Protestors gathered in Athens early this week to speak out against a gold mining operation in Greece’s Chalkidiki Peninsula. Fearful that the mine will cause irreversible damage to the environment, locals are hopeful that the development of the open-pit mine and processing plant can be stopped.
The mine, referred to as Skouries, is owned by Hellas Gold, a company which is 95 percent owned by the Canadian mining company Eldorado Gold Inc. and 5 percent by Aktor, a Greek construction company. Together, the companies have access to over 120 square miles of land that is home to forests of oak and beech trees which have covered the tourist destination for more than 200 years.
Yet, as Greece’s economy continues to falter, chances for an economic pick-me-up are endlessly being sought out. For a country once thought of as environmentally progressive, residents are beginning to wonder if the economic gain is worth the environmental cost.
Theodota Nantsou, Athens policy coordinator for the World Wide Fund for Nature, recently told the New York Times, “We see laws changing, policies changing. We see things getting rolled back under the guise of eliminating impediments to investment. But over the long run, all these things will have a heavy cost.”
How does mining degrade the environment?
OK International, an organization that mitigates environmental and occupational hazards in developing countries, reports that, “The mining sector is responsible for some of the largest releases of heavy metals into the environment of any industry.”
They go on to say, “The hazards to human health caused by exposure to heavy metals – including lead, cadmium and mercury – have been thoroughly documented…These metals are associated with a range of neurological deficits in both children and adults.”
According to OK International, gold mining can result in a significant release of mercury. The liquid metal is used in a process that extracts gold from other minerals by binding it to mercury. After the gold has binded, the mercury is burned off, releasing airborne mercury.
In addition to mercury, the Environmental Literacy Council, ELC, explains that the use and disposal of cyanide is another major environmental concern associated with mining.
Also used to separate gold from ore, cyanide is a well-known poison that in its gaseous state can be fatal to people at exposure levels ranging from 100 to 300 parts per million.
To limit the likelihood of cyanide-linked fatalities, governing bodies like the European Union are moving to ban cyanide use in mines across the world. In 2010, Parliament adopted a resolution calling for a ban on cyanide-using mining technologies in European countries by the end of 2011.
Although airborne cyanide exposure does not always result in negative health risks, the additional risk of liquid cyanide solutions leaching into soil and groundwater have encouraged its ban.
“There exists the potential for catastrophic cyanide spills that could inundate an ecosystem with toxic levels of cyanide,” the ELC’s website explains. “In 2000, heavy rain, ice, and snow caused a breach in a tailings dam at a gold mine in Baia Mare, Romania resulting in the release of 100,000 cubic meters of cyanide-rich waste into the surrounding watershed. Drinking water supplies were cut off for 2.5 million people and nearly all of the fish in the surrounding waters were killed.”
Ever since the Baia Mare disaster, cyanide use in the EU has been heavily monitored. According to EU Issue Tracker, “Cyanide-contaminated water and heavy metals entered river systems, causing extensive pollution through Romania, Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria.”
This type of environmental disaster, along with the demolition of hundreds of acres of forests is giving protesters in Greece the fuel to fight Eldorado Gold Inc. Phrases like, “Yes to water, no to gold,” and “Take your cyanide and get out,” highlight their resistance to the operation.
The seemingly messy history of Canada’s mining companies
The Skouries mine would not be the first Canadian-owned mine to receive backlash from local residents. With over 1,000 Canadian exploration companies and 4,300 mineral projects in over 100 countries around the world, it would be difficult to have a perfect record, but accusations of human rights violations and the Canadian government’s lack of regulatory legislation for mining in foreign countries raises questions of wrongdoings.
In a response to a petition, former Minister of International Trade, Peter Van Loan, explained that, “There are no laws that specifically govern the activities of Canadian mining companies operating abroad.” The response, which includes replies from other Canadian ministries, goes on to say that Canadian companies working internationally are expected to adhere to local laws and international standards, and that voluntary initiatives are the best means to promote responsible practices.
Yet, local governments in countries like Guatemala, Columbia and the Congo, three places Canadian mining companies face accusations, do not have the capacity to hold outside companies accountable.
This difficulty has pushed locals to travel from their home countries to Canada. Just last November, five Mayan Qeqchi people from Guatemala visited Toronto to seek justice from the Canadian mining company Hudbay Minerals.
Rights Action, a tax-charitable group in the US and Canada that funds environmental, human rights and emergency-relief projects in several Latin American countries, are trying to help their cause.
According to a publication by Grahame Russell, co-director of Rights Action, the Qeqchi people are, “pursuing justice and remedy for violations and harms they suffered due to the nickel mining interests of Canadian mining company Hudbay.”
The lawsuits ranged from accusations of targeted killings, paralyzing attacks from company security guards, unjust imprisonment, and a case of eleven women gang-raped by company security guards, soldiers and police during an eviction of their community in 2007.
Russell goes on to say, “In the year 2012, it is still next to impossible to hold global companies and investors accountable in any court in the countries where they operate, like Guatemala; in international human rights reporting bodies, like the United Nations; or in the courts of their home countries, like Canada.”
The Canadian Broadcasting Company reported a similar dispute in Columbia, in which a Colombian National Historic site was to be mined for gold, an operation that would displace some 2,000 residents.
In response to these allegations, indigenous people and human rights organizations have called for action to make sure people’s rights are not being violated by resource development.
The Chief counselor of the National Indigenous Organization of Columbia, Luis Evelis Andrade, was quoted in an Amnesty International press release saying, “The government of Canada has backed the expansion of Canadian corporations in Columbia without regard for the context of war and grave human rights violations…It’s important for Canadians to understand that far too often our rights are pushed aside, and we are denied access to clean water, food security and healthy environments that are [indispensable] to our survival.”
Canadian mining companies are also embroiled in the ongoing conflict in the Congo.
Sixty-four percent of the world’s reserves of coltan, a metallic ore crucial in the development of modern electronics, are buried beneath the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Currently, Canadian-owned mining corporations Shamika Resources and Loncor Resources both have permits to mine for coltan.
Natural Resources Canada reports that there are over 30 Canadian mining companies with permits in the DRC, including mining giants Anvil Mining, First Quantum Minerals and Heritage Oil, who are all currently undergoing international arbitration for alleged human rights violations.
According to research by Andrew Munn at the University of Michigan, “Mining for coltan is such a profitable industry, that workers are willing to compromise their human rights.”
Media Freedom International reports that roughly 98 percent of the mines in the DRC are involved with or owned by a militia. Notorious for employing children, it is estimated that 30 percent of kids in the northeastern region have dropped out of school to work.
“These children earn up to a dollar a day, but their families depend on this money for survival. The rest of the civilian population, especially women, are terrorized into submission through village burnings and rape in a type of organized chaos by the rebels who disseminate the minerals,” says the report.
A solution shut down
In an attempt to bring rights back to local people in countries where Canadian mining companies run operations, former Liberal Member of Parliament, John McKay, proposed a bill called the Corporate Accountability for the Activities of Mining, Oil or Gas Corporations in Developing Countries.
The bill would have regulated the relationship between Canadian government agencies and Canadian extraction companies in developing countries, as well as require guidelines to ensure environmental health, safety, security, and adherence to international human rights laws.
The bill was defeated 140 to 134, and was the last major legislative attempt to regulate Canadian mining abroad. Small-scale lawsuits, like the ones from the Guatemalans, are the basis of any change that may happen. The economic value of foreign mining has been referred to as the reason why the Canadian government refrains from making regulatory changes.
McKay was quoted in the Globe and Mail saying, “the lobbying from industry has been massive, the amount of money they have been spending on killing this bill is extraordinary.”
In response to the bill, the Canadian government created the Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor, a mining watchdog agency that handles complaints about Canadian mining ventures in foreign countries. To this date, the office has only received two complaints, one of which was discarded after the mine refused to cooperate with the investigation.
Based on the voluntary set-up of the office, little progress has been made in holding companies accountable.
Making mining safer
With massive economic benefits to mining abroad, ending Canada’s involvement in the thousands of operations they are currently involved in would be highly unlikely. Still, mining in a safer, more environmentally friendly way that follows standard guidelines may minimize backlash.
According to the World Gold Council, responsible gold mining companies create detailed environmental plans and adhere to international standards such as the International Cyanide Management Code and the International Organization for Standardization, both voluntary codes that offer a systematic approach to identifying environmental risks and helping companies reduce their impact.
In Canada, some mining companies are looking for ways to make mining greener. Areas once torn apart by open-pin mines are being replanted with corn, canola, and more. Natural Resources Canada has been working on innovative technologies to reduce the impact of mining, encouraging sustainability while remaining competitive in the market.
According to a piece in Canadian Geographic, the Green Mining Initiative was created in 2009 to, “spur innovation, promote environmentally responsible mining practices at every state of the mining life cycle, and help create and take advantage of new market opportunities.”
The Initiative overhauls current domestic mining standards offering a “holistic approach” that addresses each step in the mining process. The approach, based on footprint reduction, innovation in waste management, mine closure and rehabilitation, and ecosystem risk management, is a huge step in making mining less damaging to the environment.
Applying dedication among Canadian companies like those involved in the Green Mining Initiative to foreign mining operations could drastically alter the negative image Canadian mining companies have begun to attract.
Still, without changes in regulations and mining standards abroad, Canadian mining projects are likely to be protested, like the one in Greece.
As the Skouries mine begins production, local residents continue to look to examples in Guatemala, Colombia and Romania for the future that might lie ahead, with little ability to stop it.