Students crowded into Peterson Hall last Friday to attend a discussion by environmental activist Yuri Melini, on the plight of communities in Guatemala affected by Canadian mining companies. The talk, “Human Rights and Natural Resources Extraction in Guatemala,” is one of many to be held across Quebec and Ontario in an effort to raise awareness of the effects of Canadian mining abroad.
Melini told the audience, in Spanish, that “every economic decision has a social impact, and this generates a social protest.”
“In Latin America, people are demanding the right to their natural environment [being respected],” Melini said. He also criticized what many in the region see as corporate disregard for the environment and indigenous rights – especially in states that do not have the institutional capacity to defend themselves.
“What happens when this neighbour [a corporation] inserts itself in a country with weak laws?” Melini asked the audience. “It has the capacity to block information from the media, finance political campaigns, or most delicate of all, influence judges and prosecutors,” he said.
Melini pointed out the example of Vancouver-based Goldcorp Incorporated that operates a large open-pit gold mine in Guatemala.
“[Goldcorp] has the right to 280,000 litres of water a day, while the community has the right to only about 60,000.”
It is estimated that roughly 75 per cent of mining companies in the world are registered in Canada. These corporations control over a thousand exploration projects and active mines, and dominate the mining industry in Latin America.
The McGill research group for the Investigation of Canadian Mining in Latin America (MICLA) distributed a pamphlet at the event that identified at least 100 cases of communities currently in conflict with Canadian mining firms.
According to speaker Catherine Duhamel, from the International Research Center, there is no recognized framework for the Canadian government to punish firms for violations committed outside of Canada. Duhamel did indicate that there are international pressures to do so from various UN agencies, such as the Committee on Social and Cultural Rights and the Committee against Racial Discrimination – which recommended that Canada “take steps to prevent abuses abroad by a corporation within their jurisdiction and hold them accountable.”
Panelist Catherine Coumans, from Mining Watch Canada, explained that communities have made progress through civil society pressure, saying that the Canadian government is beginning to respond to their concerns.
Coumans pointed to Bill C-300, a Private Member’s Bill brought forward by Liberal MP John McKay, would require Canadian mining, oil, and gas companies to act in accordance with international human rights and environmental standards when operating abroad.
Bill C-300 was passed at a second reading in the House of Commons last April, succeeding by a close margin of only four votes. The bill is now under review by the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development and must pass a third and final reading before it is implemented.
Coumans encouraged the audience to put pressure on their respective MPs to get the legislation passed, though she acknowledged that the bill is only one step in the process.
“It would really make a big difference if this bill would pass,” said Coumons. “[It is] the most amazing piece of proposed legislation we could’ve possibly imagined,” Coumans said.
Melini is known for his work in the area of human rights, environmental protection, and community development. While serving as director of the Centre for Legal, Environmental, and Social Action of Guatemala (CALAS), he received widespread exposure after winning a court case in the Constitutional Court of Guatemala in 2008 – which ruled that seven articles of the country’s mining laws were unconstitutional.
Melini suffered an attack on his life in September of that year, aftermasked men shot him sevearl times. This attempt is widely speculated to be a result of his activism on behalf of CALAS, as close to 50 other environmental activists were subject to threats or aggression in the preceding days, according to the Guatemalan press.
“I suffered a criminal attempt on my life,” Melini said. “I spent 62 days in intensive care, for my work in human rights.”
Despite the attempt on his life, Melini seemed unfazed. “I just want to share with the young people: Idealism is worth it…. We can construct a more just society, a society with more dignity.”
“It is not the theory and academia that matters, it is the practice. This is what makes sense [when working] for human rights,” Melini said.
“I am not against mining,” said Melini, “[but] every country has a right to define its development model.”
Melini is currently working with the Guatemalan Congress on a new mining law, which stipulates three non-negotiable principles: broad environmental controls, the rights of indigenous communities to consent to projects, and higher taxes and royalties from extractive companies.
“If a company wants to come to our country and comply with these laws, they’re welcome,” Melini said.