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What was Stephen Harper doing in Peru last week?

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Why in the world was Stephen Harper in Peru last week instead of in Parliament trying to end the crisis that's destabilized his entire government?

Well, the Prime Minister has two great economic passions. The first, as everyone knows, is building pipelines to enable ever more quantities of oil from the Alberta tar sands to flow.

Passion number two is the promotion of Canadian mining interests wherever they exist across the globe, not least in Africa and Latin America. This fixation is somewhat less easy to understand. Okay, you support the oil giants because you think global warning is hooey, even though you can't say that these days in good company. But mining? How does it help Canada to have our PM personally advance the interests of our many mining companies in relatively poor foreign countries? How does it help the people of those countries? Are there benefits from mining that only our government grasps?

In Peru, Mr. Harper announced $53-million in "aid projects" over the next six years, most of them related to extractive industries. As pointed out by Ian Smillie, one of Canada's most thoughtful development experts, although Peru is poor by Canadian standards, it's booming. When the government is ending all aid to several truly needy African countries, it makes no sense for Peru to get aid of any kind. But Smillie's blog solves the mystery: the projects Canada is to fund "will probably make life easier for the 75-odd Canadian mining companies operating in Peru."

Ottawa Citizen reporter Elizabeth Payne, who also follows these issues closely, makes a similar point. Canada, she reminds us, "is not simply a neutral player whose sole interests are in helping Peru work better to benefit its poorest people, but a country that has tied its foreign policy to the success of Canadian mining and other companies abroad. That has resulted in billions of dollars of Canadian investment in Peru....But that has also compromised Canada's ability to deliver certain forms of aid. Canada's interests in Peru are resource companies interests, but what happens when those interests conflict with the best interests of Peruvians?"

In fact there is already considerable social unrest in parts of Peru, much of it related to pollution from mining, Payne writes, "where Canadian mining companies have a large presence." Indeed, says former Peru cabinet minister Jose de Echave, cited in The Tyee, "Many of Peru's historic and current mining conflicts are related to Canadian companies." Does our PM know -- or care?

Yet Mr. Harper in Peru was simply echoing Mr. Harper in the Congo last year, when he also unabashedly plugged the interests of Canada's many mining companies. He's already reversed 50 years of bipartisan aid policy by turning a good chunk of Canada's foreign aid into props for these companies, despite the dismal record of the resource extraction business in many poor countries, not least of course Congo. But this is no time in Harperland to suddenly get hung up on the evidence thing.

For those who follow these issues, and especially for those wise enough to subscribe to Mining Watch Canada's vital updates, the Harper policy of backing Canadian mining companies, regardless of their wealth or record, is little less than tragic. But even the casual reader is likely to come upon the latest horror story somewhere in the world involving a Canadian mine.

Just last week, for example, a story from Chile reported that the country's environment agency had levied a $16.4-million fine -- the largest possible -- against Barrick Gold Corp. for "very serious" violations of its permit related to water protection measures. Indigenous communities near the $8.5-billion mine -- so often the victims of mining initiatives -- cheered the decision.

On the very same day, a new report by World Vision, the Christian charity, documented the widespread use of children as young as eight working in the harsh conditions of African mines. Their report focuses on the Congo and doesn't name names. But the phenomenon covers most of the continent. All mining is tough and nasty. In poor countries, not least the Congo where Canadian mines are prominent, it's positively hellish.

In far too many of those mines, worker safety is irrelevant, wages are scandalously low, managers routinely bribe officials, companies pay trivial royalties and taxes, human rights abuses are widespread, conflict and violence are common, and environmental degradation is ubiquitous.

Don't get me wrong. Mining in Africa and Latin America is often extremely profitable to the mine owners operating out of Canada, if to few others. It's just that it rarely accelerates national development or benefits local communities. That's what the "resource curse" means.

But this government is not for turning. Even the World Bank is ignored when it refutes Harper dogmas about mining driving development. As a recent WB report states, "Strong economic growth in the past decade among African countries rich in oil and minerals has failed to make a significant dent on their poverty levels [and] that the decline in poverty rates in resource-rich countries has generally lagged behind that of countries without riches in the ground."

For years, knowledgeable civil society critics have demanded that Canadian mining operations abroad be toughly regulated. Both opposition parties strongly favour such regulations, which Liberal MP John McKay has incorporated in a private member's bill now before Parliament. Yet the government continues to take the corporate side, insisting, against a mountain of evidence, that voluntary codes are sufficient. That's why an extraordinary 75 per cent of all the world's mining companies have registered in Canada, the carefree land of self-monitoring Corporate Social Responsibility.

Be proud: We've become the Liberia of mining companies, everyone's carefree flag of convenience. As Peru expert Stephanie Boyd writes in The Tyee, the government has turned Canada's foreign aid sector into "the PR wing of the mining industry with the Prime Minister himself as head PR wonk."

And that's why Mr. Harper is more comfortable greasing the wheels for Canadian mining companies in Lima than accounting for Duffygate in the House of Commons.

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.


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