CBC The Current interview: Angelica Choc & Grahame Russell
“TESTIMONIO: Canadian Mining in the Aftermath of Genocides in Guatemala”
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Transcript (Rights Action tidied up CBC’s provided transcript)
MG: Hi, I'm Matt Galloway, you're listening to The Current.
When it comes to the global mining industry, Canada is the major player. More than half the world's publicly listed exploration and mining companies are headquartered in Canada. That's more than 1500 companies with interests in some 100 countries around the world.
And yet, when it comes to overseeing or policing, when necessary, the activities of Canadian based mining companies and their subsidiaries, Canada largely leaves that to the countries in which they operate. According to a 2017 study done by researchers at McGill and York Universities, Canadian mining companies have been associated with dozens of deaths, hundreds of injuries and detentions against opponents of their mining operations in Latin America.
Grahame Russell is the co-editor of a new book called “Testimonio: Canadian Mining in the Aftermath of Genocides in Guatemala”. He's also the director of Rights Action, which works with Indigenous groups in Guatemala and Honduras. Fighting against industrial mega-projects on their traditional lands.
Grahame, good morning.
GRAHAME RUSSELL: Good morning.
MG: Tell me a bit from your knowledge as to how long mining companies from this country have been operating in Guatemala.
GR: There's two timelines. One is the more recent sort of new wave of what I would call aggressive Canadian mining investment in Guatemala that began in the late 90s and early 2000s. And we document four of those Indigenous land defence struggles, human rights defence struggles, in Testimonio.
One of those mining companies, the nickel mining operation, has a back story that goes to the late 50s and early 60s.
MG: You've described some of those operations. These are your words as “predatory” and “uncontrolled.”
Canadian problems: We should have criminal law and civil accountability in Canada
GR: We've documented widely in Guatemala, and I've seen this with all my work in Guatemala and Honduras - I believe the Canadian government and our companies know that there's almost no way that any legal accountability can be achieved in a country like Guatemala that is characterised by systemic corruption and impunity, let alone repression. And so, it's a nice and polite thing to say - we're so-called respecting the sovereignty of another country, but everyone knows that no justice will be done there.
And it's also known that these are Canadian problems. All the major decisions, political decisions by the Canadian government, all the major corporate and investor decisions are being taken here in Canada. I think in many ways the mining companies actually don't know or even care as to where the resources are. They know little to nothing about a country like Guatemala.
This is a Canadian problem and it should be policed and we should have criminal law and civil accountability in Canada.
MG: We'll come back to that in a moment. In the meantime, let's talk about Guatemala itself. This is a country that's been through more than three decades of civil war until the peace accord in 1996. How active were mining companies from Canada, how active were they in Guatemala during that conflict?
INCO & UN Truth Commission in Guatemala
GR: Well, one company was active during the conflict, and this is a story that goes through the International Nickel Company. INCO came into the country late fifties, early sixties.
Now, as part of the peace accords, there was something called the Truth Commission report, and they investigated human rights violations across the country. It was the United Nations Truth Commission that concluded that genocide was carried out in parts of the country by the U.S.-backed military regime. And it also documented one international company – INCO, its subsidiary was known as EXMIBAL - in the eastern part of the country, in the Indigenous Q’eqchi’ territory of the country.
The Truth Commission report documents six different cases of the EXMIBAL mining company and the military carrying out human rights violations.
MG: What about what about the purposes of Guatemala - for the leaders of that country coming out of a devastating conflict like that? How important was mining in terms of creating and rebuilding an economy?
Undermining the possibility of good community development
GR: I don't think they helped rebuild an economy whatsoever. They've actually undermined the possibility of good community development across the country. They've depleted water sources, they've contaminated water sources, they've forcibly evicted communities and broken the communities apart, let alone the cases of violence and killings.
So, that's not good development. That's not helping the economy of the country. It's definitely helping the economic interests of the economic elites, so-called economic elites, and it's definitely benefiting the Canadian companies and investors.
But to take that back a bit. Canada had a very intentional role in the 90s. That the same time that it was publicly supporting the so-called peace processes and saying that it was going to respect the letter of the law in the implementation of the peace processes, we learned after the fact that they were aggressively advocating for reforms to the Guatemalan mining law that were brought about in the late 90s with Canadian funding to then open up the country's resources to Canadian extraction companies, and Testimonio is the proof of how that story went for the Guatemalans.
Aggressive mining push by Canadian government
MG: Who was pushing for that?
GR: Canadian government was aggressively pushing for that. And there was mining companies that were involved … and then people, individuals who were involved in the writing of the mining law later went on to work in the [Ministry of] Mines and Environment energy in Guatemala or with mining companies themselves.
MG: And when you say the Canadian government is that the Canadian government from abroad or the representatives of the Canadian government in that country threw through an embassy?
Canadian embassy working as a PR office for mining industry
GR: I say specifically the case of the embassy because we had sort of front row seats to that. I was living in Guatemala in the early 90s fulltime when these stories started to crop up just a little bit. And then my work continued on from there. And so by the late 90s, early 2000s, we were openly engaging in ongoing discussion with the Canadian Embassy, sending them urgent actions about what was starting to happen.
And at the same time, they were, they had a … they were sort of working in a sense, and this is a bit crass, as a PR office for the Canadian mining industry, and they were unabashed about it. They were taking out op ed pieces in newspaper. They were co-funding public forums with the World Bank to extol the virtues and benefits of this quote unquote “development model”.
And every step of the way groups like Rights Action, local groups on the ground were sending them urgent actions, saying, ‘Well, this is not what's happening. Could you please respond to this? Can we talk to you about this?’ And we got almost no response whatsoever.
MG: And years in those laws being rewritten, what did that allow the companies to do? What different freedoms did it offer them?
Country characterised by impunity and corruption
GR: Well, that's a good question. What it did is it brought it the veneer of modernity, and this was how it was pitched as an aid project. We want to strengthen the rule of law in Guatemala. We want to strengthen good governance, and here's a new law in place that sets out all the rules that they're going to abide by.
But when you have a country that's characterised by impunity and corruption, I think that's just window dressing.
Indigenous people had “zero say”
MG: How much, say, did the Indigenous peoples, on whom land whose land many of these operations took place - how much say did they have in these mines going forward?
GR: Zero. I don't think I'm exaggerating that point Matt, I think they had zero say. We started hearing about them through people that we work with around the country. ‘Did you hear that a Canadian companies come in to such and such an area?’
And when they did find out they were coming in, they were being told explicitly that they were squatters on company owned land and the problems just go forward from there.
MG: There are different contexts, but do you see a parallel given what we're seeing in this country right now, when resource projects on Indigenous lands become very controversial and can lead to explosive situations in the courts and on the ground and beyond? Do you see a parallel between how these issues have been handled in Guatemala, for example, and then here in Canada?
GR: Huge parallels. Certainly, resource extraction on Indigenous territories in Canada, there are many direct parallels with what's going on in Guatemala. It's not to get too comparative, Matt - it is worse in Guatemala, the levels of violence and corruption and impoverishment and displacement. But there's a lot of parallels.
MG: Well, let me bring another guest into this conversation. Her name is Angelica Choc. She is an Indigenous Lands rights campaigner in Guatemala who has paid a heavy personal price for her activism around mines. I spoke with her recently with the help of a translator. Take a listen to our conversation.
Angelica Coc speaks
MG: Angelica, hello.
ANGELICA CHOC: Hola.
MG: Your husband, Adolfo Ich Chaman was killed 12 years ago. Do you mind telling me what happened?
ANGELICA: Yes. Adolfo was a great person. He was a great person in our community. He was a great husband, a great father, and he was a great leader. He was a great defender of Indigenous peoples’ rights, of human rights, of environmental rights. And for that, he was persecuted by Hudbay Minerals, a Canadian company. The chief of the security company killed my husband on the 27th of September of 2009. And I continue seeking justice. It's been 12 years. It's exhausting. I am so tired and I continue persevering, seeking justice in the Canadian courts.
MG: I'm sorry for what you went through and what you've been through,
Hudbay Minerals head of security pled guilty to Adolfo’s killing
MG: A security official who worked for that Canadian mining firm Hudbay Minerals pled guilty to Adolfo’s killing earlier this year in a Guatemalan court. What did that mean to you? How significant was that for you?
ANGELICA: Firstly, I always say it's an achievement. It has a lot of value for me as a Maya Q’eqchi’ woman. It was very difficult for a woman and especially an Indigenous women to be heard by the justice, to be validated. And so it is meaningful in my struggle for justice. I also think it's an example for other women allies in this struggle. It's very important.
MG: Your husband's killing isn't the only time that your family has been targeted over land rights and the anti-mining activism that you've done. What else has happened to your family?
Military state of siege on behalf of mining company
ANGELICA: We all know as human rights defenders, we are persecuted. We are targeted. Our families, my kids have been suffering because of the state of siege. It's a state of siege that was declared by the Guatemalan state, by the Guatemalan government. They sent the military, the police to our communities. They raided our houses. They raided the houses of my family, the houses of my kids, my sisters. We've had our belongings trashed and gone through in our own houses. This has all been traumatising and it's been traumatising for my kids and especially for my grandchildren. It has created a lot of pain.
MG: You're part of the Indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ people in Guatemala. How big of a factor do you think your heritage is in how you've been treated as a land defender?
ANGELICA: They have excluded our rights. Our culture is our identity in the way that we connect with nature. During the internal armed conflict up to today, Indigenous peoples rights have been abused. They don't recognise us as the guardians of nature, as the Guardians of Mother Earth. Companies come and take away everything.
MG: Why are you suing Hudbay Minerals civilly in Canadian courts over your husband's death? Why is that happening in a Canadian court?
The company needs to be judged in their own country
ANGELICA: I often am asked similar questions. The company needs to be judged in their own country, not in Guatemala. They are a Canadian company, so they need to be judged in Canada. We've been waiting for justice for a long time. It's been 12 years. I think that's actually what they want, these companies. They want to lengthen the time for justice. They want to make us wait until we disappear.
We want reparations. We will wait. But there's also a need for laws to hold companies accountable for what they do in other countries. We are impoverished here. The companies need to be judged in Canada.
MG: Your husband's killer was convicted in a court in Guatemala. Do you think that Guatemala is capable of providing justice?
ANGELICA: About that conviction, it took many years. He did plead it. And it was very late. I was very tired of all the waiting for justice. Still, it's an achievement. He was a Guatemalan person and the case was held in Guatemala, but he was the chief of security of Hudbay Minerals. That means that Hudbay Minerals is also guilty about what happens.
MG: When you look into the future, what do you hope happens with mining operations in Guatemala?
The companies bring destruction to Mother Earth
ANGELICA: Truly what I feel and what I think for my Guatemala, for my kids, my grandkids, our grandkids, because my struggle is for our people, for our Guatemala. What I think is that we not depend on the companies. The companies bring destruction to Mother Earth. If we continue with mining companies, if we continue depending on them, everything will become a desert. And I do not want my grandkids to inherit a desert. I want the grandkids to live in nature, to live a fulfilling, happy life, to live from the forest and from the lake to enjoy all of these things. I want things to be like they were before, where there were no divisions, where there was no coopting of leaders, where there was harmony. I want to go back to that.
MG: Angelica, thank you very much for speaking with us. I appreciate you talking to us this morning. Thank you.
ANGELICA: Muchas gracias.
MG: Angelica Choc is a leading Indigenous land rights campaigner in Guatemala. Grahame Russell, what did you think of what she has gone through in the price that she and others have paid for their anti-mining activism in that country?
GR: Oh Matt, it's very, very moving. As hard as it is to listen to that, she has understated the degree of suffering that's her particular family has been targeted with. But then it just pushes back out to the broader issues. And I do want to highlight that Angelica’s story is harsh, but it is one of many stories in a place like Guatemala that are harsh.
MG: The lawsuit that she has filed is one of three in Canada targeting Hudbay Minerals for the activities of that company's subsidiaries in Guatemala. How significant do you find that those cases to be if you take a look at them as a whole?
They are precedent setting cases and they're the exception to the rule of impunity in Canada
GR: I think they're extraordinarily important and courageous lawsuits. The 13 plaintiffs in the three lawsuits are people like Angélica. They're all extraordinary. They live in conditions of extreme poverty and ongoing racism and conditions of violence. And yet they've stuck with these cases. And we're 11 years in. Lawyers Cory Wanless and Murray Klippenstein have stuck with it, and it's extraordinary. So they are precedent setting cases for a reason. But at the same time, I think they're a tip of the iceberg, and they're almost the exception to the rule of impunity in Canada.
No criminal law accountability
These are the first cases in Canadian legal history, and it's only in a civil lawsuit. There is no criminal law accountability whatsoever in Canada. We have the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act, that is sort of moribund. There is no political interest or resources behind it to actively investigate what oftentimes looks like criminal behaviour by Canadian companies in countries like Guatemala or beyond.
And so the Hudbay Minerals lawsuits are both extraordinary precedents in Canadian law, long overdue, and they're the tip of the iceberg and almost the exception to the rule of impunity.
MG: You said earlier that these are Canadian problems. Is that why you believe it's important that a Canadian mining company be held to account in Canada rather than leaving it to the judicial system in Guatemala?
These are Canadian problems across the board
GR: I think these are, and we set it out in the book - co-editor Catherine Nolin and I, that's sort of the constant theme. These are Canadian problems all across the board.
It is Canadian government policy at work and there's no, there's little to no oversight or accountability for Canadian public policy in other countries.
These are Canadian corporate and investor problems. Investment companies, pension funds and private equity funds heavily invest in resource extraction sector, and they're one fiduciary duty is to maximise profits. They have no responsibility to investigate or find out if they're what they're benefiting from, they're profiting from is contributing to the types of violence and corruption set out in Testimonio.
And lastly, Matt and I say this respectfully. I think it's a Canadian media problem. The breadth and the depth of this problem, which is a very systemic problem in many countries around the world, with the breadth and depth of this problem, which is a Canadian problem, there is not the media coverage has not been there yet to pursue these stories as they should be pursued. And I say that with a lot of respect and acknowledging that we're talking about this now.
MG: Hudbay sent us a statement, and in that statement, it says that, "While it takes the allegations very seriously, it does not believe the accusations made against it to be true". It also says that Hudbay - this is from the statement, "Recognises that our ability to successfully operate our business requires that we operate responsibly and ethically as an operator of mining operations. In Peru and Canada, Hudbay’s human rights policy includes commitments to constructive and mutually beneficial engagement with local communities and security practises that respect human rights". What legislative changes would you like to see in this country to create more oversight and accountability for companies like this that are operating abroad? Canadian companies.
The underlying problem is not a lack of laws, it's a lack of political will
GR: I think I'm not the legal expert, and I'm not going to deflect fully that question, but what I think the underlying problem is not a lack of laws, though I think we do need some legislative change. I think it's a lack of political will. I think that this situation for the Canadian mining sector, the investment sector, including public pension funds, right through to the government, which is aggressively promoting expansion of Canadian economic benefits around the world - it's too beneficial.
And so we have civil law, and the precedent has been set in these lawsuits and was followed up by the Tahoe Resources lawsuit, and then the Nevsun case.
But these are again, I think, are tips of the iceberg and one of the chapters in the book Testimonio was written by Cory Wanless and Murray Klippenstein, and they set out some clear recommendations they have as to how to enhance and facilitate access to justice in Canada, for people like Angelica Choc, who are deeply impoverished people, oftentimes not speaking English, let alone even Spanish, living on the other side of the world, so they have little to no access to justice, even when civil laws are finally being accepted.
Zero political interest to have prosecutors follow up on allegations
And as I said earlier, on the criminal law side, there's we have the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act on the books. It's binding criminal law. I think my experience with that over the last 17 years is there is zero resources behind it. There's zero political interest to have prosecutors follow up on some of these allegations.
MG: So when the government of Canada says that it's appointed a Canadian ombudsperson for responsible enterprise and that she has the tools to review human rights complaints and launch reviews. You don't believe that the teeth are there to enforce what you're calling for in a meaningful way.
“Ombudsperson for responsible enterprise” – No teeth there
GR: There's no teeth there. Teeth would be at a bare minimum binding criminal law where people actually went to jail for if and when it was proved that they they knowingly participated in or, you know, by omission or by commission, they committed crimes. Or their operations committed, contributed to human rights violations, environmental harm, etcetera. Then there would be that would put the fear of the rule of law into two Canadian companies and investors, whether in the mining sector or not.
Since the mid-2000s, there's been a series of these sort of ombudsperson offices established, and they're not … they have no teeth behind them whatsoever. It's all based on voluntary compliance. And if and when there's a problem found, the role of the Ombudsperson office is to sit down with the quote unquote “stakeholders”, i.e. the company and the people being harmed, to say, ‘Let's resolve this amicably.’ There's no teeth. And if wrongs are proven, there's no legal remedy.
MG: Grahame, it's good to speak with you about this, thank you very much.
GR: Thanks very much.
MG: Grahame Russell is the co-editor of a new book called “Testimonio: Canadian Mining in the Aftermath of Genocides in Guatemala.”
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