A call by members of Canada's parliament for legally binding measures to govern the behaviour of Canadian mining companies around the world, and specifically to investigate the activities of a Calgary-based operation in the Philippines, has been turned down flat by the Canadian government's foreign affairs minister Pierre Pettigrew.
Canada prefers to maintain its adherence to voluntary guidelines for multinational enterprises as set out by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), says Kim Girtel, a media spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Canada.
"The non-binding nature of the guidelines has significantly increased the ability of likeminded governments to build international support and this would not have been possible if the initiative was binding," she said.
Girtel declined to name the countries that would oppose legally binding measures. She told IPS that a recent report on mining in developing countries, issued by Canada's parliamentary committee for foreign affairs and international trade, is raising "complex issues that need further work".
But business journalist and author Madelaine Drohan, writing in the Globe and Mail on Oct. 20, said that "large sections" of the response tabled by Pettigrew "could charitably be called fatuous; others were downright misleading".
Almost 60 percent of the world's exploration and mining companies are listed on Canadian stock exchanges, according to the Canadian foreign affairs and international trade department.
This sector accounts for 42 billion dollars in cumulative direct investment around the world, and there are plans to invest a further 14 billion dollars in new projects over the next five years.
Thousands of mining companies incorporated in Canada and generating capital on Canadian exchanges have set up mines in developing countries, which have been told by the World Bank "they need to generate dollars, foreign exchange earnings, to pay their debts, and that mining is a good way to do that," says Jaimie Kneen, of the Ottawa-based Mining Watch Canada.
The Canadian parliamentary committee, which had unanimous report from sitting MPs, including members of the ruling Liberal party, is concerned about the impact of Canadian mining and other resource companies on the economic and social wellbeing of employees and local residents, as well as the environment in such countries as the Philippines, Columbia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The committee also asked the Canadian embassy in the Philippines not to promote or publicly support TVI Pacific's Canatuan mining project in Mindanao until specific allegations regarding the violation of indigenous and human rights and the environment have been fully investigated.
What happened there is not an atypical example of how Canadian mining companies have functioned in developing countries, says Catherine Coumans, research coordinator for Mining Watch Canada.
Although Philippine legislation prohibits development on land without the specific permission of indigenous peoples, the Calgary-based TVI was granted a permit by government officials to mine for gold on what is locally considered a sacred mountain in Canatuan,
Among the problems facing the indigenous Subanon and other residents in a community near the one-year-old mine is inadequate protection from the run-off of chemical comtaminants, which threaten both the fish in the local rivers and streams as well as the rice and fruit plantations, Coumans explains.
Furthermore, she adds, local residents have been turned back at various checkpoints manned by private security guards employed by TVI. The company is seeking to evict and relocate residents who are reluctant to leave their homes, she said. All of this is happening in an area where guerilla armies and bandits are operating and both ambushes and kidnapping have occurred.
"It has been pointed out by Amnesty International and others that companies should not operate in areas that require them to use military forces or excessive security in order to maintain their operations, as such conditions are prone to human rights abuses," Coumans said.
There is no enforcement mechanism in the OECD principles, and the contact office in Canada that receives complaints regarding mining companies in Canada "cannot compel a company to respond", said Craig Forcese, a University of Ottawa law professor.
A separate set of voluntary guidelines negotiated between Britain and the United States when U.S. President Bill Clinton was in office (1993-2001) sets out a process for companies to provide security to safeguard their extractive operations without retaining the services of local paramilitary or military forces with a history of human rights abuses.
Forcese says that the current administration of U.S. President George W. Bush appears to be downplaying this security-oriented voluntary code.
Canada itself has never signed on to this agreement. Although there had been anticipation at Mining Watch that Ottawa would finally make a bold announcement on this matter, Kim Girtal at Foreign Affairs Canada told IPS that "no decision has yet been made."
Coumans attributes the Canadian government's response to the historical clout of the mining and resource industries in Canada. She notes that three former prime ministers including Jean Chretien, Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney have either sat on the boards of Canadian mining companies or helped to promote their activities in developing countries.
She contrasts this with the willingness of the government of Belgium, a country with a controversial colonial past, to enact a tougher corporate code of conduct that companies must sign in order to receive financing for export credits.
Furthermore, there is a strong complaints process in Belgium, in which enterprises not living up to those legislated standards will lose government support.
"If the Belgiums can do it, why can't [Canada] do it?" Coumans wondered.
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