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Harper’s folly is El Salvador’s tragedy

Posted Nov. 14, 2012 / Posted by: Bill Waren

Friends of the Earth visits the Canadian Embassy to protest Pac Rim gold mine fiasco

On Monday, November 12, I joined representatives of several environmental and public interest groups gathered in front of the grandiose and distinctly odd Canadian Embassy, which occupies one of the most prominent sites in D.C. on Pennsylvania Avenue, just down the hill from the Capitol and across the street from the National Gallery of Art. 

Our mission could not be more serious. We came to the embassy to protest the activities of the Vancouver-based Pacific Rim Mining Corporation in El Salvador. Pac Rim’s proposed gold mine threatens the water supply and health of the Salvadoran people and has, inadvertently or not, unleashed violence and murder against opponents of the mining project. This is beyond question a tragedy-- one which has been compounded by Pac Rim’s suit before a World Bank tribunal, where it is  demanding tens of millions of dollars in compensation for El Salvador’s alleged violation of its “property rights” under international investment law, after the government denied the company a permit to proceed with its gold mining project.     

But, the setting was other than solemn -- more of a theatrical conceit -- a looming brutalist structure with a post-modern façade of hollow Roman columns. Forbes, the rather unhip business magazine, has ranked the Canadian Embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue one of the ten ugliest buildings in the world, but it reportedly was intended by the architect as an outsized whimsical folly -- a Canadian architectural joke about the imperial pretentions of the United States. It made me wonder how we would be received by our host, Christian Ranger, the First Secretary for politics. Would it also be a bit of stagecraft?

 After passing through a high-tech security cordon, the amiable Christian led us to a spacious conference room and respectfully listened to our concerns. We delivered a letter of protest to the Ambassador that was composed by the Institute for Policy Studies and signed by Friends of the Earth, the Center for International Environmental Law, Public Citizen, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Earth Island Institute, Foundation Earth and Earthworks

The letter’s opening paragraph dealt with the issue in frank terms. “Given the severe environmental and human rights implications associated with Pacific Rim’s investment in El Salvador and the gold mine and cyanide leach-water processing plant it is proposing, we urge the Canadian government to alert Pacific Rim that its investor-state claim against the Salvadoran government for enforcing its own environmental laws and striving to protect its water and communities tarnishes the image of the Canadian mining industry.”

And its conclusion drove home the point. “Pacific Rim’s continued efforts to bully the citizens and government of El Salvador, and to risk irreparable harm to the Salvadoran environment reflects poorly on Canada, its business community and its foreign ventures.”

John Cavanagh from IPS led off the discussion with Christian by pulling out large detailed maps of El Salvador and the Lempa River watershed. He pointed out that the proposed Pac Rim gold mine would be located in the geologically unstable department of Cabañas and might not withstand earthquakes. John also explained that opening a mine in the Lempa River watershed is inherently risky. The river is the source of more than 60 percent of the water in El Salvador, the second most water-starved country in our hemisphere. The Pac Rim mine threatens not only the water supply but also the water quality in a country whose surface waters are already contaminated from exhausted Salvadoran mines and ongoing mining activity in the Lempa River basin in neighboring Honduras and Guatemala.

We conceded that Canada benefits financially as the home of many of the largest and most profitable global mining corporations, but I pointed out that other countries with large mining multinationals, notably Australia and Brazil, have resisted entreaties from the mining lobby to rely on “investor-state arbitration” before World Bank and other tribunals authorized by “free” trade agreements and bilateral investment treaties. -- This general policy point is still valid, even though the Pac Rim suit against El Salvador is proceeding under an unfortunate domestic law granting jurisdiction to World Bank tribunals (after Pac Rim’s claim under the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds).

Ron Carver from IPS raised the issue of human rights abuses.  Four environmental activists opposed to the Pacific Rim mine have been assassinated and many others have been assaulted, including an activist priest, or threatened, as in the case of journalists from a local radio station in the department of Cabañas.

Throughout the meeting, Christian Ranger, in a discreet and unassuming way, displayed through his precise questions and comments a clear understanding of the scientific, legal and political issues.  He impressed me as the kind of capable civil servant that one expects to find serving in a Canadian diplomatic corps that, until recently, was highly regarded around the world (particularly for its peacekeeping efforts going back to the Lester Pearson era).

As we rose to leave the conference room and then descended to the faux classical portico in front of the Embassy, I chatted with John and Manuel from IPS, Jessa from Public Citizen and others in the group. I think we agreed that our issue was not with Canada’s professional diplomats but with the Tory government of Stephen Harper that they faithfully serve. I suppose we all had the same question: what was happening to Canada’s good name? The Harper government has a hideous record on international environmental issues, pushing for tar sands oil and the Keystone XL pipeline while withdrawing Canada from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.   

Walking down the avenue, away from the embassy designed by Arthur Erickson as a piece of mocking “protest architecture,” I recalled another satirical piece that I had discovered accidentally when googling for Stephen Harper in preparation for the meeting. Yves Engler, the author of The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy, had this to say in a really funny story entitled “Statesman of the Year Stephen Harper Also Picks Up First Ever Richard Nixon Prize”:

Despite Harper's Conservative government being the biggest backer of the world's mining industry, ordinary Canadians just don't understand how valuable this is to the wealthy, the [Nixon Prize] committee said. ’We appreciate the Prime Minister's commitment to advancing Canadian mining companies' interests abroad. All investors benefit.

As for calls that Ottawa should regulate Canadian mining corporations' behavior abroad, Conservative officials have repeatedly pointed out that most companies have corporate social responsibility programs to take care of any problems they may face with noisy indigenous communities in Latin America or elsewhere. That's exactly the position Richard Nixon would have taken.

Satire like this can be an effective political weapon especially against pompous Tories, but it does not repair the harm done to people or the environment. In this case, Harper’s folly is El Salvador’s tragedy.

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