by Merle Davis (originally printed in The Peak magazine)
In September 2014, when it was announced that Barrick Gold would be supplying the gold, silver and bronze for the 2015 Pan and ParaPan American Games medals it barely made the news. A few fluff pieces came out about how the 2015 mega-sporting events would be using metals from their mines across the Americas, but the story was barely a blip on the media radar. Around this time, the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network, a Toronto-based group I organize with, started a discussion about activism during the games. None of us were sure what form our activism would take, and some of us were even unsure as to why we would resist. But it seemed important in this moment, deceptively constructed as Pan American unity, to make moves towards real Pan American solidarity. We wanted to ensure we did more than point a finger at Barrick who, with an atrocious human rights record, notorious for murder and sexual violence around its mines, is symptomatic of the mining industry at large and not just a bad apple. The Games would provide an opportunity for the broader public to learn about mining injustices. A story centred on Barrick supplying metal to Games that have as their focus Pan American cultures, inclusion, and community must not be a blip; it must reflect upon the broader issues of oppression and social injustice. I hope to provide some of this context.
It becomes clear that Barrick is not merely a “bad apple” when the mining industry is viewed within a broader context of historical and current injustices. Mining links historic injustices in the Americas through settler colonialism and slavery. Indigenous people forced to mine silver and gold, were replaced by slaves from Africa. Mining supported and formed an integral part of processes of displacement, land theft and colonization, which have and continue to sustain social and economic systems of oppression. Mining companies by their very nature can only value land for what can be extracted; in a parallel manner they only value people for the extractive value of their labour. Large-scale mining necessitates removing land from communities’ control. The costs are enormous and almost always include diminished health, polluted waterways and destroyed agricultural systems.
Mining companies justify extractive modes of labour under the guise of development. In actuality, this form of development entrenches unequal power relations through its perpetuation of colonialism and denial of self and community-determination – though this is framed locally as efforts to modernize and regionally as a means of creating Pan American unity. Development narratives erase how inequality has been constructed through colonialism. The wealth of white settlers is based off of resource extraction, forced labour and land theft. In this context mining projects – framed as development projects – are imposed on communities with little or no consultation.
The number of jobs brought with the mining company, which are touted as a primary vehicle of the supposed development that is occurring, are never enough for everyone in the community, many of whom are no longer able to work at their former employment because of the mine’s presence. Further, many of the jobs are short-term and require specialized skills community members are unlikely to have. The scarcity of the promised mining jobs is a frequent cause of community divisions. At Goldcorp’s Marlin mine in Guatemala the divisions have cut straight through families, with some members working for the mining companies while their relatives resist. This results in deep tensions that at times erupt into violence even though the jobs are low paying, and place employed community members at high risk. The employment lasts as long as the mine and leaves with it.
In cases like Barrick Gold’s North Mara Mine in Tanzania and Porgera Mine in Papua New Guinea local miners have been removed from the land and criminalized for small-scale mining that is a generational heritage. Mines also leave incalculable environmental damages including the ever-present toxic tailings ponds and poisoned waterways. When people do fight for self-determination they are violently repressed. Adolfo Ich Chamán, a Q’eqchi’ community leader who organized against the Fenix mining project was killed by Hudbay security in 2009 in Guatemala. He is one of many who have died. While there are eye-witnesses to his murder, determining cause of death for many other people who have been killed defending their land is difficult and in many cases impossible. How many have died directly or indirectly at the hands of these extractive industries? How many more will die before these companies no longer operate with impunity? There are no Canadian laws or government bodies that serve to hold Canadian mining companies accountable for their activities overseas, and any efforts to create accountability in Canada have been influenced by these large corporations. The patterns of land theft, exploitation, repression, violence and disregard for the wellbeing of the environment have been repeated over and over until they have become understood as common sense, as the way development works.
The Pan and ParaPan American Games, coming to Toronto in July and August 2015 are a site where the actions of Canadian colonialism are brought into sharp relief through the support of mining and the associated displacement and violence. The medals awarded to athletes are created from metals mined at three of Barrick Gold’s mines across the Americas. A recent article on Protest Barrick reveals how the mines where the gold, silver and bronze are sourced reflect patterns of injustice. One common thread between each of the three mine sites is persistent patterns of water contamination and a lack of community water access.
Beyond their localized impacts, Canadian mines contribute to coercive migration patterns. Those who are displaced include those unable to secure work at the mine as well as those unable to continue their tradition of agricultural work due to due to the mine’s placement, contamination, and impact on water access. Forced into precarity, absented from their families and their community;members are exploited.
Mining also plays out in the context of a highly securitized and policed world. The Games echo these patterns through the repression of dissent and increased securitization they bring, though those of us who resist mining or mega-sporting events in cities like Toronto do not face the same violence that land defenders do in the global South. Nor are mining issues and their connections to historical oppression relegated to the global South. The mine where the gold will be sourced is near Pic River First Nations territory, north of Lake Superior. From the site of this mine, to Toronto’s downtown east side where the athlete’s village is being built and residents are displaced, the Games’ negative impacts stretch across global geographies and borders.
It would be in some ways easier to position myself as writing from a place of innocence, and to allow for the tacit assumption that you are reading from that same place. However settler Canadians like myself all too rarely think of Canada as a colonial or imperial power, an unsettling thought given our historical and current status as a settler colony. Canada’s wealth and power relies on the extraction of resources, labour, and ideas like multiculturalism which can help to mask theft. The majority of the world’s mining companies are headquartered in Toronto and Vancouver, though these companies’ projects are likely to be far from these urban metropolises. If you are a Canadian citizen your pension contributions are invested in mining companies like HudBay, Barrick Gold and GoldCorp.
We cannot opt out. This is not a simple matter of choosing ethical investments. A mass movement is required. Mining itself is not inherently unjust. What is unjust is the continuation of social and historical practices within which mining occurs, and which mining practices perpetrate. The movement for mining justice must be a movement for social justice more broadly. All of us must find ways to subvert the channels through which capital and resources flow in order to build relationships of solidarity. Until then our hands will carry the blood of Adolfo and all others who have died from mining injustice. It must be the work of those who benefit from mining injustice to unmask the centuries of structural injustices hiding behind flashy promotions for a mega-sporting event and to mobilize toward true Pan American unity.