Gloria Chicaiza, of Accion Ecologia, with a map showing the extent of large-scale mining operations in Ecuador. Photo: Marites N. Sison
Anti-mining activists from Ecuador, Guatemala and the Philippines and more than a dozen countries met in Toronto recently and shared stories of how mining operations, including Canadian companies, have displaced indigenous communities, destroyed ecosystems and given rise to human rights violations.
Some 150 representatives from 20 countries attended the ecumenical conference on mining held May 1 to 3. Kairos, a Canadian ecumenical justice group, sponsored the event in partnership with Norwegian Church Aid.
“The key purpose of the gathering is to develop alliances between church leaders from the North and South in their efforts to achieve mining justice around the world,” conference organizers said in a statement.
Canada was chosen as a venue because it is home to 75 per cent of the world’s mining and mineral exploration companies, and its stock exchanges trade 40 per cent of the world’s mineral exploration capital.
Mining operations in Guatamela, which involve Canadian companies, have resulted in environmental disasters, said Naty Atz Sunuc of CEIBA, a Guatamelan NGO and Kairos partner. She cited accidents involving mining trucks loaded with cyanide, which have polluted water sources.
Large-scale mining has also destroyed the way of life of indigenous peoples, who are forcibly relocated, said Sunuc. The Guatamelan government has awarded mining concessions to foreign companies “without the informed consent of communities,” she added. “Mining is completely against life. The earth gives us our food, it’s important for our survival,” she said.
Gloria Chicaiza of Accion Ecologia, presented a map of Ecuador showing how the country has been carved up into various resource extraction projects that have had severe environmental impacts. “We have 200 hydroelectric projects, petroleum extraction in the North, 50 million hectares have been destroyed by logging, and now, large-scale mining,” said Chicaiza. “They are going to places we never dreamed of,” she said, citing an ongoing dispute over indigenous land near the Amazon.
Fr. Rex Reyes, an Igorot priest from the Episcopal Church in the Philippines, debunked assertions made by governments and companies that mining contributes immensely to a host country’s economy. Reyes noted that from 2005 to 2011, the mining industry contributed 1.2% of the Philippines’ GDP. In 2010, it contributed 0.5% to employment.
Sunuc said that in 2006, a mining company that operated in San Miguel, Guatemala reported profits of $743 million, of which $4 million went to the government.
Resistance to mining activities has led to a rise in killings and the “criminalization of dissent,” said the speakers.
“Campesinos (peasants) are being accused by government of terrorism and common crimes such as trespassing, judges that rule in our favour have themselves become targets of aggression,” said Chicaiza. Military and para-military groups have been involved in the violent takeover of communities, she added.
“For mining companies, a community is in the way, the forest is in the way of extracting resources, so they must be removed,” said Chicaiza.
Chicaiza stressed the importance of people’s protests, citing how the vote on a controversial water bill that would give trans-national mining companies “free reign over water supplies” throughout Ecuador has been delayed pending consultation with affected communities.
Environmentalists have cited the effects on water quality -for human consumption, aquatic life and wildlife –as among the most significant negative impacts of mining.
They point to acid mine drainage, leaching of contaminants, the erosion of soil/ toxic mine wastes into water, and air pollution as common consequences.
National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald said resistance to mining is “a spiritual warfare.”
Bishop MacDonald, who offered his reflections to the panelists’ presentations, said the issue is “not about the quality of life but the way of life and life itself…God placed us on this earth to have a unique relationship with it. It is irreplaceable.”
He noted how even after centuries of colonization, indigenous people have “refused to sever the connection between land, culture and meaning, which have lost meaning in the developed and developing world.”
He urged churches to be in solidarity with people who suffer the consequences of mining, saying that while the cost is great, “it is God’s future for us.”
Stan Beardy, Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation in Ontario, said the stories in Guatemala, Ecuador, the Philippines, and other countries resonate with the experiences of his own people. He said there is “a lot of anxiety” about proposed resource extraction projects in his area, which includes 49 First Nations communities within James Bay Treaty 9 territory and parts of Treaty 5 in Ontario.