When you benefit from destruction: United Church Pension Board, Federal Government put economic interests ahead of human rights.

May 14, 2019

 

 

In January, I visited Marlin Mine-affected communities where the Maritimes Conference "Mining the Connections" Committee and United for Mining Justice donated more than $6000 that was raised through a Restitution Project that was created in 2018 for victims of the Marlin Mine. This was a small, symbolic contribution raised by churches, United Church Conferences, and individuals who felt compelled to respond to the crisis that indigenous Maya communities are facing after close to 15 years of gold and silver extraction without consent in their territory. The communities were never meaningfully consulted prior to, nor throughout operations of the mine. Not surprisingly, when I visited, the communities had not been told of the recent sale of Goldcorp or what long-term impacts, if any, that would have on the mining-affected communities. At the Marlin Mine, Goldcorp processed an average of 6500 tonnes of rock per day, turning out higher than expected amounts of gold and silver at the mine that started extraction in 2005. In 2010, a Human Rights Assessment (HRA) commissioned by the company laid out 42 recommendations relevant to mine closure. At the time of the closure in 2017, only 24 of those commitments were fulfilled completely.

 

 

 

Throughout its operations, locals repeatedly and adamantly reported the negative impacts and severe human rights violations happening near the Marlin Mine. The story of corporate negligence, deceit, and destruction were well documented at the mine, the first large scale open-pit mine in Guatemala, a country ravaged by genocidal war against indigenous nations by economic and military powers, both national and international, keen on accumulating wealth through the dispossession of territory. Hundreds of thousands of indigenous Maya people were displaced from their territory and collective property rights were privatized by force. Land and water was illegally bought and sold and ended up in the hands of large agri-business, mining and hydroelectric companies.  The genocide that results from colonialism and capitalism has been particularly harsh in Guatemala for the cruelty of the massacres in the early 1980s, but the legacy, and system, of destruction, dispossession and annihilation go back centuries. 

 

For more than a decade, unions, universities, grassroots organizations, international human rights organizations, and churches condemned the way that indigenous peoples were tricked into first accepting the mine into remote villages in the northern highlands, and later the series of negative environmental and social impacts it had. Falling down homes, social conflict and violence, family breakdown, water contamination, skin rashes and never-seen-before illnesses, drying up springs and water sources, destruction of ancestral and ceremonial sites and medicines, and air contamination were just some of the serious complaints that were documented. There were also assassination attempts, increased military and police presence and criminalization of land defenders.  People began to feel that they weren't safe in their homes or on the streets where they would normally greet their neighbours. People who spoke out against the mine would hide in their homes when trucks drove by and were afraid to go to the local market for fear of verbal or physical violence. With few options, many were forced to migrate to the south coast or to the USA. The open pit where gold mining once happened is now full of dirt and trees, but the deep connection to the earth, its medicines, its life-force, has been deeply changed.


Corruption and collusion between the local and national governments and the company from the on-start were downplayed by both, even though it was well documented and denounced by locals and the Public Prosecutor's office with the help of the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). And the deceit and lack of transparency that served as the company's way of working continue. According to locals, the company has not adequately informed the communities surrounding the Marlin Mine of the closure plans, or who is even responsible for their implementation. The long term environmental and health impacts created by contamination have been left to the community to remedy. The "state of the art" hospital that Goldcorp at one point showed off to investors with the help of the Canadian government as an act of corporate-social responsibility, has closed up; it now houses the most basic of health services with no regular doctors,  nurses, midwives, medicines - or, at times, even electricity. Through Inter-American Bank loans received by the State to entice the mining company - not company good will - the once dusty road to San Miguel is now paved, but the communities keep paying the price for the so-called development they received.

 

The United Church Pension Plan refused to divest from Goldcorp for more than 10 years, even after knowing of the devastating impacts that the Marlin Mine has had on church partners and allies in Guatemala. They chose to engage in dialogue with the company - not the impacted communities - which led to no visible or tangible change for the better. They argued fiduciary duty and chose to invest in a project that sought to destroy the lives and livelihoods of local communities. The resistance never gave up though, the voices of decent were never completely silenced and though there is deep injustice and deep sadness, they never gave up on their spirituality, their connection to Mother Earth; they are recuperating their ceremonies, coming back to who they are because the mine also led to destruction of the culture and identity of the people.   

 

 

The more than 10-year struggle for accountability from the Pension Board parallels another struggle that has ended with deception; that to create an independent ombudsperson to help make the Canadian extractive sector working overseas more accountable. Years of work and input from impacted communities went into a comprehensive proposal that the Canadian government agreed to in January 2018. The Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) was meant to have the power to compel documents and testimony, full independence to investigate and  the obligation to publicly report on its findings and recommendations, including for remedy, harm prevention and reforms. Instead, in April 2019, the federal government announced an ombudsperson with the mandate to "review alleged human rights abuses arising from a Canadian company's operations abroad," (read more from Kairos here). The Canadian government completely undermined the work and manipulated the vision of church, civil society and grassroots organizations who had spent more than a decade working on proposals for mining justice and accountability with overseas partners on the Open for Justice campaign.

 

At both the Marlin mine and with the Open for Justice campaign, there is a resounding sense of betrayal, frustration, and loss. If our leaders and elected officials, whether church or government, are not willing to heed the will of those who put them in power, but rather bend for corporate greed, what kind of democracy are we really living in?   

 

On May 1, 2019 over 50 international organizations sent a letter to the World Bank, urging the financial institution to prioritize recycling, circular economy, public transit, and other non-mining solutions as the primary components of its agenda - not business as usual and the promotion of the mining sector. The letter noted, "Metals mining is currently one of the world’s dirtiest industries, responsible for at least 10% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and over 50% of all toxic solid wastes in many producing countries." Quite simply, mining is not the way forward. We simply cannot count on it as a sustainable way to build the world we need.​  

 

As Berta Caceres, a Lenca leader who was murdered for her opposition to extractivism in her territory warned just months before her death, "Wake up humanity, there is no time left!"

 

Greta Thunberg, Autumn Peltier and people around the world are urging us to heed Berta's call. "Act like your house is on fire. Because it is."   

The tragedy at the Marlin mine is heartbreaking. It's also completely unjust and racist that Maya Mama and Sipakapense territory has been destroyed by a Canadian company, thanks to investments from the CPP, churches, unions, and "ethical funds" while those that are left to pick up the pieces are the very people who never wanted the project in the first place.

As we struggle to live in a right way a relationship with all our relations, we know that we need a new relationship, not a "reconciliation" for, as Indigenous rights activist, spiritual teacher, and transformational change maker Sherri Mitchell argues - colonial and indigenous nations have never had a conciliatory relationship. We must start anew.  We need to imagine and live in a way that deeply reflects our values of love and justice for the earth and each other. As we witness the devastating impacts of Canadian colonialism, glaringly evident through the mining sector, are must urgently use our power to change. 

 

- Jackie McVicar first visited the site of the Marlin Mine in December 2004 and regularly accompanied indigenous land and rights defenders near the site throughout the mine's operations.

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