Investigative journalist finds growing opposition to Hudbay mining projects

When award-winning journalist and filmmaker John Dougherty discovered that a copper mine was planned right in the middle of a sensitive biodiverse ecosystem in southeast Arizona, he wanted to know who owned the project and what their track record was like.

His research led him to Flin Flon Manitoba and a Toronto-based company called Hudbay Minerals. What Dougherty discovered was a shocking record of environmental degradation and human rights abuses. The following is an edited excerpt from rabble.ca’s recent conversation with him.

What really got you interested in creating this film?

I was a print journalist for 25 years and in 2006 I left the paper I was working at and decided to do something different. I started my own business, Investigative Media.

In 2010 some folks in southern Arizona who were opposed to the Rosemont mine asked me to do some investigative reporting on who's behind the Rosemont mine. Now, Rosemont mine would be the third largest open pit copper mine in the United States.

It would be located in the Santa Rita mountains which is an extremely important linkage to Mexico and is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. It's an amazing ecosystem that's unmatched anywhere on the planet. The linkages to Mexico allow large mammals to move throughout and we have the only living wild jaguar in the United States living in this sensitive region.

The minesite is also surrounded by the Coronado Forest, which is public land, and they would dump the waste rock and mine tailings over 3,000 acres of national forest.

In 2010 when I started researching the mine a company called Augusta Resource Corporation owned it. I started researching them and found all kinds of corrupt activity by the management of that company. In 2014 Hudbay, which was an investor in Augusta Resource, purchased Augusta Resource for $500 million. So I did the same thing with Hudbay that I did with Augusta. I went through their public financial disclosures. Then I received funding to go to Flin Flon.

What did you find in Flin Flon?

I drove up to Flin Flon in August 2014 and spent a few weeks there. I talked to several people -- the former mayor, the town manager, a lot of folks who intimately knew what was going on there. But I also found a huge number of people who were, like, “I'm not saying a word.” Or, “I don't want my name in it, my picture, I'll talk to you quietly but you can't use what I tell you.”

There is a palpable fear there. Everybody knows someone who works for the mine or has relatives who work for the mine. It's hard to find $50 an hour union jobs. People were not willing to jeopardize that even though they had a litany of complaints about what Hudbay had done to that community, which was basically poison it with heavy metals. So much so in fact that there are high levels of lead in a lot of the children there, and they knew it.

The Canadian government did nothing. The Manitoba provincial government and the federal government did nothing for a long time. Hudbay operated a smelter there for one hundred years, which was one of the dirtiest smelters in North America. They finally closed it in 2010 after reports of children with lead in their blood. 

Of course Hudbay tried to downplay it, saying maybe it was the paint, or just pointed the blame in every direction except the obvious one that a smoke stack was raining heavy metals down and poisoning the community.

What's the link between Flin Flon and other Hudbay projects?

Well, the next stop was Guatemala. Hudbay had purchased a nickel mine there in 2008 and owned it between 2008 and 2011. This mine was located in El Estor Guatemala and there was tremendous opposition to it from the local Mayan community, because the mining operation was spilling out onto their lands that they had been using for who knows how long.

It's the same old story. The local people don't understand legal contracts, dividing up the property and all this kind of stuff. And the Guatemalan government is one of the most corrupt in the world, now you've got the United Nations down there; trying to implement some kind of justice system. So there was conflict.

Prior to Hudbay's purchase of the mine there was a company called Sky Resources, another Canadian company with connections to Hudbay. They were accused of gang raping a dozen Mayan women. When Hudbay purchased Sky Resources they assumed that liability. In 2009, there were big fears of a mass eviction and that they were going to just force people out. There were community protests and in the context of those protests a Mayan leader, a teacher and a pillar of his community, was hacked to death with a machete and shot in the head. And a local guy, a bystander, was shot and paralyzed.

These three things -- the gang rape, the murder and the shooting -- became the focus of three civil suits that are now pending in Toronto. It's going to trial. They survived a motion to dismiss and a Toronto judge is taking it to trial. This is a very significant issue. In particular in Canada there are concerns among the mining companies like, “whoa, you mean we can be held responsible for the actions of our overseas subsidiaries here in Canada?” 

In the past, they've been able to sever that link so that if there were some atrocities going on overseas, they would try to manage that overseas where it would be easier with a corrupt justice system. It's going to be harder to deal with here at home in Canada where you have a robust justice system. So they're very concerned that this is going to set a precedent in which Canadian mining companies will be held responsible for their actions overseas, in Canada.

So that's a very important lawsuit. It's pending and they're still going to have to go through discovery. Parallel to that is a criminal trial going on in a community near El Estor of the man accused of both the shooting and the murder. By all indications that process is totally corrupt. No one's surprised because the justice system in Guatemala is a disaster and is also a very dangerous place to protest. 

I was there in September (2014), and the next month I heard that the residents of Uchucarco had occupied the (Hudbay) open pit, so I flew to Peru.

What did you find there?

I met up with some folks there who were of great assistance on the ground. I went to Uchucarco and was standing in the pit with the demonstrators to interview them and a bunch of people in the community.

Locals gave me some video clips taken a couple of days before of women going into the road and sitting down in front of a line of Peruvian national police, and the police just started to beat them. They tear gassed them and people were running. That's how Hudbay was dealing with civil disobedience. The community had legitimate concerns about the agreement they had reached, and they wouldn't meet with them.

Last week, it was confirmed by an attorney that I met when I was in Cuzco that Hudbay, as well as 13 or 14 other mining companies have contracts with the Peruvian national police where they're paying them about $30 a day, which is a good wage in Peru. The mining companies are paying the police and so police are loyal to the companies. Wrap on top of that the police are pretty much immune from prosecution so if they shoot someone during a demonstration...

It's with impunity? 

Yeah, they have impunity paid for by the mining companies. The police represent the mining companies, not the people of Peru.

So they're like a hired private security force?

Exactly, they're a hired security force. This is a big problem and I don't see how it can conform to the UN standards set for mining companies and other multinational companies who agree to a certain set of standards on how they employ and deploy security forces. Hiring the national police force to attack your protestors, is that acceptable? It's atrocious, astounding. I don't think it would fly in Canada. It wouldn't have flown in the U.S. until what recently happened (in Standing Rock). I don't know what's going to happen there.

To watch the film in English click here. 

To watch the film in Spanish click here.

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