Last week’s Financial Post ran an over-the-top attack on the decision by the Bolivian government to revoke a Canadian-owned mining concession. The article’s headline is ‘An outlaw nation — Bolivia seizes South American Silver’s Malku Khota project,’ with an opening paragraph featuring a hilarious mash-up of historical figures and pure contempt for the people of Latin America, with a dash of thinly veiled racism:

“Since Evo Morales became President of Bolivia in 2006 there has been a struggle between his two halves. There was the soulful and iconic Indian with his love of Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the desire to forge a Third Way between Left and Right. And then there was the admirer of Che Guevara who waged war against big business, Yanquis and the Catholic Church. With the August 2 confirmation of his government’s expropriation of South American Silver’s (TSX:SAC) Malku Khota project, the struggle is over, and Morales has joined Juan Perón and Hugo Chavez in the ranks of Latin American strongmen.”

Such idiotic bile should inspire us in Canada to learn more about the profound and inspiring democratic political process that’s taking place in Bolivia, with all its challenges and contradictions (and I don’t mean the internal battle between Evo the Noble Savage and Jefe Morales, the Evil caudillo.) 

If you’re interested in learning about the history and the current politics of Bolivia, I’d strongly recommend a new book I’ve just finished reading, Bolivia: Refounding the Nation by Keta Artaraz. And to learn more about why the Financial Post is so furious with Bolivia, you just have to investigate the behaviour and impact of Canadian mining companies throughout Latin America. Effectively unregulated and unrestrained by the Canadian government in terms of what they do abroad, the mining giants of Bay Street and Howe Street cause tremendous damage to the environment and the communities in which they operate. 

Here’s a piece I wrote for The Source / La Source Newspaperlooking at the practise of Canada’s extractive industries in Latin America and making the case that supporting Bolivia’s approach is the least we can do until we get some real regulation on this country’s mining industry. 


From Vancouver to Bolivia: The search for ‘mining justice’

Last Wednesday, August 1, I attended a vigil outside of the downtown Vancouver headquarters of Goldcorp, at 666 Burrard Street. The event, organized by the Mining Justice Alliance, was held to draw attention to the injustices committed by Canadian mining companies in Latin America and to remember those who had been killed for their opposition to mega mining projects.

Goldcorp is just one of the many large mining corporations that call our city home. As part of a day of action, MJA activists also hand delivered letters to the offices of First Majestic, Fortuna Silver and Barrick Gold – all located within a short walk of 666 Burrard St.

Many Vancouverites are unaware of how much of the wealth that flows through our city and, indeed Canada, is generated by mining operations abroad that have a devastating impact on nature and on the people of the impacted communities. Vancouver is a major hub of mining investment and management. Canada, as a whole, is a world superpower when it comes to mining.

Why do mining corporations proliferate here? Sadly, the reason is that in Canada they are not subject to any serious regulation of their activities abroad. Mining giants operating throughout the so-called Third World enjoy a situation close to impunity here in Canada. As one speaker at the Goldcorp vigil explained, “Canada is the Cayman Islands of mining.”

The Toronto Star reported in October 2010, “Canadian mining companies are far and away the worst offenders in environmental, human rights and other abuses around the world, according to a global study commissioned by an industry association but never made public.”

Two years ago, the Conservative government, led by Stephen Harper, defeated a private member’s bill, C-300, which would have imposed basic standards of accountability on Canadian-based mining corporations. The vote was close, 140-134, and the fact that then Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and a dozen of his MPs skipped the final vote ensured that the Bill did not pass.

Alex Neve, the head of Amnesty International Canada, lamented the defeat of C-300, “Passing C-300 would have boosted Canada’s national reputation and demonstrated that we take human rights seriously.”

The day after the sombre Mining Justice vigil in Vancouver, there came some news worth celebrating. On August 2, the government of Bolivia completed the process of revoking the mining concession of a wholly owned subsidiary of Vancouver-based South American Silver.

Bolivia’s Indigenous president, Evo Morales, announced the move — which amounts to a nationalization — last month after protests around the project resulted in one death after clashes with police. While the company and many right-wing media outlets cried foul, here is how the Bolivian government explained their decision: “These natural resources belong to the state, and therefore to the Bolivian people, which is why the national government should carry out the process of exploitation and exploration, with the participation of the indigenous communities in this zone.”

The reassertion of Bolivian control over mining resources carries an extra symbolism because of where the mining project is located, at Mallu Kholta in the Potosí Department of southwest Bolivia. For hundreds of years, the silver mines of Potosí were an immense source of wealth to the Spanish Empire. But the boom years of colonialism exacted an astounding human toll, especially on the Indigenous people and Africans forced to work as slaves in the mines.

Eduardo Galeano described how Potosi and Bolivia were ‘underdeveloped’ in his classic book Open Veins of Latin America: “Potosian society, sick with ostentation and extravagance, left Bolivia with only a vague memory of its splendors, of the ruins of its churches and palaces, and of eight million Indian corpses … Condemned to nostalgia, tortured by poverty and cold, Potosi remains an open wound of the colonial system in America: a still audible ‘J’accuse.'”

Today, we accuse the Canadian government of being complicit in the crimes committed by giant mining corporations abroad. Protests and other activism to raise awareness, like last week’s vigil, need to continue until we install a government in Ottawa that puts serious regulations on this country’s mining industry.

In the meantime, we can only hope that other governments in Latin America follow Bolivia’s example and take back control of their own resources.

Derrick O'Keefe

Derrick O'Keefe

Derrick O'Keefe is a writer in Vancouver, B.C. He served as rabble.ca's editor from 2012 to 2013 and from 2008 to 2009.