McGill Research Group Investigating
Canadian Mining in Latin America

The Faces of Development – PDAC (part 1)

Posted on by Amelia Berot-Burns

As soon as I walked in the convention I understood there to be a certain pulse and pace of both the event and its attendees. I had been funded to attend one of the largest get-togethers that could exist in the Canadian mining industry – PDAC’s annual Convention in Toronto. It was a spacious venue and I found it to be very well organized and intriguing. It was quite the corporate beehive. There were suits, business cases, cell phones, notebooks, posters and people. Lots of people.  I read later on the website that almost there were almost 25,000 in a single day.  The escalators brought you to one floor or another while you looked around and saw the rhythm. The rhythm of business and money. The weight of social capital. Almost immediately upon checking in to the student booth I was instructed to begin networking with people around me using an online profile. It was fascinating to discover that this is what I had been sensing the whole time. It was the way that people with similar interests in mining and industry gravitated towards each other. Technologically, socially, verbally.   That was what this whole thing, this whole conference was about. Immediately I had a coffee and watched the movement and décor. The walls were coloured with pictures of workers smiling next to proud images of open pit mining projects. It was almost strange to see the flash of advertisements everywhere, ones that would easily shock those aware of the environmental and social issues surrounding mining. It seemed more like propaganda than anything else.

When I was ready I proceeded to take a few brochures and take note of the schedule. I found many conferences that suited my interests. There was a mix of both corporate social responsibility (CSR) conferences and those more geared toward business investment. I easily found the room where the first conference on mining in Colombia was being held. I appreciated that the conference started with the idea that social conflicts in Colombian communities were often sparked by local population’s having limited access to basic services. However I found that the discussion quickly changed to mining projects as the solution to these problems. The speaker later mentioned that the most difficult part of receiving local consent for drilling is that “people are not sold” on the idea that these projects are beneficial to them and that more convincing was necessary. There was little mention that projects rarely introduced equitable development. It was early in the day and despite my attention to the positive parts of the presentation, I quickly found my mental dialogue cluttered with sarcasm and inner commentary. I trailed off into thought. As someone who had been spending the last two semesters studying Latin American history, I already knew many reasons for distrust. Reasons that stretch back hundreds of years and that are woven into the experience of colonialism and of foreign exploitation. My research on issues in international development would suggest that communities are not the primary beneficiaries of most foreign mining projects, not now and not then.  That mining, in many communities in Latin America, has not created as much good as it has done harm especially for those who had little political power to voice their concerns and grievances. And yet I found that this was sadly missing from the consciousness of most people in the room. Fellow Canadians as well as people from many other backgrounds.  People who didn’t look so “bad” at all. In fact, I found that I even blended into the crowd.

This struck me. The discourse suggested that we, all of us, were somehow the faces of “development” in one way or another. Myself included. But not all of us have a grounded understanding of the history of mining in Latin America, or a deep comprehension of the differences between economic and social development.  I began to wonder then, what is my part to play in all of this? I looked around a little.  If I am conscious of the issues, am I not responsible as a Canadian to recognize the impact of our development path and its negative impacts on others? I wondered if the people around me visited some of the communities hosting Canadian mining projects. Communities that now feel that Canadian companies are the culprits of environmental destruction and the instigators of social and violent tensions. Have they ever lived in these communities, alongside locals? Have they ever had the same experiences or shared in the learning of the somewhat brutal historical details of the mining industry during colonialism (or after). Details I now know many things about. My guess was that the answers to these questions was no in every case, and that somehow the history was being lost in the discourse. The presentation also framed Canadian companies as different in some way. That “we” are somehow better at social development than those before us. My frustration left right then. I realized that the likelihood was that few people have had the opportunity, or the desire, to look into the conflicts, the problems, and the stories.  Before the end of the conference I had already decided there was indeed a NEED for groups like MICLA to stir this debate and to both ask and answer the hard questions. No one seemed to be doing so. There was a great need for more knowledge and awareness. I needed to learn, I needed to teach, and the opportunities to do so felt endless. I left the presentation feeling more excited than I did defeated. If it was the history that was missing then it was the history that needed to be discovered. I could discover it myself. As the agents of development, we could all discover it. With this in mind, I quickly packed up my things and moved on, ready to take on this new and exciting task.

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