In late 2011 the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development started to study the “Role of the Private Sector in Achieving Canada’s International Development Interests.” The line up of witnesses has been a who’s who of mining industry executives and lobbyists, including among them: the Executive Director of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Mining Association of Canada, and senior vice presidents of Teck Resources and Goldcorp. The industry reps argued that they can deliver on Canada’s international development interests in partnership with the Canadian government and development NGOs. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) is now funding three "Corporate Social Responsibility" (CSR) projects at Canadian mine sites overseas.
Another witness, however, Dr. Tony Bebbington, Higgins Professor of Environment and Society, Director of the Graduate School of Geography from Clark University and a member of the US National Academy of Sciences provided a different perspective. He observed the prevalence of conflict in a country such as Peru, site of one of CIDA’s pilot projects, as evidence that mining can negatively affect communities and put alternative development options in jeopardy. He also commented that mining often undermines the very institutions needed to enable development.
Overall, he emphasized that institution building and regulation, not development projects, need to come first before mining can reasonably be weighed as an option to help meet local development goals. With regard to the role Canada might play in this equation, Bebbington observed that both Canadian corporations and authorities should be concerned about their legitimacy and went on to illustrate his point with a specific example.
Companies, Bebbington noted, often contradict their stated efforts to contribute to local economic development. Bebbington alluded to Vancouver-based Pacific Rim Mining’s legal suit against the government of El Salvador. Although the company promotes itself as socially and environmentally responsible, it sought compensation for presumed millions of dollars in lost investments when it failed to successfully obtain an environmental permit. As a recent article by the Network for Global Justice in Investment points out, these millions of dollars could otherwise serve genuine development aims.
The Canadian government itself also faces an uphill battle. Illustrating this, Dr. Bebbington quoted a “pretty middle of the road,” foreign Minister of the Environment who has said “I don’t know if Canada has been quite so discredited in its history,” and “I don’t think they really care.” From the perspective of another technocrat, this time from a Ministry of Energy and Mines, Bebbington paraphrased: "As far as I can tell, the Canadian Ambassador here is a representative for Canadian mining companies."
In this context, it is not hard to imagine how CIDA-sponsored CSR projects could be easily seen as yet further alignment of Canadian foreign policy with corporate interests, rather than a sincere attempt to ensure that mining better contribute to local development.
Here are Dr. Bebbington’s submission to SCFAIT and the accompanying slides.