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Unveiling Canada’s Role in Chile’s Environmental and Political Conflicts


A new report reveals the Canadian mining industrial complex's responsibility for social discord and environmentally-destructive policies in Chile's Patagonia region.

“Far away, on the southern cone of South America in Chilean Patagonia, exists one of the most beautiful, still-virgin territories on Earth. There, an intense struggle is taking place that most Canadians have never heard of, but that intimately involves the Canadian mining industry, the Canadian government, and millions of Canadian pensioners and investors,” notes  Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow in the report's introduction.

The report, Chilean Patagonia in the Balance: Dams, Mines and the Canadian Connection, asserts that Canada's mining industry, which leads the world in mining investment with more than half of its assets in Latin America, accounts for 33 percent of electricity demand in Chile while advantageously exercising enormous influence in setting government policy there.

The report focuses on the Aysén region, which has seen protests and social discord since the announcement that the hyrdroelectric “development” plan would move forward last May. The project will potentially affect 12 of Aysén’s major rivers and involve five dams on the Baker and Pascua Rivers.  

The project, which also includes the construction of power lines from the Aysén region to Santiago, will cause the “deforestation of 23,000 hectares, and six national parks” and damage to “11 national reserves,” reported The Guardian. The environmental nonprofit International Rivers has also indicated that the project would forcibly displace many families, would flood many of the area's best agricultural and ranching lands, and would endanger rare animal species.

The  report states: “Transelec, the only transmission company currently operating in Chile that is even remotely capable of building HidroAysén’s link to energy markets, is owned by a Canadian consortium led by Brookfield Asset Management, with partnership from the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and another public sector investor, the British Columbia Investment Management Corporation. Canadian capital is instrumental in making HidroAysén and projects like it both attractive and possible.”

As many as 50,000 protesters marched in opposition to the project in May 2011, while the national daily La Tercerareported that 74 percent of Chileans oppose the project. 

The HidroAysén dam project's Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which was approved in May 9, 2011, has come under fire. According to Chile’s Christian Democrat party Deputy Sergio Ojeda, chair of a congressional committee charged with investigating the EIA, it was riddled with flaws. 

“It appears that the HidroAysén project should not have been approved,”  Ojeda told El Mercurio. “It is evident that the Environmental Impact Assessment suffers from a number of flaws that allow megaprojects like HidroAysén to not be evaluated with much rigor.”  

Social movements in the region and nationally across Chile have remobilized with demonstrations and roadblocks last month to not only protest the project, but to demand reforms to address other social and infrastructure problems. 

“We have initiated a process of permanent and long-term demonstrations to trigger a change in the regional development that until now has focused essentially on the benefit of interests that do not belong to those who live in Aysén,” wrote leaders of various constituencies that make up the Social Movement for the Aysén Region in a letter to the government, as the Santiago Times reported.

Protests were met with violence and repression, prompting Amnesty International to call for an investigation into reports of“an excessive use of [police] force, the unwarranted use of tear gas, the use of metal pellets and possible arbitrary arrests,” according to the BBC. Meanwhile, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera recently threatened to apply the country's draconian anti-terrorism law toward protesters.

“By probing the links between Patagonian hydropower, electricity transmission, and the expanding mining sector, we hope to make Canadians stop and think about the implications of our shared investments abroad, and consider what obligations we might have to ensure that those investments are socially and ecologically sustainable,” states the Council of Canadians’ report.

Socially and ecologically sustainable business practices is something Canada's mining industry has had trouble upholding.

In July 2011 Greenpeace claimed that Barrick Gold's operations in northern Chile along the border with Argentina are responsible for the significant shrinking of three small glaciers, which farmers in the region rely on. Barrick initially wanted to remove the glaciers, but widespread opposition due to obvious environmental concerns stopped the plan. However, the Center for Human Rights and the Environment, an NGO from Argentina, reported that local water supplies have been contaminated as a result of Barrick's local projects.

“The media in Canada is fairly silent about protests happening in Chile, unless it ties into some other big news story. I've talked to some reporters that have admitted that they get so many stories about mining conflict that they barely even think that it qualifies as news anymore. … It's a great example of how cynicism promotes systemic injustice,” said Sakura Saunders, editor of ProtestBarrick.net, a website that provides research and organizing information around mining issues. The site focuses on Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold. 

The Council of Canadians’  report also notes that in 2010 “five assassinations resulted from conflicts around Canadian mining developments in El SalvadorGuatemala and Mexico.” Part of the problem, the report states, is the Canadian government's “unwillingness to hold the Canadian extractive industry to basic environmental and human rights standards in its international operations.” 

modest piece of legislation that would have empowered the federal government to investigate claims of human rights and environmental abuses and punish companies found guilty by withholding funding was rejected by Canadian legislators—even after receiving testimony that women were gang raped and tortured at a Canadian mine site in Papua New Guinea.

“We have to build a culture of resistance and awareness to these mining abuses. We have to reject these abuses in the strongest terms and demand action. We should investigate where our pensions and mutual funds are invested, and try to divest from mining companies such as Barrick and Goldcorp,” added Saunders. “We have to share the many resources out there (like videos, articles, and books) with our neighbors and friends, and not be fooled by companies’ promises for Corporate Social Responsibility.”

Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at www.UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America. 

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