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Women bear worst impacts of the mining industry -- and are the last to benefit

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Women making their voices heard in Guatemala. Photo credit: CEIBA

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Environmental degradation, gender justice and Indigenous rights have barely made the election radar.  It's distressing but not surprising then that the issue of the impacts of mining on Indigenous women is nowhere to be seen in this election campaign. This is true despite the courageous efforts of Indigenous women around the world to raise awareness about this pressing issue, sometimes at the risk of their lives. 

The UN is aware of this problem.

"In a lot of countries women are on the frontline of this resistance and logically so because they are the ones who know by heart and by their Indigenous knowledge how mining, for example, is going to impact their food, their water. Yet, their contributions are invisible," said  Joan Carling, a member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) who spoke to us at meetings in New York City in May 2014.

We were part of a delegation to the UN to look at the particular impacts of resource extraction on Indigenous women and to make visible the critical role of women in defending the rights of their communities and the environment.

On October 13, we will meet again, this time in Vancouver as co-organizers of Gendered Impacts: Indigenous Women and Resource Extraction, a symposium that we are planning in partnership with other Indigenous women’s organizations from across Canada. This will be an opportunity for Indigenous women from Canada, Latin America and the Philippines to share and deepen their knowledge of mining impacts, to strengthen their collective work and to continue to make these issues visible.   

The following day we will participate in the GEMM (Global Energy Minerals and Markets ) 2015 Dialogue where we will  meet with representatives from the extractive sector and other civil society organizations to ensure that concerns are heard and, we hope, addressed.

Indigenous women have told us that the arrival of mining projects often means more violence against them, and persecution and criminalization if they try to protect themselves, their communities and the environment. We have heard this from First Nations women in Quebec, Inuit women around Baker Lake, Mayan women in Guatemala and Indigenous in B.C. 

Because of their efforts, we are beginning to understand that the social, health and environmental impacts of mining on women are unique and different. Women are usually the first to suffer from contaminated water or water shortages, but more often than not they're the last to enjoy benefits such as employment and increased income, if they ever do. In fact, mines usually mean an increase in the income gap between men and women.   


Anne Marie Sam speaking at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues


We hear from Indigenous partners in Guatemala that women are sexually harassed, raped and sometimes chased out their communities if they raise concerns about the impacts of mining. And, added to this, they are stigmatized by society if they become active in movements in defense of water, forests and community rights because prevailing gender roles and stereotypes dictate that women are supposed to stay home.  

Impacts are felt in Canada too. In Fort St. James, B.C. concerns have been raised about the large influx of a male work force associated with mining and its impacts on the community. Young Indigenous women are being picked up by workers from the mine and returned the next morning, not remembering what happened. When these concerns are raised with the RCMP they say it was consensual and the company has said that they are not responsible for what their employees do after work. The community has been told to prove that they are being impacted so they have hired a researcher to monitor impacts and collect evidence. This aspect of monitoring and accountability is not part of government or company impact assessment strategies so Indigenous communities, particularly women, have had to take this on themselves.

Before the arrival of a mine, women are more likely than men to raise questions about its social, environmental and health impacts. After the mine is in operation, women continue to raise these concerns and, in some cases, they monitor the impacts. A lot of concerns are foreseen by women in the community, but because they are excluded from the planning and development of the mine, these issues are not addressed and many of them are exacerbated by the opening of the mine.

These issues do not make it into environment impact assessments. They certainly don't make it into the election coverage, despite the fact that 75 percent of the world’s mining companies are headquartered in Canada, mostly in Vancouver and Toronto.

In response to being ignored and shut out of official processes, Indigenous women have organized. The First Nation Women Advocating for Responsible Mining (FNWARM), a coalition of Indigenous female leaders from B.C., came together in 2008 because they recognized that it was mainly women who stood up at community meetings about mining, asking about the impacts of proposed projects on their communities.  The group exists today as a support and platform for Indigenous women who are working to make these issues heard and visible.

Despite the invisibility of these issues in the current election campaign, it is critical that we continue to work to make them central, not just for Indigenous women, or for women in general, but for all of us and for the future of just and sustainable relations between peoples, genders and the earth. 

By Anne Marie Sam, member of First Nations Women Advocating for Responsible Mining; and Rachel Warden, Gender Justice program coordinator, KAIROS Canada.


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