mining?”. As a member of MICLA (a McGill research group investigating the conflicts arising from Canadian mining in Latin America), as a witness to the human rights violations on the ground near mining sites in Guatemala, and as a Political Science student who has been told repeatedly the terror of neoliberalism and how its “ruining the world”, my stance on mining should be pretty obvious. It cannot be dismissed that mining activities cause anguish for some of the people living in the vicinity: indigenous communities exploited for their land, workers rights violated with unsafe conditions, and environmental degradation are just a few of the major concerns with mining. But there is a flip side. And this flip side cannot be ignored. Mining activities can create huge profit for communities in the area, can start the process of development for places which otherwise would be ignored due to their remoteness, and is necessary for the lifestyle that most of us in North America enjoy. To me the answer is more complicated than just picking a side; I find it difficult to take a hard-lined stance. It is important to understand the situation fully and see that there are two sides to the mining narrative.

Mining has the potential to create wealth for local communities, but due to a lack of legislation there is nothing preventing communities from being exploited. Mining is not inherently evil but as it is being done today it is destroying both the environment and lives while creating unsustainable development.

Let us look at the example of the Marlin Mine in western Guatemala owned by the Canadian company Goldcorp. This is a mine that is fraught with controversy covering a range of topics including: forced evictions/coercion, environmental destruction, and health concerns. There is also mental distress due to the destruction of the landscape which holds deep memories for the surrounding communities. In 2010 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights even demanded that the mine be closed on water contamination grounds, but this demand was later withdrawn due to lack of proof of “imminent harm”. These allegations come from communities that have been heavily impacted from genocide and decades of conflict, and who are now facing further slights to their rights. This case seems like a clear example of the evils of the mining industry and its exploitative nature not only of the land but of the people as well. Even in this case though there is at least one benefit to the local communities. Since 2001 the coffee market has been crashing meaning that increasing numbers of people are reliant on the mine for employment. This causes deep divisions within the local municipalities between those who want the mine to feed their families today, and those who want to protect the environment for future generations. Without the mine many would not be able to sustain themselves, but the way in which the mining is done makes it unsustainable for the future.

Companies and shareholders will be quick to point out that mines are able to improve communities through providing development through corporate social responsibility (CSR). CSR is evidence that mining companies are at least attempting to create a connection between locals and people who have the power to make decisions, creating grounds for a better development strategy for local communities. Through things such as building roads, schools, and creating economic trickle-down, mines have the potential to change a community for the better if regulations on human rights and the environment are maintained.

It is crucial to mention however that a large caveat to CSR development exists making it entirely unsustainable as a means to develop a country. A mining company’s objective is always rooted in the search for the “social license to operate”, the fancy way of saying achieving community support. Through the increasing public awareness of mining injustices, mining companies now have a need to achieve this social license before starting projects. This is a step forward for the entire industry but a step backwards for the countries in which the mines are located because it creates a reliance on these companies for development. Through social outcry, companies are being cornered into the position of becoming development agencies. This is where the issues begin; mining companies are not governments and it is not their place to develop social services for communities. CSR is rooted in a monetary interest to placate the anti-mining population enough that the project can move forward and the company can gain profit for their shareholders. Development cannot take place in a sustainable way from CSR alone because the developments end when the social license is obtained. Local governments need to create legislation to harness profits from the mine and create change which lasts beyond the life of the mine.

To me the answer of the original question about which side of the struggle I stand on has to take into account both sides of the argument. I am against mining as it is presently done but there is a potential for improvements to be made, and lasting development is possible. Mining is going to happen. There is no getting around that. But it needs to be done in a better way through dialogues between local communities, mining companies, shareholders, and governments.

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