Social responsibility or slick public relations?

The role of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has undergone a seismic shift in the last few months. The Harper regime mapped out a murky path of promoting Canada’s interests abroad through an alliance forged between CIDA and the private sector.

CIDA now funds humanitarian aid and long-term development projects in concert with corporate enterprise, and this alignment is most apparent in the mining sector. Although free-reign companies continue to operate with impunity, some NGOs have blurred the vision by partnering with unregulated corporations in the name of poverty reduction.

One of Canada’s largest mining companies, Goldcorp, has already invested enormous sums in a public relations campaign to improve its corporate image through partnerships with NGOs and gifts to public universities including UVic.

Notwithstanding its revamped image, last year the Vancouver-based giant was linked to several accusations of human rights abuses and environmental contamination at some of its Latin American gold mines. Goldcorp is the second-largest mining company in the world and forged several lucrative mergers with companies like Placer Dome and Glamis Gold. But, behind its parent company status and slick public relations campaigns, the company has faced relentless opposition from mining-impacted communities.

Goldcorp’s damaged reputation stems primarily (but not exclusively) from one of its largest holdings, the Marlin Mine in Guatemala. Community-based Mayan leaders have accused the company of serious environmental and human rights abuses, including violations of international labour regulations and the rights of Indigenous peoples.

In 2011, Goldcorp was removed from the Dow Jones amid ongoing allegations of human rights violations and environmental contamination, but in September 2012, the company was reinstated under its freshly minted image of “corporate social responsibility.”

Meanwhile in July 2012, an International Peoples’ Health Tribunal heard testimony from farmers affected by Goldcorp mines in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. The panel of international judges also reviewed scientific evidence about community impacts from mining. In a historic ruling, Goldcorp was found guilty of contaminating the environment and creating conditions that impacted community health and safety.

In late September, a controversial trip by five parliamentarians to Guatemala on a Goldcorp-sponsored junket evoked many questions about lobbying regulations and bias. “Flying in on the company jet, having closed-door meetings with government officials and having select meetings with certain community actors positions them in a conflict that makes them look very one-sided,” said Jen Moore from Mining Watch, a Canadian watch-dog group.

Last year the federal government also announced a new funding initiative for the Canadian International Institute for Extractive Industries and Development, with a $25-million CIDA grant. This university-based institute will “help developing countries benefit from their natural resources in environmentally and socially responsible ways,” according to the University of British Columbia (UBC).

Simon Fraser University and UBC will jointly operate this new institute aimed at furthering the Canadian mining industry’s role in Canada’s overseas development strategy. In essence, these two universities now help promote Canadian mining overseas in a precedent-setting funding move that diminishes the independence of both universities.

Politically convenient mergers between CIDA, NGOs and corporations are an insult to the rights of peasants, farmers and Indigenous peoples who are often displaced by corporate interests. NGOs were not intended to perform as political operatives, and public universities ought to be more closely scrutinizing their gifts and partnership policies.

Heather Tufts is a member of the Mining Justice Action Committee.

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