For many pampered Canadians, it is difficult to imagine a foreign company evicting an entire community, claiming the land for mining purposes and doing so without any form of government intervention.
Sadly, this is the reality for thousands of displaced families living in South America — and at least 500,000 people in Guatemala alone. What’s even more difficult to fathom is that a handful of these mining companies are Canadian. Also surprising is that Canadian citizens greatly benefit from investments in these companies — perhaps in ways they haven’t considered.
According to Canadian human rights activist Grahame Russell, this is only one example of “global economic order” at work.
Russell was born and raised in Toronto, experienced a “totally awesome life” as a Canadian and was unconscious of human rights issues — until he travelled to Mexico as a young adult and came face-to-face with the poverty many citizens there live with.
“I came to the conclusion that the countries of the global North are often part of the problem when it comes to understanding why there’s so much poverty in other parts of the world,” he said in a phone interview.
Desperate to ease his conscience and also to bring the issue of poverty to others’ attention, Russell joined small, North American-based human rights groups specifically geared towards aiding Central America.
Eventually, Russell joined Rights Action, a North American-based group that he co-directs and has been involved with for the past 15 years. There are two main aspects of his job with Rights Action: fundraising for a wide range of “community-based projects” in Guatemala and Honduras and educational activism.
Through educating privileged North Americans and promoting social activism, Russell aims to address the underlying causes of the injustices experienced by countries such as Guatemala and Honduras, where two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line. Both countries also suffer from “brutal military regimes,” according to Russell.
“Mining becomes the perfect example” of these injustices, said Russell.
For the past 50 years, large, powerful nickel-producing companies such as Vale, whose headquarters are in Toronto, have bought land and built mines throughout Central America. Canadian companies HudBay Minerals, Goldcorp and Pacific Rim have also developed a mining presence in South America in recent years.
“If Canadian companies are contributing and benefiting from violations and abuses, they should be held accountable. It’s a pretty simple moral position.”
While these corporations claim to provide economic benefits to the countries in which they operate, they have failed to gain the confidence, support or even consent of the locals in many cases. On their websites, they use words such as “sustainable” and “economic prosperity” to describe their objectives, but according to Russell, the local population is often subjected to serious health risks and human rights violations if they live in the vicinity of a mine.
“There’s a wide range of environmental harm and destruction in these areas — women and animals are suffering abnormally high rates of miscarriages. People are dying from mercury poisoning.”
Added Russell: “The governments are repressing the locals who want to stop these abuses.”
Not only are Central American governments placing the interests of foreign investors over the needs of their impoverished, but the Canadian government is making it worse. According to Russell, Stephen Harper’s conservative government has been contributing to the problem rather than the solution, by taking advantage of the corrupt Honduran government, but is doing no worse than the previous Liberal majority, he says.
“In Honduras, there was a military coup, which the Conservative government has played a really terrible role in — very similar to the previous government’s military coup in Haiti,” noted Russell, referring to Canada’s participation in the intervention that overthrew the elected government of Haiti in 2004.
In 2009, the Honduran army exiled their democratically elected president in what the United Nations deemed a coup d’état. Russell believes that the Canadian government legitimized the coup, as it provided military training to members of the Honduran army.
“In addition to support of these regimes, both recent governments have done a poor job of holding Canadian investment companies accountable.”
Canadians are indirectly involved in these countries in other ways as well, and even benefit from mining companies taking advantage of South American countries. The Canada Pension Plan is highly dependent on mining, as well as oil, gas and military production companies. Russell suggests that perhaps this is something that most Canadians aren’t even aware of or that they prefer to not think about.
“Yes, we’re responsible for what happens inside our borders, but it’s a global economy. And yes, there are positive and negative aspects to a global economy, but if Canadian companies are contributing and benefiting from violations and abuses, they should be held accountable. It’s a pretty simple moral position.”
According to Russell, debate is essential to achieving better living standards for all citizens. This may prove difficult, however, because of a “fundamental lack of awareness” that he says needs to be dealt with first.
Moving forward, Russell believes international law needs to be reformed to be more effective. There are currently a swath of international treaties, most of which have been around since 1945, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but there is no political will to enforce them on an ongoing basis.
“We live in the fiction of some 230 independent nations,” said Russell. “Everyone knows that it’s one functioning global community, for better and for worse.”
Although Russell is optimistic, he acknowledges that sustainable change is very difficult and can only be done through chipping away relentlessly, consistently and peacefully at these economic issues. Russell also credits media — in particular alternative media — as integral to creating an ideological shift.
“We have to be more critically aware about what our media does and things like ideological censorship,” said Russell. “Until we become aware of and hold ourselves accountable for our impact across the planet, little is going to change.”[box type=”info”]Grahame Russell will cover these and related issues on Monday, Jan. 30 at the Frances Morrison Library, and Tuesday, Jan. 31 in the Neatby Timlin Lecture Theatre from 7 to 9 p.m.[/box]
Photo: Phillie Casablanca/flickr