On top of a gold mine

Canadian Mining Corporations Wreak Havoc in the Philippines

by Melissa Gibson

December 2005/January 2006

IMPERIALISM USED TO BE A political and military game of land conquest and resource stealing. Now, in the age of free markets and transnational corporations, imperialism not only wears the reassuring suits of politicians or the uniforms of generals, but also the sleek, modern veneer of economic development. However, economic development is an elusive term – one that can mean either trickle-down economics or community grassroots initiatives, depending on who speaks the word. In Canada and around the world, the mining industry raises serious development-related questions. Who should benefit from mining? Who does benefit? What responsibility do mining companies have to the well-being of the region? And who is responsible for ensuring they meet their responsibilities?

A few months ago, I heard Catherine Coumans of Mining Watch Canada (a pan-Canadian initiative supported by environmental, social justice, Aboriginal and labour organizations from across the country) speak about Canada’s involvement in mining in the Philippines. I was blown away by the devastation caused by Canadian companies abroad. Placer Dome, a Canadian corporation and one of the top gold-miners in the world, is the most infamous example. In fact, this October the Philippine province of Marinduque filled a lawsuit demanding over one million dollars in compensation for the disasters they suffered as Placer Dome’s closest neighbour.

For thirty years, Placer Dome part-owned (and mostly ran) the Marcopper mine together with then-President Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos’ political career was punctuated with fraud, scandal and a final ousting from office in 1986. The Marcopper mine was given free reign to dispose of tailings whatever way they deemed fit – a practice which culminated in an officially declared “State of Calamity.” Levees broke, causing massive toxic flooding. In three separate communities, water sources were undrinkable and unuseable, leading to sickness, death and loss of livelihood. In the Calancan Bay alone, “an estimated 200 million tonnes of mine tailings have smothered coral reefs and sea grasses across 80 square kilometers of seabed, poisoned fish and created a causeway seven kilometres long that is gradually being blown ashore by the wind”(New Scientist 2000).

In 2001, Placer Dome withdrew from the Philippines entirely, washing its hands of clean up and compensation. To this day, the Canadian corporation has only dealt with a fraction of the damage it created. Placer Dome is responsible for the biggest industrial disaster in the history of the Philippines.

The company serves as a prime example of the potential havoc created by opening the door to foreign mining in the Philippines. Placer Dome’s political backing and anti-people attitudes have validated the fear of mining and of foreign interests that continue to impede the mining industry as a whole. People feel vulnerable to exploitation; there is little protection from the Filipino government, and the corporations themselves have been far from trustworthy.

THE NEW FACE OF Canadian mining in the Philippines, TVI Pacific, a Vancouver-based company mining gold in the Canatuan, has done little to improve this image. In September of this year, the House of Commons issued an unprecedented report stating that the Canadian government should ensure “socially and environmentally responsible conduct by Canadian companies.” This report was based on complaints in regards to the behaviour of TVI Pacific’s operations in the Philippines.

This welcome report suggests that the Canadian government has finally taken an interest in promoting responsible mining. But what, exactly, does “socially and environmentally responsible” resource extraction mean? Lamentably, a look at the way mining operations in Canada are currently regulated offers little hope of meaningful protection for nearby communities and the environment.

According to the Canadian mining policies for social and environmental protection, new projects must conduct an “Environmental Impact Assessment” prior to approval by the government. Essentially, companies are required to gather all of the necessary information, perform the necessary tests, and determine the long-term ecological impact of the proposed operation. Then they are to inform all affected parties, notably First Nations communities in the region, and allow them to adequately assess the potential impact of the project on their community.

However, according to Mining Watch Canada’s most recent report, “a recent spate of astonishing decisions on a range of mining projects has made it clear that the Federal government has decided that environmental assessment is a pro forma exercise that will not be allowed to so much as inconvenience mining companies.” The government has given the go-ahead to projects despite evidence of potential habitat-endangering practices and massive water consumption and pollution.

And as tough as the legally binding regulations may seem on paper, mining companies have control over the information they gather and disseminate. Companies have PR people who consult with a community to negotiate the terms of a mine. “The catch is, that once you have agreed to a consultation, it becomes almost impossible to say ‘no,’” says Joan Nuyek of MiningWatch Canada.

Mine consultations can also provoke conflict and create divisions within communities. For some, the up-front economic perks of mining sweeten the assessment of the anticipated social and environmental impact on the community. Mining is touted as a community booster; it can bring new jobs and new money into a region that is perhaps already impoverished. However, a lot of new research points to the need for sustainable community development unrelated to mining because it is usually a short-lived, boom and bust phenomenon. Furthermore, mining often leaves an area unfit for other land-based activities – meaning that mining towns tend to become ghost towns after the mine closes down.

A SIMILAR POLICY SITUATION exists in the Philippines. Legislation has already been passed to encourage healthy practices. The Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA) is one such progressive policy act. It states that development projects need “free, prior and informed consent” of the indigenous people of the region before approval. In practice, however, there are neither the resources nor the political clout to protect indigenous rights. The Philippine government, saddled with external debt and economic vulnerability under globalized markets, is beholden to foreign investors, meaning that progressive policy rarely translates into practice.

The Philippines is accustomed to foreign investment: much of its industry is foreign-owned, a result of the IMF-backed development push to drastically reduce government restrictions on investment. TVI Pacific is now drilling and mining gold in Canatuan, a region occupied by the indigenous Subanon, as well as Muslims and Christians – all of whom rely heavily on agriculture and hunting. After a foreign logging company devastated traditional lands, the indigenous Subanon were propelled to apply for the right to “manage” the land they’d lived on for centuries. Through the IPRA, they were granted a “Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title” (CADT) in 1991. In 1994, TVI Pacific acquired mining rights around Canatuan and despite the CADT and the IPRA, there has been no “free, prior and informed consent” from the Subanon.

The mine itself is also causing environmental and social stress in the region. Environmental complaints have been filed, and locals are worried that the mine could threaten their livelihoods. Furthermore, the politics of the mine are dividing the community (though TVI is claiming officially that the mine has won local approval). In a region where poverty is widespread, some people welcome the new jobs despite reservations about the long-term environmental and social impact.

In both Canada and the Philippines, mining is touted as a low-impact, economically lucrative industry – a simple process with a cash return. But many people are beginning to treat the rhetoric of mining companies with suspicion. Good intentions and well-worded policy aside, Canada and the Philippines consistently place business before community and the environment. And so we’re back to square one: the contested terrain of economic development. Shouldn’t communities, both in Canada and the Philippines, be free to choose a development model that works, regardless of the gold mine they might be sitting on? Joan Kuyek even goes as far as to suggest that mining isn’t about the resources or the land or the people affected, but about the iron logic of investment – that at the end of the day, companies are responsible only to their shareholders. If this is true, then conversely, we as community members are responsible, not to the mining industry, nor to its shareholders, but only to each other.

Melissa Gibson grew up in Saskatchewan, studied Theatre and Development at Concordia, and is currently in the Philippines visiting family and learning more about imperialism and resistance.

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