Montreal Canada – Enzo Brizuela describes his hometown as a “zone of sacrifice”.
The 33-year-old geologist was born, raised and lives in Andalgala, a small town in Argentina’s mineral-rich province of Catamarca, near the northwest border with Chile. He says the region is home to a quiet population that lives mainly from agriculture and livestock.
It’s also where a group of mining companies, led by a Canadian company, hopes to extract millions of ounces of copper and gold – something Brizuela and many of its neighbors fear could contaminate water sources and to harm the environment.
“We live in a zone of sacrifice,” Brizuela told Al Jazeera in a recent Zoom interview. “But I’m proud to say that Andalgala is also [home to] a strong and determined people, because we opposed these large-scale mining operations [proposals] since 1970.”
The latest of several projects developed in the Andalgala region over the past decades, the MARA open pit mine is in the advanced exploration phase. Canadian company Yamana Gold – which is being acquired by a South African company – currently owns 56.25% of the project, while Anglo-Swiss company Glencore and Newmont Corp, an American company, own the rest.
The companies said on the project’s website that they had obtained administrative and judicial authorizations, and that they were taking into account the concerns of the community to ensure “truly responsible, sustainable and innovative exploitation”.
But community advocates said several dozen people had been detained in connection with their opposition to mining in the area for more than a decade, including for protests against the MARA project. More recently, some have been accused of burning down local business offices – an allegation they say is unfounded.
A Yamana Gold spokesperson declined Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Brizuela, who said she was the subject of four criminal complaints including the office fire, told Al Jazeera that a crackdown on human rights defenders was underway – and getting worse. “Activists who work hard to try to…channel information about the risks of mega-mining are persecuted and face violence,” he said. “This is clearly a campaign of fear.”
For years, Canadian companies have been accused of being complicit or failing to investigate or prevent alleged rights violations and environmental harms in their operations outside the country.
Companies in Canada’s highly profitable mining sector, in particular, have faced much of the criticism: human rights groups have documented a series of abuses, including rape, assault , murder and slavery, as well as pollution from Canadian mining activities around the world.
While the allegations are not new, a campaign to pressure Ottawa to do more is gaining momentum as activists and conservationists face an upsurge in deadly violence and global threats.
“The Government of Canada needs to decide if it’s going to continue to drag its feet and let corporations operate with impunity, or if it’s going to do something to curb corporate abuse,” said Emily Dwyer, director of policy at the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability.
Canada “is home to nearly half of the world’s publicly traded mining and exploration companies,” Natural Resources Canada, a federal department, said on its website, while their overseas work accounts for most of the profits. In 2020, 730 Canadian mining and exploration companies had assets in 97 foreign countries valued at $150 billion (C$188.2 billion), the department reported.
The United States topped the list of countries hosting the most Canadian mining companies in 2020 with 21.3%, while Chile, Panama, Brazil and Peru rounded out the top five. Zambia comes next with 5%, followed by Mexico, Argentina, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In 2019, Canada created the Office of the Canadian Ombudsman for Responsible Business (CORE), a position to oversee the implementation of the United Nations and OECD Guidelines on Business Practices Involving Businesses Canadian companies in the apparel, mining, oil and gas sectors. The office has the power to advise businesses, review allegations of rights violations, and make recommendations for redress, including an apology or financial compensation.
It also launched an online complaints submission system last year. “This is a critical step in our mission to help promote and protect human rights and Canada’s reputation around the world,” Ombudsman Sheri Meyerhoffer said in a statement in March. 2021. “Our new online portal is an easy way for people and communities overseas to raise issues and concerns.
CORE says it assessed the admissibility of 16 complaints between April 1 and the end of June. Two other complaints were closed during this period – one due to insufficient information provided by the complainant and the other because the parties resolved the issue – while it also received 45 inquiries, most of which were not part of his duties.
But rights advocates criticized the office as toothless.
“The office is not independent of the government…and it has no real powers to investigate independently,” Dwyer told Al Jazeera. “The powers he needs [include] the power to demand documents and testimony, otherwise it is very difficult to expect this office to get the information it needs to investigate.
She added that Canada has continued to rely primarily on “voluntary approaches” to respond to allegations of abuse, such as providing business advice and mediation, for example. “But we hope to see action soon in a different direction,” Dwyer said.
A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, the Department of Foreign Affairs, told Al Jazeera that the government expects Canadian companies operating abroad to “comply with all relevant laws, respect the rights of the in their operations and adopt best practices and internationally respected guidelines on accountability”. conduct of business”.
The Canadian Ombudsman for Responsible Business (CORE) “should be given sufficient time to fulfill his current mandate,” James Emmanuel Wanki also said in an email. “Once fully operational, it would be able to take on cases. The use of a non-judicial mechanism such as CORE does not preclude individuals from pursuing civil remedies in Canadian courts,” Wanki said.
In the meantime, the government has sought to strengthen safeguards related to Canadian supply chains and other business practices. For example, in June, the House of Commons unanimously consented to second reading of a bill that would ban Canada from importing goods produced by forced or child labor.
Bill S-211, which has been referred to committee for further consideration, would also require government and private entities to submit annual reports on measures taken “to prevent and reduce the risk of forced labor or labor children either used by them or in their supply chains. and give the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness the power to compel an entity to provide information.
“Unanimous consent at this stage is a clear sign that the House understands the importance of this issue,” tweeted Seamus O’Regan, Canada’s federal labor minister, after second reading in Parliament on June 1.
Federal politicians also introduced two bills in late March that respectively seek to create a post of commissioner with the power to compel testimony and documents in investigations of corporate abuse, as well as hold corporations accountable for any failure to ensure that their practices do not cause human harm. rights violations, among others. Human rights and religious groups have urged parliamentarians to support these bills to ensure greater accountability.
My friend @JohnMcKayLib has spent years fighting against forced labor in our supply chains.
Unanimous consent at this stage is a clear sign that the House understands the importance of this issue.
The hard work continues. https://t.co/0THRmkuRcn
—Seamus O’Regan Jr (@SeamusORegan) June 1, 2022
Access to justice
Yet while a few civil cases have established that victims can seek redress in Canada for corporate labor abuses abroad, rights advocates said attempts to hold Canadian courts to account remain time-consuming and costly. .
In 2019, a Canadian mining company publicly apologized to Guatemalan protesters who sued in Canada and admitted their rights were violated when security guards injured protesters at the company’s mine in Guatemala. The case was hailed as a landmark that confirmed “Canadian courts are the appropriate forum for human rights claims arising from the foreign activities of Canadian mining companies,” it said at the time. Joe Fiorante, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
A year later, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a Canadian company that owned a mine in Eritrea could be sued in Canada. The decision came after three Eritrean workers sued Nevsun Resources Ltd, alleging they had been forced to work at the mine and subjected to “violent, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment”. The company later settled out of court, Amnesty International said.
However, Dwyer said, despite these precedent-setting rulings, “there has still not been a single case … that has gone through the Canadian court system where a company has been found liable for abuse.”
“What is really needed is an obligation to prevent human rights abuses from occurring in a company’s supply chains, an obligation for companies to exercise due diligence – taking steps to identify, mitigate, address and remediate abuses and risks that lie within your supply chain – and the effective enforcement of these obligations through access to Canadian courts,” he said. she stated.
Meanwhile, back in Argentina, Brizuela said his community’s fight will continue.
“We are fighting for our next generations to have the natural environment as we had it,” he told Al Jazeera. “We want to keep the water clean, keep the air – because that’s how we inherited it. We want to give them a place called Andalgala.